Ever since I observed Pekku Peura‘s class six weeks ago, I have been wondering how such methods could work in a social studies classroom. Math, it seems to me, is tailor-made for a mastery-based, individual approach. Teachers can sequence a series of concepts for students to master. Demanding proficiency at each step might slow movement through a given course but means learning is deeper, more lasting, and that there are fewer “holes” in a given students’ math education. Peura also encourages significant amounts of reflection, so students not only take control of their learning but also learn about how they learn.
Yesterday I took an early train through birch forests and mist-cloaked lakes to Tampere. It is the center of Finland’s second-largest metropolitan area and, as a student told me the day before, the largest inland city in the Nordic countries. I was graciously hosted there by Eenariina Hämäläinen, a social studies teacher at Tampereen yhteiskoulun lukio and lead author of some of the most-popular textbooks in Finland. I like them because they are short, light, and filled with powerful and useful images.
A few logistics: courses at Eena’s school are six weeks long and students take five or six at a time. More than one teacher has told me they find this frustrating, constraining the depth and breadth to which they can examine a topic. Another factor to bear in mind is that universities in Finland do not take grades into account when they weigh granting entry to a student. Only an entrance exam and the matriculation exam, taken in at least four topics which may or may not include history depending on the wishes of the student, are counted.
I am not arguing that this is a superior system of college placement. Not at all. But it has a direct impact on student stress and behavior. More than one of Eena’s students told me they don’t plan on taking the matriculation exam in history, so their goal in the course was to do a good job and earn an “8,” something like a “B” in the US.
HOW IT WORKS
In Eena’s courses, students can decide how ambitious they want to be on a given unit. For the Cold War unit pictured here, Eena told the students that they could omit steps 4 and 5 (which covered decolonization and disarmament) if they wished. Those who wish to earn a higher mark, who are more interested, or who might work more quickly, can pursue the full slate of offerings. In some courses, green and red buttons on the pad literally take students on different tracks.
The unit might begin with a pre-test, which shows how much knowledge students already have and what they need to learn. (Here it is reached through the yellow “badge” in the lower-right corner.) It might be diagnostic or Eena might allow students to re-take it until the learning is completed.
Students, who are free to work together (Eena made it sound like plagiarism is handled harshly), move through the steps of the unit, each of which essentially covers a sub-topic, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis or the invasion of Hungary. At each, Eena has embedded links to texts, images, or videos that offer the information students need. Sometimes, she offers a very brief lecture in class or records one and posts it on Youtube.
Each student creates a Google document and shares it with Eena. There they carefully arrange their work on the unit, including notes, more formal writing, charts, images, and so on. Neatness and presentation counts. It’s nice for the students because they can look over their work easily and decide where to put their efforts should they have time to loop back and improve some piece of their work.
There is no final assessment as there are several along the way. For example, in an earlier unit, students researched the social and political situation in European a country between the wars. Then, they were interviewed by another student in the class who then wrote a fictional diary entry or letter based on the interview. The other student in the pair did the same. Thus they thought about types of sources and how historical information is embedded in primary documents as they learned about the inter-war period in two nations. In the section on the Cold War, students made a chart comparing life in East and West Germany (#1 on the image here); another reading had content-based questions for students to answer. Number 6 covers the end of the Cold War. The exercise there will be to imagine how people would have expressed their feelings about the events had they had access to social media at the time. Students made and shared Pinterest, Twitter, and Instgram posts. There are a few assignments of this scale in a unit and the challenge for Eena is to vary them and to make each meaningful.
ASSESSMENT & GRADING
It is important that there is ample time to complete the assignments, so there is room for those with more prior knowledge or more interest to go farther and potentially earn a higher mark. The day I visited, some students were on #2 while another was working on #5. When I asked if students were penalized for not completing an entire assignment, Eena told me they weren’t, if she could see that they were using their time efficiently. They might have been ill or on a trip, she explained and these aren’t good reasons to lower a student’s mark. On one hand, I wish better I understood how this would play out if, say, a student completed five of seven pieces in a unit but appeared to be working well during class–what grade do they get? It seems subjective. On the other, it is the benefit of assigning very little work that is specifically meant to be completed outside of the classroom: the teacher con observe the entire process.
At the end of the 6-week period, Eena meets with each student. Students prepare a written reflection on their work in something like a spreadsheet. They answer questions: did I complete the assignment?; how much thought did I put into the assignment?; did I help my classmates?; did I receive the help I needed?; how was my participation? They offer the grade they think they have earned, which is usually (I think Eena estimated about 80% of the time) identical to Eena’s assessment. Disagreements are opportunities for students to learn about expectations and about how they use their time. From what Eena told me she is not merely grading coverage of material, but effort, thinking, knowing, concentration, helping others, asking for help. So how students work really counts. Focus and depth of engagement are key.
In some classes, Eena has students keep a study diary in which they are tasked with commenting on class discussions and evaluated on the clarity of their opinions. She often checks and grades students’ notes three weeks into a course. In other courses she has a single Google document serve as shared notes with each student taking a turn to be “secretary” for a given day. She shared several practices which required students to share their work for evaluation by their peers.
There is a ten-point scale in Finland, though most students earn something between a 7 and a 10 (including “plusses and minuses”). Students whose portfolios are complete but perhaps not inspired will likely earn an 8. Work exhibiting greater command of the material may earn a 9. 10s are less common–like an American A+, I think. I was struck that Eena offers less written feedback during 6-week “period” than I had expected. She makes comments on students’ portfolios when she is pleased with their work and, I assume, when there is a factual error. (At this point, I don’t know how much attention she pays to the students’ writing itself. I failed to ask.) The majority of the feedback comes face-to-face. With students working in the classroom–I was reminded of “flipped” math classrooms I’ve visited–Eena can float throughout the room, speaking with every student every day. This is not insignificant. If a student is struggling or unmotivated, she is there to catch them immediately. If a shy student has a question, they can ask, either at their desk surrounded by two or three peers (the desks are grouped in fours) or outside in the spacious hallway.
The students I spoke to were 17 and 18 and some had taken courses from Eena before. They seemed quite clear on the expectations–some seemed to have already chosen their grade. Of course, this is always true in a way. Students parcel their time and energy no matter the system. Eena’s method places this student decision-making up front.
I asked a number of students whether Eena’s course was more or less difficult than other history courses they had taken. “It’s harder,” one girl said. “Harder because it takes more time or more labor?” I asked. “I have to focus and concentrate more,” she told me. She had to read all the basic sources and had to engage with every topic. There was no option to skip a reading and space-out through a lecture. Was there more homework? No. Eena designed the units with the hope that they could be accomplished during class time if a student stayed on task and worked hard. That didn’t usually happen but this was because the students socialized a in class.
Okay, so this method seems to promote focus and concentration. What about learning? I asked a group of four girls this question. They quickly responded that they learned far more in this course because the assignments were more creative and because, again, Eena compelled them to engage with the material. They also saw her as an ally in their learning, helping them when they got stuck, ready to answer questions that cropped up, or even to step into the hall with a group for a ten-minitue “tutorial” if they wanted to know more. There was no cramming for tests. One student made the “in-one-ear-and-out-the-other sign, which is, apparently, international in meaning.
One way I came away thinking about is that the “floor” is higher. The weakest students learn more and are more engaged with the material Nobody slips through the cracks. The “middle third” seems to retain more. If the strongest and most interested students feel the course is too easy, they are free to complete the “extra” lessons or talk with Eena at greater length.
In conversation after class, Eena told me that she continues to experiment and doesn’t see her method as the only way to teach. She doesn’t use this method all the time in every course. And she stressed the need for structure using such an approach. Her student don’t determine their own topics or (usually) find their own sources. They set their own pace and decide how much polish their work will have. They are in control of their learning but they are not set adrift to find their own way.