Day 4 a wonderful way to end our visit and learning!

Wow, wow, wow is all I could say throughout and after our day today. The Early Childhood centre (day care and Kindergarten) provided care for 80 children aged 0 to 6 and was such a delight to visit. We were ending our days in Helsinki with a bang… or rather a sigh. A sigh of love for the respect and care given to children in this place!

As we arrived we were asked to take our shoes off and take our seats in their small gym just off their entrance foyer. HOME was the first word that came to mind when walking into the daycare. I felt at home and I could imagine children felt very welcomed and loved, just by the way the environment was set up. We met the day care’s manager and one of the day care’s nurses. They started by explaining that the first thing the do with children and their families as they enter the day care is to have children work on creating and sowing their own quilts with imagines and patterns selected by them. Their own individual quilts that began their relationship, the relationship between families and the day care for the best of the child, for the care of the child. The symbol of the quilt (which children use for napping and for taking magic carpet rides) is a beautiful one. It symbolizes the individuality of each child but also the care and warmth for each one. Beautiful. I had a little knot in my throat listening to them describe the quilt and the process of making it, I must confess. The Day care manager added ¨The meaning of the quilt is that we are going in the same direction. Parents and us. Paving the way of childhood into adulthood¨. Goosebumps. 

The whole visit felt like honey being poured right on to my heart. Here are my full notes of day 4 but I am not sure they can transmit the feeling!

Here are some of my A HAs but I am not sure I can put all of it into words. So please, ask me about it. I’ll be passionate to share more I am sure…

Partnership with parents– Parents, children and the day care/kindergarten staff share the responsibility for the care of the children and with one simple thing in mind. The child. Who is this child now (being) and how can we together support them in their learning path (becoming). The partnership is established early on with their quilt making and then is maintained throughout the years children are at the day care. Once the partnership is established parents participate in many other ways. They offer their expertise, they raise money for trips and extras and they dialogue with professionals about the well being and interests of the child. Individual plans are revised yearly with parents and a collaboration is established where the development of the child is followed, not pushed. Respect for childhood and the child is clear in the description of interactions amongst parents and staff and how children are listened to and given voice. Its a great collaborative effort.

Listening to children’s wishes and following them through no matter what– In August children share 6 wishes of what they want to learn. If they want to learn to fly a plane the early childhood professionals have to figure out how to teach them that. In this example, they had a parent who was a pilot and he came in and taught them everything about flying planes. The wishes are all displayed in school and parents pick what they can help with. Now that’s certainly a way to show respect for children’s interest. Never mind all the learning that take place learning to fly a plane!

It’s all about play– Play is the main means of learning here. For example every Monday the early childhood centre turns in to a small town. There is a mayor and deputy mayor and the groups of children are families and they go to different places like the shop, the library and everyone plays in the little town. Even the adults we are in character. For example, the Nurse is the mechanic who loves to learn and show children how things work. Another adult is the word lover who studies all the words and how they work. Adults dress up in their characters, talk like their characters and normally have a problem which children help them solve.  As the manager described this day I could imagine the looks in children’s eyes and all the learning taking place. All through play. 

The children are organized in study groups with 5-6 children in each, depending on the project that is going on. For example, lately they have been experimenting with machines, they tear them apart, discuss and look at how they work. They also work on words and rhyming. Adults explore poetry and discuss feelings through words. For example, they take children to a different, new place and ask them to create poems about this place. Inquiry at its finest. 

Documentation of learning– We were able to see some examples of documentation of learning around the centre. They create a newspaper and every child is asked about certain questions (what is courage, what is love, etc) and some questions are made by the children themselves. For example children ask each other what is happiness adults write it down and create a newspaper that is sent home three times a year. We also saw folders with work that is carefully documented by the teacher. Photos of children doing different things and records of their thinking. Children create homes for their toy animals and teachers document their thoughts and observations in lots of ways. Photos below.

Young children can discuss big themes– As in the newspaper, there is a lot of evidence around the day care and kindergarten that children’s thoughts are taken seriously here. Children are asked what they think happiness is or courage is and they can describe it! Children put their thinking caps on and wonder about courage and what concerns them about that. Children have meetings once a month and they have theme and they discuss (more guided for the very little ones but done with them nonetheless).

Have a look at this video of the ECC manager reading a 4 to 5 year old’s thoughts on Courage. Courage is… https://youtu.be/86_GQ4CgYzA

Maximizing time outside– Children come in and have breakfast between 8:00-8:30 and then they go outside. To the park across the street. They play outside at least an hour a day and if they weather is nice and they are active they could be outside for 2 hours. There is a lot of research out there to support children being outside longer (see links below) and there are even some outdoor kindergartens and day cares where children are outside all the time and come in only for a snack. As we went outside to observe children play we also learnt about park nannies. These are nannies who come to the park everyday and parents can contract them to be outside with children playing. They charge parents by the hour or month and parents can go about their business of the day whilst someone watches them in the park. Many children were under the age of 2. 

For more on the importance of children being outside see some of these articles:

Below are other shots of the day care with some more observations.

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Wow! What a morning. We then headed back to the university to reflect on the week’s learning and give the organizers some feedback about the course itself and the different visits. Oh what a week! I think these blog posts show just a fraction of what we learnt. I know there will be more and more A HAs as we go home and digest this learning. Will try and post as they come!

And in the end. They joy of a certificate! Thank you to the lovely support and care given to us by Silja and Riina from the University of Helsinki (Centre for Continuing Education) and thank you to our wonderful group!

Inspiring for sure!

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Mrs. Hazell receives her certificate from Riina. 

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Proof I was there all the time 😉

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Our group, excited about all the learning and looking forward to going home to share and try to put some of it into practice!

 

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In teacher training we trust, Day 3!

Today we visited a teacher training school in Viiki a neighbourhood of Helsinki. These schools are called normal schools here in Finland and there are two in Helsinki. Normal as in setting the norm. For more info on these go to: http://www.enorssi.fi/ftts

Teachers at this school are experienced and are usually involved in Finnish curriculum development and the development of teaching materials and resources used nationwide. They mentor and support student teachers in the process of becoming full time teachers.

Some of the A HAs today included:

Teacher training is serious business– In Finland all teacher education is academic, even kindergarten teachers. This is unique worldwide. All teachers Kindergarten to Secondary are educated at universities. Wherever there is a university with a faculty of education there is a teacher training school (or two). All teachers must hold a Master’s degree and teacher training and courses include a solid foundation for the professionalism that is then expected and trusted on teachers once they are qualified and ready to teach. This explains and creates the basis for the high level of trust and autonomy placed on teachers. 

Teachers are life-long learners– The normal school (as described by the Lower Secondary Principal, Mrs. Marja Martikainen) has 4 main functions. Besides providing basic education for the students enrolled in the school, providing in service for teachers and training new teachers one of the school’s functions is RESEARCH. Research can happen anywhere, not only at university. Got me thinking about how much more research and action research we could be doing at our own school… 

Education is about a lot more than just teaching methods – We didn’t see any hugely innovative teaching methods at this school (or at the primary school we visited either). We saw traditional teaching in a lot of ways but we also saw very engaged and responsible students. Its a strong reminder that school culture, motivation and a lot more influence how students learn. Yes inquiry enables students to construct meaning and make sense of the world but here we observed happy and focussed students in a traditional teaching model. Finland doing so well on the PISA ranking it has to do with a lot more than its teaching methods… of at least that’s what we’ve observed.

Were are the kids and what are they doing?– I am not sure if its the design of the schools or the calm and collected nature of teachers and students but the schools we visited (both) did not seem as crowded as I would expect for the number of students they reported to have. Perhaps its cultural but student’s behaviour was adequate at all times. The over excitement I see in our students (perhaps because they are Latin American) is nowhere to be seen. And funnily enough children are given lots of freedom and responsibility. At the end of they day they go home alone, we observed them “unsupervised” roaming around the school, outside and they are trusted using the iron. It made us wonder how much of our rules and routines are based on fear that something will go wrong rather than trust that all will work out!

Parents trust the system and the professionals in school– School is a place to learn and develop academically and who best to ensure this happens than the well trained professionals ho are with children everyday and who are constantly investigating and learning about what works in education.  The relationship with parents (in both schools we visited) is described as a partnership. Trust comes up again when talking about parents and school. They trust teachers are doing their job and doing what’s best for children. So simple!

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For more details here are my day 3 notes (again, will work on getting them a little more understandable- probably on the plane ride back to SP!).

And the day ended in snow again! Think the excitement will wear off soon…

Tomorrow we visit a day care and early childhood centre. Leaving the best for last my my perspective. Its one of the few reasons why we came all the way out here. Am looking forward to seeing play in action and the happy little Finnish children! Can’t wait!

Day 2 in Helsinki… Less is more!

Day 2 was another exciting day for various reasons. We started the day with a visit to a Primary school just outside Helsinki and then ended the day discussing Early Childhood education and care. What a joy. The weather was cold and a lot more snow came down today to my personal added joy (not everyone was as enthusiastic about it as I was though)!

We travelled to Espoo, just outside Helsinki, this morning to visit Lintulaakso Elementary School.

As we arrived at the school we were greeted by two students who had obviously prepared for our visit. They had a schedule and script organised and they seemed a little nervous. Kids will be kids anywhere in the world. They soon realised we did not bite and relaxed as the tour progressed (of course I was asked what is my favourite football team eventually…:)

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Our visit schedule

Here is a gallery of photos of parts of the school I thought were interesting. Captions describe the events or locations…

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At the end of the visit we got to have coffee with the school’s principal who told us a little more about the school and lead our reflections.

Once we got back to the university after the visit the group reflected on our A HA moments of the visit

  • Less is more– The Espoo Lintulaakaso Elementary school started his session with use saying that his (and I guess all of Finland’s in a way) philosophy is less is more. Its not about the documentation, nor the complications we put ourselves. Less is more always. It’s hard to explain but you feel it in the school. Nothing is too complicated. Children and teachers are equal in many ways, children are trusted with a lot and its simple. That’s it! 
  • Change is slow– And there is no hurry I guess. Traditional teaching is still visible around the school and is predominant. Teachers however are continuously learning and developing to move further and further into inquiry and varied teaching methods. The National curriculum outlines these practices and it gives time for teachers to develop at their own pace. There are no plans to change the curriculum often nor do political changes influence that.
  • Culture of trust– We could see in practice that it is a flat school hierarchically speaking. The Finnish teacher is autonomous, independent. They can chose how they want to go about overcoming challenges.
  • Teacher training– Teacher’s are experts in their field and are the ones taking decisions and the ones reflecting on their practice. The principal told us that the way he sees it is that the teachers in his school all have a MA in education and why should he think they cannot do it. Again there is trust on the teacher training system (tomorrow we get to visit a teacher training school and find out more)
  • It’s all about relationships– Children call teachers by their first name. Personal relationships are emphasised. The teacher is practically at the same level as the student, coming down from an authoritative position to a happy medium. The principal also shared how he encourages teachers to communicate to parents and each other in person rather than via email. Its about the empathy of talking face to face and reading reactions and feelings… Much more effective and relevant for education and schools. 

In the afternoon, back at the university, we had a session on Early Childhood Education in Finland with Mrs. Laura Salo (MA) 

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You can see my full notes of the session here. Synthesizing, my A HA moments were…

  • Being and becoming– Children need to be in order to become. Early childhood is about both. It is not about what we want them to be become only (objectives) but rather about being (who are they and what are their interests and needs) and becoming (what’s next?).
  • The C in ECEC– The Early Years (0-6 year olds) is defined as Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) in Finland. At this stage in life its also about caring for them. In Finland school starts at the age of 7 (Primary) and Pre-primary at the age of 6. Pre-primary might be about preparing them for school life but in general Early Childhood (0-5) needs to consider the care the child needs. Teachers should see themselves not only as educators but carers too. The care is as crucial as the pedagogical aspects of a teacher’s job.  Therefore there is a need for a holistic approach that combines care, education and teaching. The small child is a holistic being, they feel,sense and do everything with their whole body and mind (connection: talk about worms yesterday). It doesn’t make sense to put their learning in boxes.
  • Play, play, play! – The focus is to ensure kids are kids and they can play. Its not about all the 4 yrs olds having a basis for reading for example.  There is free play and guided play and it is balancing act of the individual teacher knowing when to step in and step out. Children have their own playing culture for which the adult is an outsider. Its their own thing where they create their own rules and build a world all by themselves. There are some situations when stepping is a good idea (learning opportunity eg. pretending to play shop is an opportunity for counting and numbers or an ethical situation) and others when stepping in is not recommended. Every situation as a learning opportunity. When getting dressed teachers and children sing about getting dressed and point out left and right for example. Play is embedded in the day and there is always something to observe and even propose (science and critical thinking). When the children bring an issue or learning interest that’s the best time to teach it. It requires flexibility in planning.
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Discussing the importance and crucial role of play in Early Childhood

  • No learning goals but rather a learning plan– The roots of ECEC in Finland are based on Fröbel’s ideas. The child is seen as naturally curious and active learner and meaning maker who learns and develops as they interact and play with others. So there are no learning goals in Finnish ECEC but there is an individual learning plan which aims to create a strong link and platform for cooperation with the family. By listening closely to the family teachers and families develop an individualised learning plan (not really academic, more social than anything else) that outlines the child’s interests and needs. The plan evaluated yearly (professionals and family discuss how the child is progressing according to the plan). In this evaluation of the plan, the child is also heard so they can talk about their interests (this promotes and begins the road for child advocacy).

WOW! Another fantastic day! Tomorrow we visit a teacher training school and do a tour of Helsinki (finally somewhat of a brain break 🙂 )

Our walk home was very chilly! More snow!

 

 

Finland day 1!

Day 1 in Finland was an exciting day. Lots of “A HA” moments and lots of thinking. The day started with a brisk walk in the Helsinki cold weather to the university. Despite the cold it was a a lovely day.

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Our group walks to the university!

Upon arrival at the university we took a minute to meet our group members. We are so fortunate to be in a small group, there are only 6 of us in total! Talk about small class size… 😉 Our group represents the entire world. Here is our group list.

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Our group with members from South Korea, Taiwan/Canada and England/Australia. What a diverse and small group. Aren’t we lucky?

The day kicked off with Dr. Kirsi Kettula giving us an overview of the University of Helsinki, its Faculty of Eduction. She talked us through the different aspects of the work done in Educational studies at the university. 

Have a look at my notes for more details but my big A HAs in this first session were huge! Listed in no particular order:

  • It’s all about life-long learning: It’s rooted in the Finnish culture and in the aims of the university and its Education Faculty. The Faculty provides many options for everyone to continue their education in any way. Professors from various ares discuss the best pedagogical practices
  • Its about motivation and drive: All professors (or most of them) teach first year students. To motivate and drive them. To spark their passion for what they are learning. To bring research to everyone and put it in context.

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    This slide says it all!

  • Its a long-term shared goal: The university’s strategic aim is to make the world a better place through science, research and education. Check out this brief introductory video!  www.youtube.com/watch?v=drDcT6Bvaho

This was only the beginning…

Next we met Dr. Heidi Krzywacki who led us through a discussion about the Finnish Education system and Curriculum Development. Wow! So much to write about. But here are my A HAs:

  • It’s all about trust: The Finnish Education system is based on a culture of trust. Schools have a low hierarchy (I’ve always tinkered and dreamed of a flat school hierarchically and in theory that’s what the system here aims for) . There are no school inspections and in the lower grades (up to 8th) no performance standards for children! There are no national standardised tests and there is no interest in developing or implementing these. Teachers are the boss in the classroom. They take decisions but they take responsibility for their classroom.
  • Devolution of decision power and the power of collaboration: Policy is not made to be top down. Its about collaborating and giving schools and teachers power to decide what is important and relevant and should be included in their curriculum.
  • Progress is more important: The focus is on supporting and guiding students instead of comparing them with each other. Are they making the expected progress? If so, everything’s on track. Its not about grading them or assessing
  • Teachers are valued by Finnish society and are viewed as educated professionals: There is respect and reverence given to teachers. Their views and opinions are respected the same as any other professional’s would. Teachers are academic researchers, learners and life-long learners. All teachers must have a Master’s degree. There are over 1000 applicants to the MA in Primary Education (yes its a MA not a BA we’re talking about, they apply for both in one go) for 120 vacancies! Students want to become teachers and a motivated to learn! The selection process includes an exam and then an interview in the second phase. The interview aims to find out applicants motivations and profile. Are they fit for being teachers?
  • Curriculum is more about teaching methods than standards: The national curriculum document outlines the underlying ideas of education in Finland such as students matter and the ideas behind social constructivism. It outlines too that its not only about dividing knowledge into academic subjects but also about transversal competences (or as we might call them in the PYP – Transdisciplinary skills?). Which takes us the the next A HA! 
  • Transversal competences: there are 7 of these as listed in the slide below.
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    The 7 transversal competences

    These are for in and outside school. Schools must implement at least one transversal (transdisciplinary) module/unit a year (minimum could be one week long or it could be the theme for the whole year). It must be a clearly defined theme, project or course where several subjects are integrated. There is an expectation that pupils are to actively participate in deciding the theme to be explored (motivation), taking responsibility for their own activities.

Wow! There were more A HAs, for sure, but I guess these are the main ones. Have a look at my notes (will edit them as time allows to make them more comprehensible) for more.

This took us until lunchtime. We had lunch in the university cafeteria (took me back to student days) and the way students are expected to put cutlery and plates etc. away is another reminder of Finnish culture. Everyone does their part. Perhaps something we can implement in school.

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First you clean out the waste (in the correct bin), then cutlery is to be put in the boxes (spoons in one, forks in another, knifes in the other), then the glasses (upside-down ready to be washed) and the plates (also ready to be washed), trays separately. 

The afternoon led us to conversations about learning environments and Science education. Dr. Jenni Vartiainen led the session. A HAs for me included:

  • Science instruction needs to start Early on: Studies claim that we should start science and mathematics earlier to insure motivation and interest in later stages. And that should be done through play and stories. With stories we can build a world that can tap into children’s memories and experiences. For example when children listen to a story with a rainbow, we can access their memories of when they’ve seen a rainbow and with that build their knowledge and understanding about rainbows and enter the field of science.IMG_5459
  • The importance of STEM:  Studies show that when children are doing science experimentation we can effectively trigger the cognitive processes needed for future science learning. Feelings are also very important particularly when we talk about small children. When we do science experimentation with children its very likely that they will be experimenting and finding answers for themselves for the first time. If we can trigger these cognitive processes a feeling of “I can do it” will come up and they will want to do it again.  If we look at science education in schools we often see a lot of biology. Teachers seem to think it is easier. We can go to the woods and observe and explore but when we talk about physical and chemical phenomena they have a harder time. But if we look at children’s questions carefully they are not only about biology. They think about chemistry and physics too! It is not fair that we choose for children. We should give importance to all areas.
  • Science has its own language: Its own vocabulary. For example we say sugar melts in our mouths but that can cause a problem later on (it doesn’t melt right? It dissolves). If we use confusing expressions in our speech it can cause some misconceptions that might be harder later to correct. We should talk about things with the right names starting as early as kindergarten. Sometimes teachers get overwhelmed but if they correct one word per week that’s already enough.
  • Inquiry based learning, of course!: The process of experimenting and putting into action the science process skills is extremely important for the construction of scientific understanding. Observing, inferring, measuring, communicating, classifying, predicting. Its more important to create the base for all science with these skills rather than learning facts. Observing being a key skill in particular.
  • Communication: We must allow children to communicate in many ways. For example there is a Swedish research where a kindergarten class had worms in their room for a while and they made observations (what they eat, what they do etc). At the end of the observations researchers wanted to find out what children knew about the worms. None of the children talked about the blindness of the worms. But when a child pretended to act like a worm he/she closed his/her eyes. When asked why the child said that worms are blind. It is hard for children to put everything in words so it is very important to allow them to use their bodies (and other forms) to show what they learnt.
  • You don’t need a lot for science education: Here’s Dr. Jenni’s ultimate list of what she uses in their science camps, clubs, etc.
  • Links: Some links Dr. Vartiainen shared for further exploration are:

At the end of the day as we headed back to the hotel we stopped over at the university library.

Wow! What a day! By the end of it, my brain was all over the place. Lots of connections and learning still to digest! Feeling inspired. More to come.

We ended the day with a lovely dinner by the water watching snow flurries come down and the sun come out interchangeably. The wonders of the earth.

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The view from our “ravintola” the camera didn’t catch them all but if you look closely there are some snow flurries coming down!