I’m just back from Helsinki, Finland since a former colleague from The School at Columbia University, Dr. Sabrina Goldberg, is currently there on a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher Award. Don Buckley and his wife, Leah, met me in Helsinki. While Leah toured and shopped, and Sabrina had appointments, Don and I visited schools, libraries, and makerspaces. We were very lucky to reach out to our network and connect with teachers and heads of schools who graciously made time to speak with us, tour us around, and answer our many questions about Finnish education, teacher training programs, and informal learning spaces.
Sabrina is interested in learning more about how Finnish schools integrate Phenomenon Based Learning as it’s part of the national curriculum followed by Finnish public schools — some schools follow the national curriculum more closely than others and some have developed their own curricular materials more creatively than others. (More about PhBL via Wikipedia here.) Sabrina commented many times that Don and I saw more schools in our three days of site visits than she’s seen in three months. It’s all about the network, and Don and I have worked enthusiastically and strategically to grow ours! We introduced Sabrina to many people in Helsinki (even ones we just met), and now Sabrina has a wider network and more schools to visit, too. 🙂
As for the trip, I took a red-eye from New York to Helsinki on the evening of March 18 and arrived suitably red-eyed on the morning of March 19. Here’s what I can recall about the trip…
Day 1, Tuesday March 19
Getting to Töölö Towers, a dorm-like hotel, was a piece of cake. The 415 bus goes directly from the airport to a few blocks away the place. I wanted to be close to Sabrina and not spend a lot of money, so this was a great, safe, clean, no-frills, conveniently located option with kind receptionists, plentiful breakfasts, and lots of academics staying short- and long-term in the efficiently furnished rooms.
Lunch at Friends & Brgrs, a walk around the main city center, and visits to a few Marimekko storefronts, as each has slightly different merchandise showcased. Our trip to Temppeliaukio Church, commonly referred to as the Rock Church, was enlightening. Dinner at Ravintola Savel included a Finnish salad with salmon and shrimp. After seeing the word ravintola used at most eating establishments, it became clear that it is Finnish for restaurant.
Day 2, Wednesday, March 20
Met Don, Leah, and Sabrina for coffee. Then Don and I peeled off to visit a Music and Movement class for first year music teachers in training at Sibelius Academy, Many thanks to Soili Perkiö for hosting us and Sheila O’Shea (another fantastic former colleague) for introducing us via Facebook Messenger to her former Finnish classmate — Soili and Sheila met while taking Music Ed classes in New York City!
Below is a video of a fourth-year grad student leading a lesson for first-year grad students. I love how she transitioned the group from voice to claps to stomps!
Pretty much everyone speaks English in Helsinki (probably most of Finland too), and the class had some full group discussions in English critiquing the more experienced grad student’s submitted lesson, so Don and I could be included. Some of my favorite lines from the students: “You can never do too much body percussion” and “We can mod the activity it in many ways.” and “It’s okay to fail.” Don suggested the speaker try a tactic he uses with his grad students for self identifying areas of strength and growth: “I like, I wish, What if?” I really liked Don’s approach, I wish I’d participated more in the discussion, what if I had started writing their ideas down on a big notepad in front? (See what I did there?)
After our visit to Sibelius Academy, Don and I made our way to the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences Building to speak with Laura Salo, Innokas Network Project Designer, who graciously made time to tell us about Finnish education, teacher training, and her work developing and growing a network of teachers engaged in professional development around integrating Technology into the Craft component of the 2014 Finnish National Curriculum (which corresponds with the STEAM and Maker Movement in America).
Laura explained more of the expectations for Finnish teachers: A BA is the minimum for a Kindergarten teacher working with the youngest children (ages 1-6). An MA is required for teaching in Primary/Elementary School Grades 1-6 (with children ages 7-13). Subject teacher of students in Grades 7-12 (ages 13-19) have an MA in their field and is qualified to teach whatever subjects they chose as their major/minor area of focus for their Masters degree. Finnish teachers are highly educated and master a subject! The teacher training programs are also highly competitive, and university and graduate education in Finland is free, FREE! Plus, graduate students get a stipend to help with living expenses while they take classes. It is so respectful and thoughtful. Laura shared a ton of information and I took photos of slides rather than jot down everything she said:
After, Don and I joined Leah and Sabrina for an inventive and delicious tasting menu dinner at Gaijin.
Day 3, Thursday, March 21
Paul Marra spent time in Finland earlier this year and plans another trip soon. She reached out to her friends at Kalasatama Primary School to see if we could visit, but as Don and I planned our Finland trip rather late, and since Finnish schools receive a ton of visit requests, it was disappointing and understandable that they could not accommodate us. However, rather than just leave it at that, it was so thoughtful that Kalasatama kindly arranged for us to visit Jätkäsaari Peruskoulu, or Jätkäsaari Comprehensive School. It is in a growing neighborhood with a lot of construction along an expanse of land near the wharf — it reminded me a bit like a combination of Red Hook, Brooklyn and Long Island City, Queens. Just as the neighborhood is expanding, so is the school. They have a new structure being completed, and while the school currently serves students Grades 1-6, next year they will add Grades 7-9.
Kirsi Myllymäki, Principal of Jätkäsaari, kindly invited us to observe Morning Meeting where young students engaged in a call and response with teachers about the date, the weather, the day’s schedule and more in four languages: Finnish, Swedish, English, and Spanish! Later, Kirsi recognized how team-teaching is so important as children can see how adults cooperate and work together. Don and I were invited to introduce ourselves to the group of children, and then the teachers asked the children to repeat what they’d heard to check for comprehension. Children were invited to ask us two questions, and they inquired about our favorite colors and our favorite animals. So cute! Then there was a musical interlude where students sang and played a variety of instruments. After, the Lutheran kids (or those whose families haven’t opted out of Religion class which is part of the Finnish National Curriculum) had a brief lesson, and the other kids (whether they are non-Lutheran, non-religious, or just had parents who opted out) engaged in some sort of life skills lesson. I found this fascinating. The newest National curriculum was introduced in 2014 and the newest Helsinki curriculum came out 2016.
While explaining about about the school, we learned from Kirsi that the children have two hours of Craft time per week. She used the terms Soft and Hard to differentiate between textiles/food and wood/metal. This particular week, Kirsi said students were looking at news (what is news, what’s the title, you can write your own news). Peppered around the school we noticed children reading or working independently, in small groups, or with the help of an adult. Kirsi reinforced that there is a lot of trust with the children, even with students in the youngest grades. They are encouraged to self-monitor and they have practice doing this throughout the year, so the general expectation is students understand their responsibilities within the classroom and school community, and they are trusted to behave accordingly. (This sense/level/expectation of trust was mentioned at each of the rest of the schools we visited on the trip.)
Kirsi pointed out that Jätkäsaari is an inclusive school, so they have children with a wide variety of learning skills and some special needs. As an example, she showed how they use online games and modules from Popunet.net which are accessible to a wide range of children. There were laptop stations set up in the common areas where students could practice using these online modules at their own pace and without necessarily under the direct supervision of an adult. There are other schools available for children with distinctly more advanced special needs. Finally, Kirsi used the term “positive discrimination” (which I heard again many times throughout the week) to describe how more municipal monies are applied to areas that have less wealth and vice versa.
Just a few blocks away is the International School of Helsinki (ISH). Don’s former student at Teachers College, Columbia University connected us to Alwyn Roberts, Teacher of Design at ISH. Alwyn offered a great tour of the building. They are in the nearing the end of a stretch of intentional prototyping of different classroom designs and furniture options for flexible use of spaces. I liked how they called hallway seating/working options as “Study-Stop areas”. We also met Ben Thrash and Minna Tammivuori-Piraux from the Leadership team, and it was really interesting to talk with them about how their school is evolving spatially and pedagogically. Unlike the Finnish schools, ISH is a State-supported private international school and has tuition fees. ISH began as a British prep school and is having its 55th anniversary.
It turns out the Director of Technology, Anita Chen, was at CIS in Hong Kong with my great friends and former colleagues Akio Iida and Tabitha Johnson. Plus, they all worked with my dear friend and edcampBangkok co-founder, Chissa Duangnet Mireles who is now based at NIST in Bangkok. Such a small world! Kathleen Naglee, Head of School, invited us to meet with her in her gloriously decorated office, dubbed the Blue Room, which is shared with students and faculty whenever they seek a calm place to meet, work, or reflect. Speaking with Kathleen was a true and distinct pleasure, and I was really enjoyed learning her thoughts about “compassionate spaces” and “cognitive coaching”. I love meeting inspiring, brilliant, and fascinating women in leadership. Here’s an article Kathleen wrote, Who’s Missing at the Table? Preparing women for international school leadership.
After these two enlightening school visits, Don and I walked to Oodi Library
and had a marvelous time exploring the varied, stylish, multi-purpose, and thoughtfully designed spaces inside (including all sorts of tools in their makerspace). Per their website:
“What can I do in Oodi? Oodi is exactly what you want it to be. Borrow books, read magazines, have lunch, work, hang out, go to the movies, study, hold a meeting, organize an event, take a glass of wine, get to know the EU, create music, meet friends, sew curtains, play with children, play board games. Oodi is all this and much more.” I shared a bunch of photos previously in this post
and included them below as well:
For dinner, we gathered Leah and Sabrina to eat at Ravintola Lasipalatsi above Amos Rex, a fantasticlly designed Art Museum space. At Lasipalatsi, I ate two different reindeer dishes, a tartare and a fillet. Later we shared crazy desserts including licorice cake and a sorbet of some super sour berry, maybe it was sea-buckthorn?
Day 4, Friday, March 22
Don and I made our way a bit North of Helsinki to Raini Sipilä‘s school, Helsingin Suomalainen Yhteiskoulu, commonly referred to as SYK. We met Raini a few weeks ago at FabLearn and immediately introduced ourselves. Don toured Raini around the Marymount School, and in turn, Raini offered a visit to her school! It was an awesome visit! While SYK is a free Finnish private school, it is most similar to an American charter school — students take a test to get in and enter in Grade 3. They are considered a specialized multi-language school, and their library has many different books in a variety of languages. The school has been around since 1886, and the current brutalist interior is full of soaring concrete walls and ceilings. It reminded me of the interior of Erdman Hall at Bryn Mawr College, a structure designed by Louis Kahn.
I was fascinated by how students at young ages have a 3-hour Craft period per week with both hard (wood) and soft (textiles) materials. By 7th grade, they choose to specialize in either wood or textiles. Our 7th grade tour guides (who led us around the building without additional supervision, because they are awesome students and trusted members of the school) told us that electronics more integrated in woodwork than textiles and more girls choose textiles and more boys choose wood. I hope this balances more in the common years. At SYK, the woodwork teacher told me that he incorporates design and technology into his program. The new curriculum due out in a few years, however, explicitly integrates technology into all Craft classes.
Assistant Principal Sampo Lokki, was kind enough to meet with us for an interesting conversation about what he/we think about schools, education, and technology. Sampo actively seeks out good ideas and is interested in prototyping. He’s currently in the midst of a pilot to have the kids answer a few curated questions every morning using their 1:1 iPads and a custom Wellness app. He’s already determined that some students shared no one greeted them with a “Hello” or “Good Morning”, so that helps him and the faculty identify ways to model behaviors for the children, discuss strategies for socializing, and improve the culture of the school.
Following our visit to SYK, Don and I traveled further West to Espoo International School (EIS). Thanks again to Paula Marra, we were able to connect with Anne-Marie Rapo, Head of School, who took us on a tour and shared some of the pros and cons of the fantastic new space. Like SYK, EIS offers free education and students for students in their primary and middle years (ages 5-16), yet students are required to take a test for entry. It is a trilingual school with courses in Swedish, Finnish, and English.
Upon entering, I couldn’t help but notice how the concrete walls and soaring ceiling were reminiscent of SYK. It turns out the architect of EIS supposedly graduated from SYK! The school is in the new Opinmäki (Learning Hill) campus and was very expensive to construct. Therefore, space is rented out for many purposes (sports, events, adult learning…) — there’s a municipal library and a daycare which are unaffiliated with the school yet share a roof. Initially, there were glass walls or no walls separating informal learning spaces and classrooms. However, learning is noisy and children get distracted, so loosely woven white curtains were hung over many of the glass walls and heavier curtains and walls were constructed to separate open areas. Also, I learned that every municipal building has a shelter/bunker in the basement. Espoo International School actually conducts classes down in the bunker, but only for limited amounts of time as there are no windows down there. I loved the plentiful sweeping areas for art, craft, woodworking, and textiles!
After touring these two unique schools, Don and I took an Uber to Iso Omena Library on the third floor of a big mall in Espoo. Iso Omena has a makerspace, tons of books, meeting rooms, designated rooms for music and gaming (online and offline), services for families, a health clinic, forms assists services for immigrants or non-Finnish speakers, and many other assets for the community. Just like the notion of the Cathedral as the center of a community’s life, so too does this library seem to provide all sorts of resources to entertain, enrich, and support a community. I also added a bunch of photos to an earlier post, but here are the same photos pasted below:
After this full day of exploring, we met up with Leah to check out Kaapelitehdas, otherwise known as the Cable Factory. Then we headed over to to Fat Ramen located in the Hietalahti Market Hall for dinner.
Day 5, Saturday, March 23
Sabrina, Don, Leah, and I traveled to the Iittala and Arabia Design Center followed by a visit to one of the Marimekko outlets. That was an expensive detour. Then we were invited to Raini’s house for a traditional Finnish dinner of sweet potato soup, blinis with all the classic toppings (caviar, salmon, whitefish, sour cream, pickles, onions, mushrooms, and more), and then a homemade apple crumble a la mode for dessert. It was such a special treat to join Raini at her home, meet her family, and have a delicious meal!
Day 6, Sunday, March 24
Sabrina, Leah, and I took the two-hour ferry to Tallinn, Estonia for a day trip. It’s a magical medieval city! We walked around all day, had a great lunch (with elk meat) at Rataskaevu 16, walked through the amazing Balti Jaam market on our way to the artsy hipster area of Telliskivi. We had a quick snack at F-Hoone before hoofing it back to our ship (a converted luxury cruise liner which now has multiple floors to ferry cars and people). I lost all my photos from the day because I was having issues with the gyro sensor on my iPhone and I thought resetting to factory settings would fix it. I forgot to check that all my photos had backed up to iCloud before making that choice. Womp womp.
Day 7, Monday, March 25
Alwyn kindly invited Sabrina and me (Don and Leah flew out in the early morning) to join him on a visit to the Aalto University Design Factory. A parent from ISH school offered the tour, as International School of Helsinki is about to launch a new Design/Engineering/Maker space. Alwyn and I are in the same boat! I offered to connect him with the awesome educators, designers, and makers of the K-12 FabLab Group, and Alwyn suggested we think up a project where he and I can facilitate a collaboration between our students. Fingers crossed! I was prepared to be jaded by the Design Factory, partly because I’m a New Yorker and partly because I’ve seen fabulous spaces around the world. Nevertheless, Aaltoo’s Design Factory is something to behold! I particularly noted how rooms/purposes were divided, how materials were organized, and how the signage reminding people to be respectful, clean, safe, and responsible. Behind the Design Factory is the Sauna where you can give a pitch while nude with your audience. I guess nothing is in the way of your presentation at that point?! I also heard about Polar Bear Pitching where you deliver your pitch while in the icy Baltic Sea, so the speaker gets to the point as efficiently as possible before hypothermia sets in…
After this illuminating visit, Sabrina and I had lunch at Vapiano and then went to see Jordan Peele’s new movie, Us. I hate scary movies!
Day 8, Tuesday, March 26
I flew back to NYC with an additional duffle bag, because I purchased two reindeer pelts. I was torn between the beauty and the barbarism of possessing an animal’s hide, but Finnish people told me they use the whole animal. Here’s hoping. Anyway, I hope to get back to Finland again! I really want to travel North to Lapland one day, and I want to also experience a Finnish spring or summer. And I want to visit more schools! And Sweden!