Finnish Educators at the Fulbright Center

Fulbright Center Finland

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· 6 hrs ·

How are students’ skills assessed? How is special education organized? Are students ready to choose between general and vocational education at the age of 16?

Fulbright teacher alumni mentored newly arrived American grantees on Finnish classroom practices, teachers’ and counselors’ role in the school system, as well as differences between vocational and general education. Participants included a guidance counsellor, vocational school pedagogical specialist, teachers of history and English as well as a teacher trainee, offering the grantees a broad perspective of Finnish education.

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This was a great day of meetings, many of them about the structure of the Finnish education system, including higher ed. This discussion with four secondary educators was really terrific. Perhaps my favorite part of this discussion came from my friend and fellow-Fulbrighter Erin Dowding who asked the Finnish teachers on the panel what they considered their greatest challenges. Here, taken from my messy notes, is what they said:
  • How to prepare kids for a rapidly changing world. Should they focus on skills? Knowledge? How can teachers remain “professional”–well-trained and well-prepared, when things change so quickly?;
  • How can teachers help students with persistence and patience, not to loose faith; how to help them maintain a positive attitude with what they are studying even when results don’t come quickly?;
  • Because of the economy and the budget, they have less money “to do more”: adding in digital devices, new teaching methods, a new wave of immigrants. “We can’t do everything so we have to choose.” 


The Individual and the Collective Good

This week I had the good fortune to begin in earnest my project here in Finland. I had a productive chat with Merja Juntunen, a researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, about how to structure the internet “platform” for my teacher-collaboration website on globalization-related issues.

Friday, my fellow Fulbrightrers and I met at length with Satu Syyrakki, the guidance counselor and international program head at Schildtin lukio, a top-notch upper secondary school here, and discussed everything from how learning differences are treated in Finnish schools to the government camps for migrants outside of the city.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAjyväskylän normaalikoulu, the teacher-training school

On Thursday I also “got into a classroom,” as it’s put. Marjo Sassali is a dynamic young social studies teacher at the Jyväskylän normaalikoulu, the teacher-training high school run by the university. I sat in on her Human Rights course, an elective for students who would be called 8th and 9th graders in the US (if I have it right).

The class meets for three hours once a week. On this day, visitors were speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including a woman who has worked as an observer for a group linked to the World Council of Churches. After the speakers finished, the students searched for news articles online and evaluated their stances and biases on the conflict. The kids didn’t get far before class ended, but posted their links and reflections at a cool website called

Sitting in the back of the room with Meghan Hanson-Peters (who is researching collaborative learning styles), I began to think about the reasons why such courses are so important to me. In part, I feel the purpose is psychological, especially if the course focuses on possible solutions to seemingly intractable problems, whether the question of the two-state solution or of how to best combat climate change. If students see that some adults are working on solutions and making some progress, then encountering difficult issues might not lead to cynicism.

But is the purpose of Marjo’s course, or any course, primarily the experience of any individual student, sitting in a chair, whether listening intently or furtively glancing at an iPhone? Isn’t it more democratic if high school students have a great deal of power to set their own course of study? And if this means they give over their four years to crafting a resumé for the eyes of college admissions officers, isn’t that their business?

On some level, though, schools are places where societies imagine and shape their futures. Finland’s schools will in no minor way determine Finland’s future. This theme was close to the surface when we Fulbrighters met with Ari Pokka, the principal of Schildtin lukio, who wove a description of his school into a half-hour long story of the history of education in Finland.

In Finland, like in many countries I suppose, the establishment of public education was linked to the development of a national identity and a nationalist political movement. Jyväskylä was among the first places were Finnish-language education took place and the now world-famous school system seems a central piece of the national identity.

The robust vocational education system here also seems pointed at the general welfare of the nation. Finland needs skilled plumbers, electricians, heating and cooling specialists so it is in the national interest to train them well. So they are trained extensively, like teachers, prepared to be competent professionals.

I can say, however, that I never saw my own education this way. It was part of a personal journey, a private search for meaning and success. Popular progressive thinkers on education in the US, like William Deresiewicz, don’t seem to doubt for a moment that the highest goal of the educational system is the personal fulfillment of a given student. Maybe this is best.

But what if curriculum were designed for the public outcome of the process rather than the individual success or satisfaction of each participant. Would the process look different? K-12 education could be pointed at the needs and the problems of a given society. We need hairdressers as well as climate scientists.

In a way, I am simply talking about “21st-century skills”: schools should be equipping students with the skills and knowledge they need to both keep things running and make things better. So then my next questions is, how would thinking about education being a collective undertaking alter how I teach day-to-day?

And, if it were shaped around creating a just, prosperous, and equitable society in a globalized world, what subjects would students study?

According to a 2014 study at Georgetown University, here are the top seven most popular majors in the US: 1) Business Management and Administration; 2) General Business; 3) Accounting; 4) Nursing; 5) Psychology; 6) Communications and Mass Media; 7) Marketing and marketing research.

This list looks like the result of a people who care more about individual earning power than social progress. Applauding this fact, the GU study, entitled, “What’s it Worth?: The Economic Value of College Majors,” notes that, “Counseling Psychology majors make median earnings of $29,000 per year, compared to $120,000 for Petroleum Engineering majors.”

If my goal were to create an educational system that was designed to promote the general welfare, what would it look like? I think I would identify skills and attributes that are essential to the health of society. This makes me think of something I read in the Finland’s “National Core Curriculum for Upper Secondary Students, 2003” (the emphases are mine):

The basic values of upper secondary school instruction are built on Finnish cultural history, which is part of Nordic and European cultural heritage. At upper secondary school, students should learn how to treasure, assess and renew their cultural heritage. Students will be educated in tolerance and international co-operation.

Upper secondary school instruction is based on respect for life and human rights. The educational ideal of the upper secondary school comprises the pursuit of truth, humaneness and justice. General upper secondary education must promote open democracy, equality and well-being. Students are seen to be the constructors of their own learning, competence and views of the world. Instruction must take into account the fact that human beings observe and analyse reality using all their senses.

So, the individual or the general? This is a new question for me–hence the verbosity and just plain length of this post.


Picture credit:

Globalized Youth Online: Communication, Debate, Solutions



The current iteration of my project statement as I begin my work in earnest. The image is of the Hungary-Serbia border, August 2015.

My Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching project seeks to develop global competence through international dialogue between secondary school students and educators about the issues connected to the processes known collectively as globalization. How can secondary-school students in different nations collaborate to address and act on global issues? Together with educators in Finland, I will produce curriculum and a website that may be shared, free of cost, by educators anywhere, with the goal of students from many nations working together around issues related to economic, cultural, and environmental globalization through a web-based platform.

Global communication focusing on globalization itself can foster cross-cultural understanding and new perspectives on trends in politics, economics, and culture. And it will encourage creative thinking about issues that can only be tackled globally, including climate change and worldwide economic inequality. A major goal would be collaboration on scholarship and action by students from multiple nations.

My work in spring 2016 will conclude with the creation of an online platform, capable of adding students from any school with internet access. This website will be called “Globalized Youth Online” (GYO). The site will be divided into two sections. An educators’ section will include thematically organized sections around such topics as economic, cultural, and environmental globalization. There teachers will share ideas for lessons, assignments and projects. Hopefully, teachers will work together to design assignments that bring students in different nations together in meaningful ways. For example, students could be required to interview a teen on a different continent about their experience of cultural globalization/Americanization.

The student face of the website will contain resources on globalization, links to information elsewhere on the web, and ongoing discussion forums. Students will easily access updated news feeds and links to journalism regarding globalization. Other pages will contain moderated discussions of globalization and its ongoing impact on the lives of young people. My hope is that students might use the discussion feature as part of their coursework in a given class, so that dialogue can be encouraged by teachers. The student-facing part of the site will also serve as a nexus for collaborative projects by students in different nations. Using a technology such as Google Chat, students can have simple conversations or work together on projects. I see a great value in, for example, students in my class in the US and student in Finland, working together to understand the consequences of global economic inter-relatedness on the financial crisis of 2008 or the Greek debt crisis.

I have been teaching a senior-level course on globalization for several years. Since the course began, its focus has changed from controversies like the “Battle in Seattle” anti-globalization protests, to the economic crisis of the 2000s, to the rising threat of climate change. In recent years my teaching has pivoted toward looking for useful and helpful responses to global crises—climate change being the most important example—and toward empowering my students to feel they can contribute to bettering their world. As a progressive educator who believes that enabling responsible social action is key to teaching in the social sciences, I have sought new pedagogy to match my goals. This semester, for example, my students are preparing to address the Oregon State Legislature in support of a carbon tax. It is my hope that teachers using my site can help their students move beyond simple conversation or information gathering and into real discussion about how to tackle issues such as climate change and global income inequality.

Work with interested academics and educators in Finland would proceed in three stages. First would come an information-gathering stage on how global studies is practiced in the host country. We would review Finnish scholarship, contact researchers on the topic and those in the public sector pursuing similar goals. During this first to-month period, we would also identify the most appropriate online host: the student newspaper I oversee uses, for example, but we would need to conduct research into other, better platforms.

Second would come approximately two months of gathering and organizing materials with my collaborators—web links, texts, assignments, and projects. We would set up units that could deliver students information on these broad topics, bringing them into debate about them and, finally, offering avenues for socially conscious action. Project-based work would focus on collaboration by students in different countries; creating such projects would be a major focus on this stage. The units will be connected but could also stand alone, for teachers with more limited time to devote to issues related to globalization.

During the third two-month period of the award, we would design the website and look into applications and resources that would make it more accessible and usable. Undoubtedly, we would require technical support. In these final months, we would “test drive” the platform with students in the host country and make improvements based on their feedback. We would also share our research with educators in the host country.

My proposal fits well with Finland’s stated global education strategies. Specifically, my project would complement the Ministry of Education and Culture’s interest in involving youth in global affairs concerning equity and environmental sustainability. Studies such as Liisa Jääskeläinen and Tarja Repo’s report, Schools Reaching Out to a Global World, show the Finnish National Board of Education’s mission to not only make young Finns aware of the broader world but also orient them toward finding workable solutions for the social, economic, and environmental problems of a world marked by inequality.

The Living With Globalization program at the University of Jyväskylä seems like a great fit: the work on globalization there is diverse and practical. Being in the classroom on a daily basis with Finnish students and working directly with a Finnish teacher and other Finns involved in the creation of national curricular goals will offer me the perspectives I need to create a global outlook for the project.

The project will be a success if I can produce a curriculum guide for teachers of globalization studies and establish a working relationship between students at my own school and others in the host country. The website should offer a clearly organized set of units and assignments, designed to address key issues and foster international collaboration. Each unit (free-trade economics or climate change, for example) should offer multiple assignments and action projects that can be shared by students in multiple locations. The materials should be useful to schools from outside the USA and the host country whose teachers are interested in collaborating on study about economic, cultural, and environmental globalization. Hopefully, once curriculum has been set, other students and teachers will take part. Continuous assessment of the materials by educators and students will help me improve the website even after the project is complete. Ultimate success will be measured in the breadth and longevity of collaboration through my platform.

Additionally, a central goal of Globalized Youth Online is to reach students in diverse communities. The cross-cultural communication at the heart of the project is, by nature, digital and students will need access to the internet. Otherwise, there will be no limitation on participation and it would be a top priority to expand the project’s reach to underserved populations. I see a tremendously empowering benefit to low-income and underserved students. They are far less likely to travel abroad; hosting an exchange student may also beyond their reach. GYO will be a place where, by linking classrooms through internet video and chats, underserved students will have a chance to interact with students around the globe. By communicating with students in Finland, for example, students from underserved groups here voices and see outlooks unavailable otherwise. They may see commonalities in their experience and that of young people around the world that they could not have previously imagined.

I will refit my current course, Globalization: Debates and Controversies, when I return from abroad, to be taught in conjunction with my project partners. Global education is a major thrust of my school’s strategic goals as is environmental sustainability. My project will work toward both of these goals. As the faculty advisor to my school’s environmental group, I am currently working with students on climate issues. Climate change being a global issue, this project will allow my students interested in environmentalism to work with like-minded students in Finland and elsewhere.

Dr. Patrick J. Walsh



First Impressions

It is fitting that a trip dedicated to the study of globalization should pass through these globalized spaces called airports. Here in Helsinki (where I am IMG_4066spending the day waiting for my family to arrive from San Francisco via Washington and Copenhagen), English, Russian, Swedish, and Finnish are everywhere. In the elevator, a woman laughed with gusto into her phone and launched into a humorous anecdote in Mandarin. The curious faces of the other people in the lift made me realize that Chinese is less foreign to me than, until a couple of days ago, Finnish.

Airports represent one of globalization’s promises: the free movement of people–and all their talents and skills–across national boundaries. Goods, ideas, media, and currencies also move about, protected by free-trade treaties or simply unleashed by satellites and undersea cables. (“For all the talk about the ‘cloud,'” Andrea Petersen wrote recently in the Independent, “prahanjin_container_ship_passed_through_the_golden_gatectically all of the data shooting around the world actually relies on a series of tubes to get around — a massive system of fibre-optic cables lying deep underneath the oceans.”)

When I was in California last week, everyone was talking about a new French megaship, the “Benjamin Franklin,” that seemingly barely fit under the Golden Gate Bridge. Its quarter-mile-long deck was piled with what looked like little blue squares, 2,250 of them, each square a container ready to be loaded onto a train car or an 18-wheeler.

But what about people? In 1985, five nations of what was then called the European Economic Community signed a treaty now known for the village of its origin: Schengen. The Schengen Treaty began the dissolution of internal borders in what is now known as the EU as well as in non-EU states, including Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland. (The UK has not signed on.)

c396resundsbron_frc3a5n_luftkastelletThe Öresund Bridge linking Sweden and Denmark

And now, Denmark and Sweden are tightening their borders, Denmark with Germany and Sweden with Denmark–specifically on a single bridge. A central complaint is that the external boundary of the EU is not being policed in accordance with the treaty, in places like Greece, so the agreement is void. map_of_c396resund_between_denmark_and_swedenBut there are people who live in one country and work in another–housing is less expensive in Sweden, I believe.  The border control not only makes commuting difficult, it challenges the idea of “Europe” and of a post-nationalist globalized West as well.

Of course, the Swedes are not worried about the Danes and there is a darker side to the call for stricter border control that goes beyond the fear of violence like that recently commemorated in Paris. In Finland, where some migrants cross the 1000 km border with Russia, resources for refugees have been strained, several buildings associated with refugees and migrants have been burned, and right-wing political parties have attempted to use fear of outsiders to their advantage. I am certain that migration to Europe from Africa and the Middle East is a topic I will be learning much more about in the coming months!

The question for me here is this: can we have the free flow of information and the free exchange of goods without the free movement of peoples? Perhaps. Mexico and the US do about a half trillion dollars of trade a year, even as the Americans have tried to seal the border against people. Will the number of migrants fall or rise globally? Will new forms of nationalism lead to calls for economic protectionism and thereby less global trade? Will European nations, led by Germany and France, re-conceive their national identities in order to head off more violence? Or will they militarize their borders?


Moi (Hi) from Jyväskylä!

Being a new arrival in a foreign city is like being a scientist tasked with making speculations based upon shreds of evidence and tiny sample sizes. Every interaction with baristas and bus drivers is freighted with intercultural judgment. With this in mind, I will plunge in.

IMG_4048The Fussgänger Zone outside the DNA phone shop. Central Jyväskylä is closed to cars, except taxis and delivery vehicles. I took this picture at about 2:30 in the afternoon.

In my first (short) days here in Central Finland, I am struck by the warmth and openness of the people I meet. A neighbor, Pirkko-Leena, drops by to see if I am getting on okay and opens up about being a female engineer in the paper-making industry; the receptionist at the hotel lends me her personal cell phone so I can make a local call; a jovial, patient college-age man at the phone shop DNA (can you hear me now, smug Portland Apple-istas?), smiles and offers clear answers to my confused questions about SIM cards and international texting; these and may other people here have been welcoming but also more ebullient than the clichés about Finns in the guidebooks and internet suggest. (Typical entry: Q: How can you identify the Finnish extrovert? A: They look at your shoes.)

Beyond such first interactions, the other dominant early impressions come from the fleeting hours of sunlight and, this week at least, the biting cold. The sun rises about 9:30 and sets six hours later. Most of the day feels like evening, like I should hustle home to make dinner.

Today, the temperature is defying the weatherman and sticking at -6 Fahrenheit, despite clear skies and sunshine. The night I arrived, delayed for a few hours by an unplanned bus ride due to a malfunctioning train, it was 20 below. Unfortunately for me, my ride to my flat had waited and then left the train station, as I was unable to contact him, the bus not having wi-fi. Thus my nice interaction with the helpful hotel receptionist across the street from the train station.

I am struck by the sheer number of people out walking around, kids playing in yards and parks, people skating and even walking on the frozen lake in the center of the city. They are in the background of the photo below. There is a long course all around the lake, on which the snow has been removed so people can skate directly on the ice.


Tomorrow I go to the university for the first time. I am curious to learn about a new culture of academia.