Three words were voiced most frequently at a relaxed yet vitally important debriefing with Spartanburg Herald Journal reporter Adam Orr regarding the recent trip made by Upstate Educational leaders to Finland. There, educational outcomes for children have rocketed over the last twenty years. Orr has been following and reporting on the Spartanburg Academic Movement, sharing the community vision for improved student outcomes through our educational system.
The meeting, held in SAM offices served as an ‘unpacking’ of thoughts related to the experiences of SAM Executive Director John Stockwell, SAM Board Member and District 7 Superintendent Russell Booker, and Dr. Laura Reynolds, Dean of the USC Upstate School of Education. All acknowledged it was rejuvenating to the work they do here – not just in spirit, but in helping them form action plans. The three key words shared repeatedly were simple:
“Trust”… “Play”… “Everyone”
Before leaving Finland, Booker had already called his administrative team to shift some strategic plans and funding.
Emboldened by seeing the theory of building lifelong learners actualized across the Finnish culture, Reynolds said she felt that those participating could no longer just share and admire the thoughts behind the practices they had seen.
The experience was validation for what had been rooted in theory or quiet ‘dream’ conversations among educations. Having seen the dream lived means that now is the time to speak out - to take those theories and dreams out of the mind and heart and just do what needs to be done.
“If we don’t agree with how something is being done, we have to call it out and just deal with the fuss it may cause,” Reynolds said.
A Matter of Trust
“The feeling of trust that permeates the schools and the culture as a whole makes the Finnish system fundamentally different,” Stockwell said.
The majority of children ride bicycles to school which are left, un-chained, outside the school.
When and how the curriculum is taught is left to the teachers.
Examples shared with Orr include the 500-page national curriculum. That’s it – only 500 pages to guide educating a nation - from cradle to career. The national department of education leaves the implementation of the curriculum to the schools without the deep oversight and accountability issues present in the SC and US national system.
Teachers internalize and respond to that deep trust, embracing the mindset that success of their community and nation is tied directly to the quality of their work with students. Teachers are well paid, though to dispel myths, they are not paid as well as doctors and lawyers, nor is every one driving around in a sports car.
But not a single teacher had a second job.
Teaching is considered an esteemed profession. Only about ten percent of those applying to get into teacher education programs are accepted and teacher turnover is small. Counting down the years to retirement isn’t the mindset as teachers often keep working in the system they love well into their sixties.
Teaching is still an intense career, and none denied that three ‘best’ parts of the Finnish system are: June, July, and August. Their teachers appreciate as their summer break just like teachers here do, but there, teaching ‘summer school’ is a foreign concept.
The Power of Play
Play doesn’t just happen in the summer months and there are very few academically focused summer programs in the communities.
Play is part of every day, and not just one part. Between each structured class time, children are sent out to play. Snow, rain, or cold do not matter. Play is vital part of the structure of their day.
It’s also embedded into… structures.
The US contingent was amazed with open classrooms and inventive resources to meet the sheer physicality that children bring with them into the classroom. “Nontraditional” seating was standard. Children were free to lounge across tables and chairs, unconfined. They even saw students ‘seated’ around a learning station where the seats were swings suspended above the table.
But teachers aren’t playing when it comes to making sure every student’s skill grows. In fact, at the ‘elementary’ level, a teacher will follow her students for multiple years (yes, there too, the majority of elementary teachers are women.) Understanding between parents, teachers, and students grows over time – with all meeting regularly throughout the school year to discuss (not test) advancement through the learning goals. When a student struggles with a concept, the teacher has a deep understand of that child’s learning process and how to adjust.
Running through the school wearing socks and no shoes, even sliding around adults, wasn’t seen as play, or disrespectful, but the natural state of how children move. And it was embraced, not chastised, and not seen as a safety risk.
Everyone Matters – Equity is not a lens, it’s a way of life
Learning is a lifelong endeavor – for everyone.
The question to ask is “Do we have heart enough to lift up our weakest?” said Booker.
The nation-wide commitment to “yes” being the answer is clearly the foundation upon which the Finnish educational system was built. However, it doesn’t stop with uplifting a child who may be struggling. It is about meeting people where they are. For instance, if a young person chooses to enter an internship in a vocational program and years later decides he or she wants to pursue a bachelors, masters, or doctoral degree, the system is there for them, providing free education throughout life no matter how far that individual chooses to take it. It allows for the whole person to develop and for lifelong learning to be the national way of life.
“There are no dead-ends,” Booker added.
The differences in the political structures of American and Finland were never part of the dialog and as those gathered knew, didn’t need to be. Politics and party are simply not issues at the table when the entire nation embraces education as a human right for which they all accept responsibility.
Immigrants receive a year of intensive native language training so that they can integrate well into the learning and social environment. The lack of age-specific assessment allows students them to move forward from where they are, throughout the educational years.
Formal school doesn’t start until children are 7 years old and if special needs exist, those are offered.
Bright Spots at home
The visit to Finland did bring attention to local points of pride:
· In Finland, the education system and schools function in a type of isolation from other community entities. There, businesses are not brought into the educational environment as they are here. Schools here benefit from many cooperative programs between local businesses and schools – from volunteers to funding support.
· Parent engagement in US schools is high. Though parents engage in a minimum of three meetings with teachers each year in Finland, they are not involved in the day-to-day operation of the school through volunteerism and organizations like PTO/PTA, school improvement councils, etc.
· “Spartanburg is different.” Reynolds, considered ‘new’ to the area since starting her position a little more than a year ago, was quick to highlight that she sees Spartanburg as being uniquely ready for implementing learnings from the Finland trip. “The unity and clarity across sectors, as well as the willingness is like nothing else I have seen. The shifting we see as still necessary can happen here because it’s already been started through the work of SAM.”
The sting to the team came with awareness that the ‘answers’ they were seeing in action had been close to hand for years.
The irony was not lost on the group when Finnish educators explained that it was US based research related early brain development, and creating learning environments suited to the physical, mental, and emotional development of children formed the foundation for turnaround of the Finnish system.
“As a culture, we didn’t listen to ourselves,” said Reynolds.
Is it too late?
No. Not one person in the contingent came back thinking we just needed to stick with the system and structures in place that aren’t working for all students. All came back inspired for continuing the dialog, and most importantly, for taking action based on the opportunity.
· Members of the Upstate educator’s group posted regularly on social media using #SC2Finland.
· What Works SC, a forum of the Riley Institute at Furman University included sharing from the team.
· Local community gatherings are being scheduled for team members to share insights and follow up action plans with interested community members.
· SCETV is in process with documenting the group’s experience and learnings to share to keep the dialog and action moving forward.
“I did not see anything in the Finnish system that acts in cross-purposes with our goals here,” Stockwell said.
…Assessments were used to steer instead of control.
…Success of education is measured for its personalization along a life continuum and education across communities and counties were seen as it is – a fruit salad. “You can’t compare an apple and an orange.”
…Teachers received priority seating. “No one is discounting the appropriateness of offering our military priority seating on planes. But what would it look like if our teachers were given that kind of respect.”
…Experienced teachers were allowed paid sabbaticals as part of a retention plan? Give those teachers with the most experience a chance to refresh and energize their passion so they won’t be counting the days until they can leave the classroom.
…Companies provided career structures that valued and supported continuing education. Not just work-study co-ops for younger employees, but for older adults who want to add new skills?
…a functional bond between parent, child, and school were expected from all?
…every school served as a ‘lab school’ for teacher preparation and those guiding teacher preparation were as integrated into the schools as their students?
… experiences and skills gained over time built into competency-based qualifications (stacked degrees/qualifications) that were recognized across businesses and industries?
… most of our students aimed to earn a master’s degree?
… years of work experience and competency building could translate into a vocation-based degree?
…TEACHERS were recognized as the keys to quality in education?