My school district in Colorado, Boulder Valley School District, is committed to building and designing innovative spaces to promote learning and educational innovation. Part of the effort involves changing the furniture in educational spaces to promote collaboration and flexible grouping. In Finland, I have seen some very traditional learning spaces with chairs and desks set up in rows. In new schools and renovated spaces, I have seen learning spaces with a variety of innovative furniture. See photos below:
Teacher work and break spaces are as important as student spaces. In new or renovated buildings, the teacher lounges I've seen are bright, airy, uncluttered and have lots of natural light. They are comfortable and desirable places to be (and there is usually coffee ready to drink!)
Usefulness, either professionally or personally, was the guiding requirement for this project.
My project fulfills both requirements. Personally, I wanted to make a item of clothing that would keep my upper legs warm on very cold Finnish winter days. It needed to be easy take on and off when wearing a short jacket. Additionally, I wanted to do a sewing project to improve my sewing skills and to take a project from idea to real life product. Professionally, I wanted to put myself in my students’ shoes and complete a project in the way that I ask my students to complete a project. I ask them to brainstorm, research (sketch, make lists, or find visual references), prototype, make, reflect and document their process.
After deciding on the project idea, I sketched notions that popped into my head. Online, I researched clothing items like chaps, aprons, down skirts, hockey pants, ski racer shorts, leg warmers and kilts. I needed to see pictures of other clothing items to evaluate how they worked and see if they would lead me to other ideas for my project. I knew that my final product could not be pulled on over the head or legs because that would be too awkward and bulky.
For a time, I focused on modified shorts but realized they would be too complicated to make and use. I was leaning toward a skirt of some kind when I was Inspired by woolen skirts at the 2nd hand store that were on sale. I realized I could disassemble a skirt and modify it for my purposes. Many of the skirts had a lining which would slide nicely against my pants which was a practical detail I hadn’t considered. I bought a skirt that I thought would work well and begin thinking about how to take it apart. I sketched some ideas for the shape of the front of the apron and thought about adding pockets and making the conservative plaid skirt more fun and modern looking.
The sewing was challenging but I was determined to make it work and learn what I needed to make my project. I learned how to make button holes and had to practice them a lot to make them look and work properly. Figuring out how to adjusting the machine to the button hole setting was challenging because the manual is in Finnish. I was committed to making the piece with good craftsmanship and detail.
Like I said in class, I was very happy with not feeling rushed in having the solution to come together. I was pleased to stay with one idea for the solution. In the past I have jumped around with ideas which I now see comes from uncertainty with skill ability and the creative process. Overall, I was focused and relaxed, challenged and comfortable.
I am pleased that I made something new and did not remake something that I have seen elsewhere. I am pleased with the process I experienced and will apply it to other projects (crafts, art and others) and my teaching. I have a renewed enthusiasm for and experience with the creative and making process which will benefit my students when I return to the classroom.
There is no standardized testing in Finland! As an educator, I came to Finland wanting to understand this and see if it is really true. I have found that it is true but there is a BIG caveat. There is no standardized testing in basic education (compulsory education grades 1-9) and general upper secondary school (grades 10-13), but in grade 13 there is THE TEST. (Upper secondary school is roughly the equivalent of US high school but the students start when they are about 16 and finish when they are about 19. If high school in the U.S. started in 11th grade and went through 13th grade, it would be more like Finnish upper secondary school.)
In the late spring of a student's third and final year of upper secondary school, he or she must sit for matriculation exams. The matriculation examination is a national examination based on the curriculum of the Finnish upper secondary school. Third year students (the Finnish teachers and principals call these students 3rd graders which makes me laugh) finish their school classes in February and have a reading period of 6 -12 weeks to study for the matriculation exams. Each student must pass 4 subject exams to graduate from high school. One exam must be their mother tongue (Finnish or Swedish) language and literature. (Swedish speaking Finns make up 5.6 % or 300,000 people according to information on the website of the Embassy of Finland to the Hague.) Students choose the other exam subjects and how many exams they will take based on their coursework in upper secondary and what they intend to study at University. There are 12 exams subject areas and they are: second national language (Finnish or Swedish); Foreign language: English, German, Russian, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Latin; Mathematics; Sciences and humanities: general studies, such as history, religion, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and philosophy. According to an upper secondary school principal in Jyavaskyla who I spoke to, it is rare for a student to take all 12. He said the average is 6-8.
University admission requirements are different for different subjects and careers but all require matriculation exams. For example, to be a doctor (and begin studies right after upper secondary school) a student would need to plan from the start of upper secondary school to take chemistry, physics, biology and advanced math courses so he or she can score well on the matriculation exams. A student who wants to be a journalist would need to take more language, writing and history classes to score well on those subject exams.
It is important to note that Finland has a "no dead end" education system. Students of all ages, including adults, can attend academic, vocational or applied science institutions to start new careers or tweak existing expertise. If a student is studying art in university and realizes they want to be a doctor, they can find a place to study what they need to and pursue that goal. Higher education is tuition free for Finnish citizens.
One of the most interesting differences that I and my fellow Fulbrighters see in students is a willingness to do the class work and homework even if it won't be graded. We've asked students about this. The response is: "I need to know this so I will do the work to learn it" and "I know I won't pass this class if I don't do the work so I do it and I don't want to do this class again." Ultimately, they want to score well on their matriculation exams so they can move forward with work or schooling. Similar to students in the U.S., Finnish students experience stress around school, the matriculation exams and university acceptance. Teachers, counselors and principals have said that the stress is increasing.
There is another important component to learning and the school/work-career relationship to consider. From what I understand, getting a job in Finland without having any training is not possible. I asked someone about construction workers and they said that a person can not walk up to a construction site and get a job as a laborer. A construction worker must complete a vocational program for building trades before a company will employ them. I think this is similar in other areas of employment that in the U.S. that have low barriers to entry like restaurant work. Really different than the U.S. As a result, students understand that there is no real pathway to a career without completing some form of schooling beyond basic education (grades 1 to 9) so doing the work in school matters.
In the next month, my observations will turn to vocational education and training. I am curious to see student engagement, learning and testing in that setting too.
My university class requires that I teach a short lesson to a craft class and write a lesson plan for it. Since I've been visiting the technical craft class at the Tikkakoski school almost weekly, I decided to lead a problem solving activity called Saving Sam with the classes I visit. Problem solving and creativity activities and experiences have not been stressed in Finnish education in the past but the new national curriculum requires teaches devote more time to them. They are an important part of my art classroom and I do a variety of these types of exercises with my students at home.
Generally, this type of activity requires that students complete a task that involves specific constraints and using materials in non conventional ways. In Saving Sam, Sam is a gummy worm who has been thrown from his boat, a plastic cup, lost his life jacket and oar, a gummy ring and wooden craft stick. Students must rescue Sam. They must right his boat, the plastic cup, put the life jacket on him, put him in the boat and rest the oar across the top of the cup. Doesn't seem so hard but they must do it without touching Sam with their fingers. They have 2 paper clips to to use as tools to Save Sam. They can manipulate the paper clips any way they want but they should not stab Sam in the rescue process.
My experience has been that the activities are fun and students enjoy them. Importantly, with the proper guidance in reflecting on this exercise, students gain a deeper understanding of how the exercise relates to the learning process. When learning new information, skills or processes, there is often frustration, problem solving, collaboration, reflection and hopefully success.
The craft teacher from Tikkakoski emailed me after my visit to tell me that he continued to do the project with his students and Sam had been saved over 100 times that week! When I was there he told me that he thought the U.S. did problem solving and creativity better than the Finns in general. Since Finnish education is held up as the gold standard in the world, I was happy to share something Americans do well and something that is new and innovative to Finnish education.
Lesson Plan below:
The other Fulbright teachers in Jyvaskyla and I talk a lot about the "secret sauce" of Finnish education. When we talk, we ask a lot of questions about Finnish education. Why does Finnish Education work so well for so many? Why do these students, who attend school for fewer hours per week and have less homework than American students, score so well on the PISA tests? Is it funding? Is it how the teachers are trained? Is it because teacher education programs accept only the top students from high school? Is it the social safety net? Is it the autonomy given to children? Why are the kids so calm? Is it the mental and physical cleanse of the weekly sauna? (I'm serious about this.) Why can elementary teachers leave a classroom of students unattended for short periods and students stay on task? Today, I found one of the ingredients of the "secret sauce": The Finnish Constitution.
This information comes from a document that is accessed through a link on Finland's Ministry of Justice website. ( http://oikeusministerio.fi/en/constitution-of-finland)
The document has a disclaimer that says it is an unofficial translation.
Section 6 - Equality
Everyone is equal before the law. No one shall, without an acceptable reason, be treated differently from other persons on the ground of sex, age, origin, language, religion, conviction, opinion, health, disability or other reason that concerns his or her person.
Children shall be treated equally and as individuals and they shall be allowed to influence matters pertaining to themselves to a degree corresponding to their level of development.
Equality of the sexes is promoted in societal activity and working life, especially in the determination of pay and the other terms of employment, as provided in more detail by an Act.
Wow! Read the paragraph about children again. Children are specifically identified as a group with specific rights, protections and self determination. Wow! That explains a lot. All of us in Jyvaskyla have marveled at the varying degrees of autonomy shown by Finnish children depending on their age. Young kids walk to and from school alone and they play in parks without direct adult supervision. Middle and high school students choose the classes they want to take based on their interests and strengths. Technical Craft students are allowed to use power tools and machines with varying degrees of supervision.
As we talk to teachers and counselors, we have learned that the adults in Finland trust students to make decisions for themselves. Students are responsible for making the most of their education. Teachers have told me that if a student wants to spend class time on their phone texting friends or playing video games, it's their choice. The teachers job is to teach the class. The student's job is to be the student. Ultimately, the student will have to live with the consequences of their actions. Finland has a "no dead end" higher educational and vocational system so students can return to school and study another subject or begin a new career.
Importantly, students are trusted to direct and follow an educational path that is meaningful them. There are fewer requirements for graduating from upper secondary so students have more flexibility in pursuing subjects they are interested in. The secret sauce isn't sitting on top of the educational sundae, it's an ingredient in the ice cream.
The big project for my university class is to make a product that is either personally or professionally useful and uses skills from textile crafts and technical crafts (wood and metal work.) The final product can be 2 projects, one made of soft materials or textiles and one made of metal or wood or a combination of the two, or one project that incorporates textiles and metal and/or wood.
Project Idea: When I arrived in Finland I had only a waist length down jacket. I found that the front of my upper legs got really cold when I was walking around outside. The back of my legs and my lower legs didn't get as cold. Could I make something that protects my upper legs from the cold, goes over my pants and is easy to get on and off?
Personal Development Goal: Make a project using sewing techniques because I don't have a lot of experience with sewing.
Last Monday, I returned to Tikkakoski school and spent most of the day in the technical craft classroom. Technical craft is working with hard materials like metal and wood. I saw 6th and 7th graders learning how to MIG weld and spot weld. Some students were finishing a wooden cutting board that they made from scratch. Other students were working on a peg/hook coat hanger. The design and material (wood or metal) was their choice. They had to draw a detailed design on paper with measurements and have it approved by the teacher before they could start working.
When you look at the photos of the facility keep in mind that this school serves grades 1-9.
There are very clear and strict rules about using the power tools and machines. Some tools/machines may be used by students independently, some may be used with direct adult supervision (which has been me at times) and some may only be used only by the teacher. Students seem to respect these rules and conditions for working the technical craft workshop.
Students younger than 4th grade do not work in this space. There is a smaller room that focuses mainly on work with hand tools. In that room, there is a band saw and a couple of jigsaws which students can use with supervision.
The soft crafts class at Norssi school, the school located on the campus of the University of Jyvaskyla, is outfitted with sewing machines, sergers, lots of work space, storage space and materials. In general, I have found the classrooms and craft rooms to be clean and uncluttered and students and teachers do not eat in the classrooms.
The facilities and equipment are great. Students begin craft classes in grade 1 using hand tools and progress to machines in about 3rd grade. In the past, girls were encouraged to take textile crafts and boys technical craft which is similar to shop. With the new Finnish education curriculum, boys and girls are exposed to both textile and technical craft.
I am taking a class at the University of Jyvaskyla in the Juliet Program which offers classes in English to Finns who want to improve their English language skills and exchange students at the JYU. In addition to Finns, there are students from Austria, Germany and Ireland. The title of the course translated into English via google translate is: Applied Part of Handicraft. There are two instructors: Pasi Ikonen for technical craft with hard materials which includes metal and wood work and Ulla Kiveniemi for textile crafts with soft materials which includes sewing, knitting, felting, crochet and macrame.
The course requirements include:
According to the course description, the course instructs teacher education students in designing and evaluating handicraft teaching as part of a broader learning set, handicraft pedagogical approaches, human being as a modifier of his environment.
I have visited Tikkakoski Comprehensive school (grades 1-9) three times since I arrived in Jyvaskyla one month ago. Tikkakoski is about 25 km north of Jyvaskylaa and the teachers I met there refer to it as a small village school. My main contact there is a woman who teachers textile craft and English.
Last week, I spent a day with her classes teaching them about Colorado and doing a great observation exercise called "what's going on in this picture," an exercise I do with my students in Colorado. "What's going on in this picture" is a project offered on the New York Times website. Every Monday, the NYT publishes a photo, current or historical, without the caption and students from around the world post ideas about what they think is going on. Students can comment on other comments and sometimes moderators from the NYT will comment on insightful student postings. On the following Thursday, the NYT posts the caption and some background info on the context of the image.
In the Tikkakoski class we did the exercise with an image posted from last spring because we had access to the caption when we were finished with the discovery part.
First step: Each student says out loud something that they see in the image. Ask each student to find the object or item that their classmate has noticed. This allows students to see things that they might not have noticed themselves. Students can not name something that someone else has already stated. I will point out each item or object so that everyone sees where it is. If the group is small, go around the group a couple of times.
Second Step: Ask students to use their detective skills to determine what is the general location of the image and the time of year. Clothes, street signs, vegetation, machines, land characteristics and architecture are clues. For both where and when, students should back up their ideas with evidence from the image.
Third Step: Ask students to hypothesize about what is going on in the picture from the information they have noticed. Again, they should give evidence from the image to back up their ideas.
This is a great exercise for all students in all class subjects because it encourages practicing observation skills and moving to higher level thinking of analyzing and evaluating the information discovered. English Language Learners enjoy it too. They can practice vocalizing individual words and then use simple sentences to describe their ideas. Even though their spoken English is at a beginner level, they are engaged in higher level thinking. In the art room, students practice with this exercise for a few weeks and then use the process to analyze art where meaning is often less clear or certain.
Here's the link for the NYT:
Try it! It's fun, active learning and the kids enjoy it.
I am a high school art teacher from Boulder Valley School District in Colorado studying craft education in Jyvaskyla, Finland. I am in Finland through a grant from the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching program and the Fulbright Finland Foundation.