Road Trip to Finland: Our Reflections and Takeaways

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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When you see regular headlines like this — “10 Reasons Why Finland’s Education System is the Best in the World” — I wanted to better understand what makes it so and to grow my thinking about practices, policies, and possibilities for all schools. This visit was incredibly rich as my travel partners — Bena Kallick, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, and Marie Alcock — immersed ourselves in the Finnish model and reflected on lessons that could help fuel new possibilities for any school. The following slide deck is what we presented at ASCD Empower 19 Conference in Chicago last month framed around four lessons learned.

If you want to get a highlight reel without surfing through slides, here is a broader summary that potentially can inspire policies and practices in every school.

  1. Clear national goals that commit to preparing every learner for the world we live in right now. The goals of the national curriculum are: growth as a human being and membership in society; knowledge of requisite skills; promotion of knowledge and ability, equality and lifelong learning. Every child is important to the society. Which leads to #2.
  2. Every teacher is trained to support every learner. Whether it is working with new immigrants or students with special needs, each teacher has both the training and expectations to work with every child. There is an emphasis on working with students through both early prevention and detection to identify needs and attend to them. In addition, mental and emotional health and wellbeing is tended to through curricular programs as well as part of the tiered levels of support.
  3. The intentional use of formative assessments to grow the learning and the learner. There are limited pressures to finish work at the end of the class period. Encouraging learning — drafting an idea, making mistakes, and growing from feedback — is the dominant a way of thinking and working. This becomes the basis of the feedback cycle with teacher and students as they regularly conference to examine progression and determine next steps.
  4. Relaxed environment to grow autonomous learning. There is a level of trust in the students to be accountable of as well as a trusted guide for their own actions. Students are expected to demonstrate their learning and how they feel about their learning. Ping pong tables, comfortable seating everywhere, students and teachers enjoying spending time together as they are working. This relaxed environment is also anchored by student responsibility (e.g., cleaning the tables in the cafeteria, focusing on assignments).
  5. The leader’s role is to grow the capacity of the staff through strategic and compassionate approaches. Instead of taking a more aggressive approach through formal evaluations, building leaders acknowledge teacher emotions but work to change or grow their pedagogy. The circle of trust extends to the staff — teachers are trusted to use their freedom wisely as they interpret National Curriculum and design learning experiences. Leaders observe and consider how professional pedagogy and emotional support can be enriched through coteaching, flexible scheduling, or focus on a building-wide narrative (e.g., flipped learning, cultural competence).

If you want more on our trip and additional resources, check out:

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