Report from Finland – Part 4

This is my fourth and final installment of observations from a trip March 8-17 to Finland with a group of Kentucky educators to learn what the country emphasizes to have achieved improvement over time and to have reached the top in international assessments. If you have not read any post and have the time, start with Part 1. The conclusions of Finland’s “secret” are in Part 3. This fourth posting is a short story about a school visit.

Aurora Primary School – Values in Practice

We visited Aurora Elementary School in Espoo, the home of Nokia.  The principal of this 357-pupil school is Martti Helstrom. He is an engaging person who obviously loves his work.

The best thing about this school is the teachers, he said, repeating what we were hearing throughout our visit. “There is so much cooperation. They really work together, not just plan.” Principals in Finland still teach some classes during the week.

Lower primary schools have about an hour of recess play during the day, normally in this order: 45 minute class, 15-minute recess (outside). Recently, this school changed its schedule to limit the first two breaks, and institute a 75-minute break mid-day when children have “hobby lessons.” From rock band, sports, circus, math…among others, students explore by doing, work together and pursuing their interests.

He talked also of their efforts to deal with children’s learning needs early. “We want to solve their problems here (rather than passing them to the next level),” he said. So, at Aurora, he implemented a “start class” – endorsed by parents – for children who were not quite ready to move into the first grade.

Mr. Helstrom says he endorses “using methods of the arts.” Each year all children participate in two play performances. There are four ensembles for each to ensure all children have a part. The same play is done for a few years, to allow the youngest children to look forward to taking on more responsible roles. The principal says that this active type of learning provides “possibilities to grow up as a person – to know right and wrong.”

Students take textiles class where they sew and weave beautiful fabric on a loom, and they take “technical work” (we would call it woodworking), where the teacher says the main goal is to learn safety with tools. We visitors each got a carved wooden bread knife for a keepsake.

Parents are active in school life, and students get experience in the democratic process by electing a “pupil parliament” – two students from each level — to provide input on school operation. The parent organization has provided the parliament funds they can use to support a program of its choosing.

One other recent innovation he offered, was “team teaching.” Several teachers piloted combining classrooms and sharing responsibilities. We saw one 4th grade classroom with 46 students. The teachers told us they loved having a partner. When the pilot was over, the teachers chose to continue working together.

This principal’s philosophy permeates the school, and is a reflection of the value of equity and trust. He said, “You say ‘no child left behind.’ Here we say, no child, no teacher, no cleaner (janitor)… left behind. If we have the tools to help, we must do that.”

About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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