It’s a cool and sunny June evening in Helsinki, Finland. To a New Yorker accustomed to fighting for space on the sidewalk, the open, clean streets of the city seem downright magical. I’m strolling along with Natalie DiFusco-Funk, who is telling me about the project-based learning she’s been doing with her fifth graders. I am jet-lagged, bleary-eyed, and disoriented by the sun, which simply refuses to set in Helsinki at this time of year.

But I am too excited to be tired.

DiFusco-Funk is Virginia’s 2016 State Teacher of the Year. She and I are on a professional learning tour of Finland and the Netherlands organized by EF Education First, an international education travel company. Our group comprises 52 American educators: state teachers of the year, principals, administrators, curriculum supervisors—and me, an editor from Scholastic. We are in Helsinki to learn about the fabled Finnish education system. It’s been a jam-packed few days—we’ve been attending panel discussions, touring schools, sharing reflection sessions, and eating (a lot of) reindeer meat.

As I tighten my jacket against the bone-chilling wind blowing in from the Baltic Sea, I wonder: What will all we’ve learned on this tour mean for our work back home?

 

Deep Respect for Teachers

Finland’s education system first made headlines in 2000 when results from the Programme for International Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds around the world, showed that Finland’s students dominated the world in reading. (Scores just released for 2015 had them in fourth place, a little lower but still well above U.S. students, who ranked 24th.) At the time, Finnish educators seemed just as surprised as everyone else. Ilkka Turunen, special adviser to the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture, quipped in a lecture we attended that when the results were announced, Finnish teachers wondered, “Are we really that good?”

Then, in 2003, Finland led in math scores. In 2006, they led in science. Clearly, they were doing something right. For the past 10 years, educators from all over the world have been streaming here to study what exactly makes the Finnish system tick.

During the tour, our group learned about many drool-worthy aspects of the Finnish system. We learned, for instance, that there are few funding gaps. That there are no formal teacher evaluations or mandated, standardized assessments. (See? Drool.) We also learned that students are given 15-minute movement breaks after every 45 minutes of instruction—which brain research suggests is optimal for learning—and that free time and play are hallmarks of early education.

The Finnish system also demands little homework. “If primary learning is happening in homework, then you create inequity, because student learning will be dependent on the time parents have to assist as well as their education level,” Turunen explained. His focus on equity in education resonated with many in the group.

But of all the things we learned, perhaps the most striking is what lies at the heart of Finnish education: a deep respect for the profession of teaching. This respect permeates Finnish society. Teachers are as revered as doctors, and they are trusted to teach their students as they see fit. Competition to become a teacher is fierce, too—only one in 10 who apply to a teaching program is accepted—and Finland’s teacher training is rigorous. You can see the respect for teachers in how their schedules are arranged. Collaboration and planning are built in. In one session we attended, Tim Walker, an American who teaches fifth grade in Helsinki and who co-authored the upcoming Teach Like Finland, told us he spends about 18 hours a week on classroom instruction; the rest is for planning, learning, and collaborating.

All this isn’t to say that Finnish schools don’t face challenges, and the experts we met were quick to point them out. Current ones include an economic downturn that has led to spending cuts and increased class sizes, while adapting to a changing student population. Historically, schools have been homogenous, but with more immigrants arriving, the demographics are shifting and schools find they need to serve a more diverse student body.

 

Keeping It Real

Our group has just stepped off the tour bus at the Ressu Bilingual School, which serves students in grades 1 through 9. Ressu is not necessarily a “typical” school, as schools in Finland are highly decentralized and no two are exactly alike. On our way in, we pass a playground designed entirely by students. Inside, we find a design shop, a workshop complete with table saws, and a home economics room. I am struck by how little technology I see around me.

After our tour, we sit down with a group of Finnish teachers and principals to hear about Finland’s new national curriculum, which was about to be implemented that fall. (In Finland, the curriculum is reviewed every 10 years. Schools are expected to adopt it but teachers have the discretion to interpret it as they see fit.) Petteri Elo, a fifth-grade teacher and founder of PedaNow, an international educational consulting business, explains that the new curriculum is bringing a major change: the addition of phenomenon-based learning.

In this type of learning, students explore a real-world topic through deep, interdisciplinary inquiry, with the teacher acting as guide and facilitator. Ressu and other schools in Finland (as well as some schools in the United States) have been experimenting with this sort of approach for years, but it will now be required that all Finnish students ages 7 to 16 have at least one phenomenon-based learning experience each year.

“In Finland, the era of the teacher as the sole holder of knowledge and determiner of right and wrong is over,” Elo tells me later. “So is the era of a passive student who obediently waits for the teacher to tell him or her what to do and how to do it. The new curriculum stresses the active role of students in planning and designing their learning process.”

On the way to dinner that night, I ask DiFusco-Funk what she thinks of phenomenon-based learning. She tells me it reminds her of the project-based learning she’s been doing—last year, a group of her fifth graders successfully petitioned the district to implement recycling—but she’s excited to go deeper. It’s clear that the skills-forward model of this type of learning makes sense to many educators in the group, though questions lurk in my mind: Doesn’t phenomenon-based learning eat up a lot of class time? How would teachers have enough time to cover all the standards? After all, Finnish teachers may not have to worry about high-stakes testing, but American teachers certainly do.

I express my concerns to DiFusco-Funk. “Aren’t you worried about hitting all the standards?” I ask.

“No,” she says with a laugh, explaining that through these projects, students develop essential critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that will serve them not only in test taking but also in their careers and in life.

This is an idea that Joey Lee, the 2014 New Hampshire State Teacher of the Year and EF’s education programs manager, echoed. “The world students are growing up in is not the same as when I was in middle school. I am 32 years old, and the world has changed so much—and it’s not going to stop. We need to change the classroom to reflect that changing world.”

 

Bringing It Back Home

Immersive trips like this one can be powerful learning experiences for educators (and lucky editors like me). They get you out of your comfort zone (ahem, reindeer meat), challenge your preconceived ideas, and bring extraordinary people into your life. They remind you that the world is big, that curiosity matters, that there is always more to learn about yourself and others.

The trick is figuring out how to convert all these experiences into action.

And so, a few months after I returned home, I decided to check in with some of the educators from the trip.

“I am weeks behind where I was last year,” DiFusco-Funk told me in November. “But I’ve done far cooler things, and the kids are benefiting.”

After learning about phenomenon-based learning in Finland, she decided to have her students do a yearlong passion project and is setting aside 20 percent of classroom time for that. (She is following the model used at Google, in which all employees spend 20 percent of their time working on anything they wish to as long as it advances the company in some way. This is how the idea for Gmail was generated.)

First, each of DiFusco-Funk’s students came up with a “How can?” question: How can I create more school spirit? How can I get a water fountain in our school? How can I pursue my love of math as a career? She is guiding them in their inquiries, and in the spring, students will create a product that represents their learning. A child might, for example, use her school’s makerspace to code a robot as a way of representing a career facilitated by a love of math. Once the projects are complete, students will present them in a science fair–like setting.

“It has been really cool to see how excited they are,” says DiFusco-Funk. “None of this is graded, but I think this is the most beneficial thing they will do all year. They are writing e-mails, making Powerpoints, making appointments with my principal. I would love it if my kids left here and didn’t worry about their grades but about how they can see themselves as change agents, as somebody who wanted to get a water fountain at her school, and look, there it is.”

For Revathi Balakrishnan, the 2016 Texas State Teacher of the Year, Finland was a mind-set shift. Since she’s been back, she has been using her platform as a teacher of the year to promote teachers as professionals. “Finland brought out a boldness I never thought I had,” she says. “I saw how proud those teachers in Finland were to be teachers. Here, people say, ‘I’m just a teacher.’ I am trying to change those narratives.”

In Hamilton, Michigan, the Finland experience validated a lot of the work that was already happening in Superintendent David Tebo’s district. But still, he thinks he can do more, particularly in terms of giving elementary students more exercise breaks. He has also made an effort to tell his teachers how much he respects and admires them. For his part, Antioch Community High School principal Bradford Hubbard is pushing for more authentic projects and assessments in his Illinois school. He has also started “no e-mail weekends” for teachers and built extra time into their schedules for planning and collaboration.

I asked Colin Shaw, vice president of EF Educational Tours, who oversees the programming for professional learning, if he considers the tour a success. He said yes. “With these tours, we plant many seeds. It’s up to the people to water and give them sunshine.”

From what I can tell, the seeds have taken root.

 

 

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Photo: Eva Persson/AP Images for Scholastic