This article looks at a discussion between American and Finnish teens about their education systems. It’s such dialogue that I am hoping to create through my Fulbright project.
What 5-Year-Olds are Doing Overseas While Kindergartners in America Struggle with Common Core
Kindergartners in Finland don’t have to worry about learning complexCommon Core math problems like this:
Instead, they get to “play” much of the day. Tim Walker, an American educator who has been teaching fifth and sixth graders in Finland for the last few years recently wrote in The Atlantic that:
Approaching the school’s playground that morning, I watched as an army of 5- and 6-year-old boys patrolled a zigzagging stream behind Niirala Preschool in the city of Kuopio, unfazed by the warm August drizzle. When I clumsily unhinged the steel gate to the school’s playground, the young children didn’t even lift their eyes from the ground; they just kept dragging and pushing their tiny shovels through the mud.
At 9:30 a.m., the boys were called to line up for a daily activity called Morning Circle. (The girls were already inside—having chosen to play boardgames indoors.) They trudged across the yard in their rubber boots, pleading with their teachers to play longer—even though they had already been outside for an hour. As they stood in file, I asked them to describe what they’d been doing on the playground.
“Making dams,” sang a chorus of three boys.
“Nothing else?” one of their teachers prodded.
“Nothing else,” they confirmed.
“[Children] learn so well through play,” Anni-Kaisa Osei Ntiamoah, one of the preschool’s ‘kindergarten’ teachers, who’s in her seventh year in the classroom, told me. “They don’t even realize that they are learning because they’re so interested [in what they’re doing].”
According to the article, most Finnish children start “preschool” when they are six years old. NPR notes that all preschool teachers have bachelor’s degrees, and because it is paid for by taxpayer money, 97% of eligible kids end up attending some form of preschool.
Osei Ntiamoah added that the interaction allows the students to develop their language, math and social-interaction skills.
A recent research study commissioned by the Minnesota Children’s Museum supports her findings. Dr. Rachel E. White, who managed the study for the museum, wrote:
“In the short and long term, play benefits cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development … When play is fun and child-directed, children are motivated to engage in opportunities to learn.”
Osei Ntiamoah’s colleagues also share her sentiments toward playtime. Added Maarit Reinnikka, the school’s director:
“It’s not a natural way for a child to learn when the teacher says, ‘Take this pencil and sit still’.”
Another major difference between Finnish and Americans schools is that Finnish teachers work from a weekly schedule that only includes a few major activities a day, rather than a daily itinerary broken down into regularly-scheduled periods like most American educators do.
Walker noted that the itinerary he was shown, for example, had the kindergartners taking field trips, participating in ballgames, and running on Mondays, while they would do songs and individual play stations on Friday.
Niirala Preschool’s curriculum is hardly unique. Arja-Sisko Hollappa, a counselor for the Finnish National Board of Education, said that kindergarten teachers are required to offer playful learning activities on a regular basis, telling the Atlantic:
“Play is a very efficient way of learning for children. And we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.”
She added that playtime will be even further emphasized when the government unveils its new kindergarten curriculum next fall.
Finnish schools also deemphasize the need for kindergarteners to learn how to read right away. According to Osei Ntiamoah, the timeline for students learning how to read in Finland is collectively determined by the parents and teachers on an individualized basis, and whether or not the student is “willing and interested” to learn is factored into the equation.
Osier Ntiamoah added that while only one of her students could read at the present time, she anticipated that most of them would be reading by year’s end.
Average scores of 15-year-olds taking the 2012Program for International Student Assessment
The above methods may sound unorthodox, but they appear to be working. Finnish students are generally among the top-performing students in the world on both math and science tests, per the Pew Research Center.
I am excited to see “This Changes Everything,” director Avi Lewis’s new movie based on Naomi Klein’s book.
But it raises the question of how best to teach students about climate change. Ten years ago, I was trying to acquaint my students with the greenhouse effect; five years ago, I was having them read about the COP15, as we waited to see what Barack Obama might do. Last year, I took my students to the state capitol in Salem, hoping to participate in hearings on a proposed carbon tax. We also hosted a sparsely attended evening on young people and climate action.
So what should we be doing as educators about this issue? Teaching about the threat of climate change just scares them. But empowering students to act on a global issue of this scale is challenging.
My seniors last fall found their projects frustrating and disappointing. They had hoped to see results from their hard work and their encounter with the state legislature was not empowering. They prepared handouts, wrote questions for legislators to ask during hearings, and went to Salem ready to share what they had learned. But their longest conversation was with a representative who did not even believe in climate change, let alone a carbon tax. They went home disappointed.
So what kind of work should (and can) students do in a course on global issues? Is more knowledge–of the groups working on the issue, of the stances by governments–enough? If students pursue action, how can it lead to raised hope and enthusiasm?