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Metcalf faculty visit Finnish schools

By Amy Fritson-Coffman

We arrived in Helsinki, Finland, eager to see if what we had heard about the school system would match what we would experience while visiting their schools. Traveling with me was our Curriculum Coordinator, Christine Paxson, our General Music Teacher, Donna Zawatski and Illinois State University’s School of Music Professor Kim McCord. While we all were seeking out areas of interest to study, I was primarily looking at why the Finnish schools are so high achieving as well as the similarities and differences between their schools and the Laboratory Schools. What we gained from this experience was immeasurable. I’ve limited myself to sharing three things that have changed my thinking and moved me to action.

It’s hard to compare the schools without comparing the country of Finland to the United States. In general, I found the Finnish people to be of high moral character and because of this there is a high amount of trust given to them as citizens.  We paid for public transportation at various kiosks, but no one checked our tickets. We asked about this, and specifically, if people ride for free. The response was a sense that people wouldn’t do that, and only on rare occasion are they asked to show their ticket. I found this also to be true for stoplights. When no cars were coming, we didn’t attempt to cross the street on red, because the crowd followed the “don’t walk” sign.

This same trust carries over into the classroom. There are high expectations for teachers because of the master-level training they receive along with the competitive nature of the profession. We found that principals were rarely in the classrooms, nor did they do evaluations due to the nature of that trust. They were confident in the training that teachers received from the university. We asked about the training that principals received and were surprised by how little there was. As the principals reflected on that question, they shared that teacher leaders were mentored and then moved into positions with very little coursework for certification. Finland provides free education all the way up to a doctorate. They invest heavily in teacher preparation, which is a very difficult program to be accepted into. Those in the teaching profession are highly valued and greatly respected.

I’ve also been reflecting on research that we value here in the United States. Both the Danielson Framework and Marzano’s work place a high value on interactions and relationships that teachers have with their students. We didn’t find this to necessarily be an important part of the Finnish school system. I believe it stems from the family structure and the value that the country places on parents being at home raising their children. We were amazed that the government pays a parent’s full salary to stay home and care for their children during the early years. Finland heavily invests in the family structure in those early years. Perhaps it is possible that they don’t feel the need that we do in America to form bonds with students, because most of the students have very present adults in their lives. This is a generalization, but it seems to be a common one among the Finnish educators. While we, in the U.S., feel the need to concentrate on educating the whole child, their concentration appears to be based on the content area they are teaching.

There are so many other areas to reflect upon, but due to the strong music connection from our group, I wanted to share an element of Finland that we are embracing at Metcalf this year. We were able to see the music programs in action in the elementary and middle schools up to age 16. We did not find the band and orchestra classes that we have in the U.S. Music is based on student choice with a high emphasis on composition. “Rock Band” and music of choice is what we saw students gravitating toward and being allowed to explore. We met the people who developed what is called Figure Notes. In my layman definition, it’s a system of being able to pick up a musical instrument and play it instantly. Because I own a guitar that I have never had time to learn to play, I decided to purchase a book with this special sheet music. I placed the chord stickers on the guitar. The sheet music, with colors and symbols in front of me, were matched with the ones representing the chords on my guitar. The song “Let It Be” quickly came to life. This method is what we saw their education system using in the schools as well as with people of all ages who have special needs.

This year we are piloting a class called Music of Choice. This is our version of “Rock Band” for our middle school students. This does not replace our band and orchestra, but provides an option for those students who may not feel as comfortable with the general music classes we offer. We are also opening our doors to our community and collaborating with Special Opportunities Available in Recreation (SOAR) to offer adults with special needs an opportunity to be involved with music in the evening hours. An after school class will be offered for 6-8 year olds with special needs. We were able to hire Kim McCord from the music department who is also looking at using the night classes in collaboration with ISU students and Lab School students. I’m very thankful for the support and collaborative efforts of Kim, the College of Education, Department of Special Education, the College of Fine Arts’ Dance Education, the School of Social Work and SOAR. We appreciate the donations from various community members as well as, Gibson guitars, The Music Shoppe, Monster Pawn, Autism Speaks, Frank Zawatski, and Caterpillar.

I left the schools in Finland with a sense of pride for what we are doing in our Lab Schools. Like the Finnish schools, we are fortunate that our teachers have the opportunity to be professionals with autonomy and freedom to choose what’s best for the students they serve. We, too, are strong in the arts and believe that a quality arts program increases learning in all content areas. The area that we saw the greatest difference in is what I most love about coming to work each day. We call ourselves the Metcalf Family and with that we form relationships with each other and the families we serve. It’s what sets us apart from other schools and what draws people to our school community. I’m forever grateful for the time of sharing that took place on this trip between the two countries and the ability to reflect on what is most important to the needs of our learners.