Breaking Through the Math Ceiling: Exploring Female Achievement in Mathematics

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Day Capstone-Breaking through the Math Ceiling.docx

While I have shared many of my thoughts and opinions on Finnish Education systems, I have not, as yet, shared my actual research. I did not think it was finished or perfect and so I kept the project to myself. My four short months in Finland were not suitable to produce the type of research I wanted, but it was enough to give me an overall picture of the problem, which you can explore by reading my report as posted above.

I went to Finland with the intent of studying female achievement in mathematics after discovering that Finland is one of the few countries where the girls outscored the boys in mathematics. Finland’s girls especially excelled in PISA’s problem-solving category. They performed much higher in this category than even Sweden their “sister” nation to the west. As a female math teacher this information intrigued me. I wanted to know what Finland was doing to promote female achievement in mathematics and problem solving.The above and adjacent link is the PDF of my research report. Day Capstone-Breaking through the Math Ceiling.docx

The purpose of this Fulbright Grant was to give girls the confidence in their abilities to think and express themselves mathematically. My objective was to study the cause of the widespread gender disparity in mathematics education, learn best teaching practices from Finland, a country internationally acclaimed for supporting female development in mathematics, and create a stateside program that empowers and supports girls and teachers within the mathematics field.

My time in Helsinki was spent studying how Finland’s school systems teach and train young girls and their teachers to be confident in mathematics. One of the main reasons girls struggle with mathematics is due to their crippling fear of being wrong. This hesitancy to take risks is a cultural issue that is fueled by certain educational practices. I elaborate on this psychological phenomenon in more detail in the report.

I also discovered that girls learn to have a negative attitude towards the subject from parents and sometimes even teachers who themselves suffer from math anxiety.   I desired to learn how to  create a positive learning environment that allows girls to feel safe, work together, take risks, and learn in a way that will empower them to think mathematically.

I believe that lack of confidence in mathematical ability is the biggest obstacle to female success in the mathematics classroom. I had several theories as to how Finland combated this fear and disdain for mathematics. My hypothesis was that it was a combination of classroom environment, cultural biases, learned math anxiety and teacher training that contributed to Finland’s success in promoting female achievement.

I discovered that one of the largest contributing factors to student attitude  towards mathematics was a teacher’s own opinions, attitude toward and ability in mathematics. Female students are more perceptive and aware of others feelings and attitudes.  Many female students have been trained to believe that math is difficult,tricky and obstinately rigid.  Female students are not taught to think of math as the beautiful, fluid and flexible science that artfully and creatively explains the world around us. 

Finland has a lot of great things going for its education system. It provides fair equitable education to all students. They also do not over stress their students and have truly mastered the concept of “less is more” which I wrote about earlier. They are able to achieve great things with fewer formal lessons and classes.   Their kids are not over worked to the point of exhaustion or surrender.   Finland has trained its students to be independent self-motivated individuals.

However, when discussing female achievement in mathematics, I am not sure that Finland has the overall answer.   While Finland’s low stress, slow paced classroom environments give girls overall less anxiety and apprehension towards the subject, I do not think they are actually out performing highly motivated U.S. Students. I suspect that the Law of averages is allowing Finnish students to stay on top of PISA scores, which I have explained in my blog post about The Three Real Reasons for Finland’s Success.   Everyone in Finland does well- a little bit above average.  Yet very few do extremely well (by American standards anyway).  On the flip side very few fail either. Finland has found a nice sweet spot where everyone can learn and achieve. However, few are being pushed to reach his or her highest potential either. Finland’s collective average is high because everyone does at least okay.

Through my observations and interviews I began to feel as if instead of discovering an unusually high level of female achievement in Finland I was actually uncovering a lack of male achievement.   Globally, the difference in gender achievement in mathematics is at the high end of the spectrum. There are the same number of girls and boys struggling with mathematics at the low end of the achievement spectrum.

Males tend to be the most gifted mathematically and that high achievement in math is not to be found in Finland. I did not find mathematically gifted and talented males or females in Finland. The Finnish students are simply not pushed to reach those extremes. And so, without the usually highly gifted few male to bring up the male average, we see the highly motivated hardworking girls take the lead for its country.   This is perhaps something Finland needs to further explore.

The below PDF was my research report submitted to the Fulbright department.  I am not oblivious to the fact that it isn’t perfect research.  I need to do so much more work  in order for it to be complete and publishable.  My vanity was perhaps why I waited so long to share it with you,  but I decided it was better to share than to keep to myself.  I hope to one day continue this research, but for now this will do.

Day Capstone-Breaking through the Math Ceiling.docx

 

 

 

 

I can’t find the “Less” in the Middle of so much “More”.

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I’ve not written much since I have been home from my Fulbright experience in Finland where I became the champion for the Finnish concept of “Less is More“.  The truth is I quickly realized that I couldn’t make the Finnish “less” work in the middle of all of the American “more”. Within weeks of returning from Finland feeling fresh, rejuvenated and free of business, I found myself more committed, more scheduled, and more stressed than ever before.

I got completely sucked back into the outrageously busy lifestyle of the Typical American.  When I returned I was simply too occupied and drained mentally and emotionally to write.   I didn’t have the time, energy or the stillness required to produce good and thoughtful writing.  The days of my peaceful and quite Finnish lifestyle full of self-reflection and introspection were over.  They were replaced with days of my to-go-coffee, 10-minute lunch breaks and penciled in meetings.

Forgetting everything I loved and observed in Finnish classrooms, I fell right back into the swing of the American teacher lifestyle.  Each day I have 192 students, 7 classes and high expectations and demands.  I became consumed once again. I was putting in 12-hour days filled with grading hundreds of tests and assignments.

I quickly realized that the Finnish mentality does not work in our American schools. I tried some Finnish classroom ideas on my students.  I tried to ease up on the homework assigned.   I tried to adopt the “less is more” concept to my teaching and my classroom, but it did not work.  Our Society has created a structure that is too integrated with our competitive culture for the Finnish mindset to be effective.  My 7th grade students didn’t know how to adapt to a school mode based on less structure, less competitiveness and less formal accountability.

And if I am being honest, I didn’t know how to adapt my teaching either.  It took me all of three hours back in the school setting to feel the weight of the substantial curriculum I was expected to cover in a year.  I forgot how much our 12-year-old students were required to learn in only a few short months.

I soon understood that a Finnish pace was not going to cut it in our results-centric culture.   If I want my students to succeed in our society I would have to pick up my pace.  I would have to do more, not less.  I am ashamed to admit how quickly I relapsed back into the nasty American obsession with testing and results.

At the end of the day, the heart of the American spirit is competition.  Those who succeed in this country have worked the hardest and have pushed themselves to their highest levels. They really have done more, not less.  As teachers we are expected to demand excellence from our students and push them to compete to become the best.  This mentality is non-existent in Finland but also impossible to remove from American education.

Our students are truly remarkable.  What we expect and demand from them really is too much.   They have 7 to 8 classes a day, homework, sports practice, violin lessons and are also expected to get straight A’s and maintain a normal social life.  These are impossible standards for most adults, let alone 12-year-old kids.

I often feel guilty about pushing them so hard. The new standards expect my 7th graders to think and reason like PHD students. I am expected, no demanded, to lead them in that thought process regardless if they are developmentally ready for such advanced level thinking. The standards seem impossibly high.

Yet I am reminded  daily that I preparing them for an American work force that demands and expects too much of them as well.  It is our culture.  It is our identity.  Heck, It is the American dream.  We taught to believe that if you work hard enough, and do and accomplish enough you will eventually rise to the top.   The top of what and for what nobody knows. But the top is the best. Right? Maybe Not.

But this mentality exists so permanently in our culture that trying to remove it completely from the classroom would do our students a disservice. If they are going to succeed in our society, they have to learn to cope in high stress situations.  They have to learn to aim high and work hard.

As Finland demonstrates, this ultra competitive results driven philosophy on education is not necessarily the best method. I really do believe in the Finnish mindset of Less is More. I stand by what I wrote last spring. The problem is that until we change the societal expectations and our broad education systems, this Finnish mentality will not work.   The state, nation and even the parents of my students demand I push students to reach their fullest potential. I am not a good teacher unless I get them to work hard and push them to be their best.

In the United states we do not teach to the middle (the universally achievable average) as Finland does.   Instead of teaching to the middle like Finland, our standards aim for the very top level of possible performance.  We put expectations that are so high that only a select few are capable of reaching.  The result is we have a group of truly elite scholars and a group of those left in the dark.   Education mirrors society and while we are very good at getting a big group of students ahead in life, we also leave behind those who can’t cope with our demands and expectations.

I had huge hopes to remedy this sad truth.  But I failed miserably.  I tried to incorporate the Finnish mentality I had observed in Finland to my classroom.  However I, being American through and through, soon felt like I was failing my students. I had this overwhelming feeling that I was a bad teacher for not pushing and challenging them to think more critically, do more problem solving and cover more content and problems.  I really felt like I was not doing my job and that they were not learning enough. And so, like a fraud, before I knew it I had abandoned my mantra and dove headfirst back into the “More is More” mentality.

I simply don’t know how to make the Finnish mentality work in the midst of our American system of high stake testing and competition.  And so I remained silent.  I stopped writing.

I have lost the Finnish “Less” in the middle of all of the American “More”.

I am not sure how to find the “less” here in the midst of the swamped, hectic demands of our society.  And in some ways I enjoy my teeming American “More” abuzz with excitement, engagements and achievements.  And at the same time, there are days I yearn for Finnish simplicity and quiet calm.

And so I am stuck here in the middle struggling between two conflicting philosophies.   I understand both sides of the road and I am confused on how to best navigate. I believe in everything I stated before, Finnish success really is based on the “Less is More” mentality.

I simply don’t know how to function as a Finn here in my American classroom or in my American life.  It feels like a fight against a strong current.  Right now I don’t have the answers, I really do feel quite stuck. In the mean time I will try to find a way to incorporate a little more “less” in this world of so much “more.”  Until then, I am here writing my thoughts and trying my best. Thank you for listening.

I’m a Teacher- What I learned from my Fulbright Experience.

11659426_10100132656593536_6404291644614424767_nWhen I left for my Fulbright experience at the University of Helsinki I fully expected the experience would change the very course of my life.   I had begun to stagnate and feel restless in my teaching position. I had always loved my job as a teacher but after an unusually difficult year, I began to wonder if it was time for me to move on and pursue other opportunities.

When I received word that I was selected to receive the great honor of being a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher, I saw this experience as an opportunity to take a breath, step back from teaching for a time, recollect and reevaluate my life. I felt like I was approaching a symbolic fork in road of my life.   I was certain I would return from this experience a changed person with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.   When I left for Finland I prayed I would gain a clear picture of what I should do next and how I was to move forward.

In many ways I saw this experience as a stepping-stone in my path towards a formal research career. I thought perhaps earning a PHD in education would appease this restless desire growing inside myself to do and accomplish more in my life. I felt like I had more to give and it seemed like the logical next step. I could see myself, armed with the power of the Fulbright crest gleaming on my resume, ready to enter into the world of formal academia and research. I had great dreams and plans to go get my doctorate at an impressive university, like Stanford, Harvard or Yale. I had decided I would spend my days being important, highly admired and respected. I was ready to start an impressive research project that would prove my intelligence and importance to the world and springboard me into a life of lectures, conferences and publications.

However my time spent in Finland taught me that, while I could be successful in the world of formal academia, it was not where my heart resided.     I learned quickly that my heart was not in formal research. My heart is and will always reside in the classroom. My most favorite days in Finland were the days I spent playing with the 3rd graders at recess or teaching my group of 7th grade Finnish students the intricacies of geometry. I am so thankful for the opportunity I got to co-teach a 7th grade geometry course at an English speaking school in Helsinki. I looked forward to this weekly class and it became one of the highlights of my experience. Not only did it give me a very valuable glance at the teacher’s perspective of Finland’s education system, it also demonstrated my need to be in front of a classroom.

When I was observing other Finnish classrooms I often felt a surge to stand up and teach. It was hard sometimes to not step in and interject some of my thoughts on a certain topic. I also kept thinking about the amazing ways I would improve my own teaching when I return to my school this fall. This experience, taught me that my passion resides in front of a classroom.

I am a teacher. I am a practitioner. I do not belong in an office reading studies, collecting data and analyzing survey results. I belong in the classroom. I come alive there. When I attended formal doctoral lectures, or attended PHD seminars and conferences I learned valuable information but I also felt restless and confused. I met some very intelligent individuals with impressive theories and theological arguments. I learned a lot of facts but nothing that seemed applicable or helpful to an actual living-breathing classroom.

I often sat there pondering the applications of these theories, projects and papers. I wanted to see them put into action instead of being merely discussed and debated.   I realized there is a huge difference between educational researchers and practicing teachers. Many educational researchers had spent years studying education, but had never actually taught a classroom of students. And while they have many theories (some good, some bad) about how teaching should be done, they have never experienced the joy of actually watching their students learn and grow throughout the course of a year.

Researches don’t know what it is like to be entrusted with 180 beautifully unique and talented individuals whom I write on my heart each year.   They don’t know what is like to have these students consume my thoughts and actions. Yes, as a teacher I stress and constantly think and worry about my students. I pour my heart and soul into them and serve them with everything I have. It is stressful, it is time consuming and it is hard. But I love it. At the end of the day the research may not have the stress, the anxiety and the pain of a practicing teacher. However, researchers are also missing out on the joy of knowing they are helping young individuals become who they are destined to become.

10257048_10100130081783476_5627855949294620207_n I am so thankful for the many experiences I had during my time in Finland that reminded me of that joy and the passion I have for my chosen profession. I am a teacher, not a researcher. That is what I have learned and knowing that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing with my life is an invaluable gift. I cannot wait to start applying what I have learned about education in Finland to my classroom.

         I also learned that I am a writer. I have something to say and people who are willing to listen.   While In Finland I started writing about my experiences in my blog. This blog usually has a small readership that extends only to my mother and a few dedicated friends. However suddenly, because of this Fulbright experience, people became interested in what I had to say and I was able to share my thoughts and experiences in Finland with several thousand people.

Because of this incredible exposure, I was able to meet with and share educational ideas with people from all around the world. My article was published in an Australian Education journal, was listed among the top 100 educational blogs in the U.S. and was also mentioned in Finland’s most prestigious and wildly circulated newspaper.   My article about Finnish education has now been translated into Portuguese and Korean and is being distributed as part of teacher training system at a Korean university. I have had so many doors and opportunities opened and presented to me because of this Fulbright experience.

This has taught me that I do not have to be in the world of formal academia to have a voice. I can express myself and change the world by being myself, doing what I love and sharing my experiences and ideas with others. I can teach and make a huge impact on both my students and the education world by sticking to my talents. I am a teacher and a writer and this experience in Finland has taught me how to balance both of those skills.

I hope to take what I have learned in Finland and become an even better teacher to my students. I also intend to continue to write about education and hopefully promote educational change and reform in my school, state and perhaps one day my country. I believe, however, the best way to do this is to remain in the trenches so to speak. I do not feel like a higher degree is in the cards for me at the moment. Instead I realize I can make the greatest impact in front of the classroom and in the hearts of my students.

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The three REAL reasons for Finland’s high PISA scores.

IMG_0459I bet all of you are tired of my rose-colored posts on the seemingly perfect Finnish Education system.   I just imagine you saying at home “Ok, we get it. Finland has a utopic education system, with a never-ending supply of recesses, free lunch, snack times and breaks. Students have less homework, fewer classes and less stress. We have read your article on how “Less is More”, and we understand that Finland has created an idealistic learning environment. But this really doesn’t explain their high scores on international assessments like PISA.”

You are right. It is confusing and counter intuitive. If I am being brutally honest with you, the math in a typical secondary level Finnish classroom is not particularly rigorous or advanced. While the instruction is sound and I have few critiques on the actual teaching, the topics covered in most classes were not extremely difficult.   The actual calculations and content covered in a 9th or 10th grade level class, even the honors classes, were all topics I could easily assign to my high achieving 7th graders (Finnish 6th graders).

So, what enables Finnish 15 year old students to rank at the top of the PISA scores while the U.S. scores remains incredibly average or even below?

How do Finnish students, who spend their evenings skateboarding, playing video games or hanging out with friends, perform almost as high as those from Singapore or Korea where kids go to a “second school” after public school until 10:00 pm and follow that up with 4 or more hours of homework? It doesn’t add up.

Finland’s education system sounds great and wonderful and full of sunshine and rainbows, but how does it work? How are they getting such great scores in math?

1.  It is all about the law of Averages. Finland is a country where everyone does “Well”.

Finland, a country that prides itself on equitable education, does a great job at getting and keeping everyone on the same playing field. Mirroring the philosophy of their society and governmental structures, education in Finland is more concerned with the collective good and making sure that every student does well instead of focusing on competition, tracking and ranking.

The result is that every student learns what they need to learn and does quite well at the basics, but not much more. There are very few high achievers. In fact on the recent PISA assessment Finland, while ranking far above the international average, Finland only had around 15% reach a top performing category, while the Asian Nations who beat Finland had between 30 to 50% of their students reach that top category. Yet, at the same time Finland had very few students on the low spectrum.

In Finland no one is pushed to become great, but no one gets left behind either. When everyone in society is doing at least “okay”, this creates a collectively high average that beats the average of a country like the U.S. or China that have gigantic educational achievement gaps that mirrors their societal and economic structures.

It isn’t a secret that the U.S. society is obsessed with competition. This mentality has created an education system that continually pushes students to learn and achieve at high levels. Which isn’t necessarily bad. Our system, that is based on competition and ranking, is very good at creating a huge group of students who excel and thrive in very advanced mathematical courses.

However, we have become so focused and intent on pushing our kids to learn more and more, that we create a hole in actual student understanding and their natural progression of learning.   It is starting to become common practice to put 5th and 6th graders into Algebra, which I think is crazy, unnecessary and detrimental!  U.S. kids are very good at following steps and getting the correct answer, but they have no idea what those answers mean or how they can be applied to real life situations.

And while all U.S. students are exposed to much more mathematics than the average Finnish student, this doesn’t mean they actually understand or retain all of that math information.   And many can’t keep up with the impossible standards. Thus, we have the flip side to the American coin. We have a massive amount of students, especially in less affluent States and communities who are failing math completely.

In the spitting image of our American economy, we have a large successful group at the top but an even larger group at the bottom who pull our collective score below international averages.  Finnish academic performance also reflects its economy. Everyone does well or at least okay and so the collective scores are high.

It is no accident that academic achievement mirrors the country’s economic structures.  We will never fix our broken education system in the U.S. until we fix our broken economic system.  Students will continue to fail academically as long as they live in fear, hunger and poverty- no matter what educational reforms or policies we enact.  To the most extent these roadblocks do not exist in Finland.  All students are fairly equal in terms of provisions and care at home.  Most Finnish students come to school feeling safe, fed, loved, wanted and ready to learn.

However, I wonder if this “everyone is doing okay, so lets not worry about it” mentality is going to be a problem for Finland in the future. I have visited several math classrooms all around Helsinki and I often think that there are a handful of students that could be pushed to learn more and perform at higher levels. Perhaps a little more competition and challenge would be healthy for Finland’s youth.   Like everything in life, there is usually a happy medium.

 2.  It isn’t about Calculations, Formulas or Factoring!

Math classrooms in Finland do not focus on calculations, solving algebraic equations, or what I would call formal mathematics. In fact I visited a 9th grade honors classroom where students were learning how to calculate the volume of a triangular prism for the first time. They were also struggling with what I would consider basic algebra concepts that would be simple to my 7th graders.

However, It didn’t take me long to recognize that Finnish math education isn’t overly concerned with calculations or formulas. The kids in Finland don’t do rows and rows of algebraic problems. They don’t sit around factoring complex equations for months on end. They are taught more practical skills and ways of thinking about and learning mathematics.

And if you take a look at the PISA questions you can quickly see why Finnish students are succeeding and U.S. students are failing. The questions do not look like the questions on an American math exam. There are no equations to solve or problems to calculate.

I recently took the PISA exam out of curiosity and to my surprise it looked more like a logic exam than a math exam. There were no what I would call “pure” math questions. They were all logical real life questions. I could do most of the problems in my head. All I had to do is sit and think the question through rationally and use my previous experiences and knowledge of the world to help me work out the problem. I didn’t reach for a pen and paper once to calculate or solve.

This is the KEY my friends. The PISA exam does not measure a students ability to solve a mathematical equation or calculate the answer to a directly given math problem.   It doesn’t require factoring skills or differentials.   The mathematics used in this international assessment of “What students should know” is actually fairly simple and straightforward every day math.

The math itself is not complicated or difficult. The students must read the problem, assess the situation, and figure out the answer. And the Finnish students who have been treated more like adults than children have more real life experiences from which to pull to problem solve. They have been given independence at a young age and have therefore figured out how to deal with real-life issues and problems on their own.

They have also had an education system that has not spoon-fed them all of the answers. They have learned how to read through a problem, think it through logically and actually attempt to find an answer before they give up.

The U.S. needs to focus less on actual drill and skill in mathematics and work more on problem solving and logic.  Our students, who are very good at solving equations and doing calculations, have no idea WHEN to use one equation/ calculation over the other. Yes, they can apply their good calculation skills 30 times in a row, but being able to read a problem and identify which calculation should be used in a given situation is a different story altogether.

Also we need our students to actually read the math questions and not give up when they see a paragraph. They need more mathematical literacy skills and less “formal calculation” skills if they are going to compete globally.

 3.  Physics, Physics and More Physics

In any given week in Finland I will meet or talk to more people who have a degree in physics than I have met in my ENTIRE life in the United States. I swear- everywhere I go in Finland I find someone who studied physics or is currently getting their PHD in the impressive and very allusive field.   It is crazy to me- Physics is not something that is very common in the U.S.

I am a math teacher. I have a degree in mathematics and I have never taken a physics course. Ever. The physics teacher in my high school was crazy so I avoided her class. I therefore was too intimidated to take a college level physics course and opted to take a chemistry course for my science requirement instead.

The concept of Physics is terrifying to most Americans. We don’t know it, we don’t understand it and we assume it is a field for only the highly gifted and talented.  While it is common for U.S. students to take ONE physics course in high school, it isn’t a requirement. They also are not exposed to very much physics before the age of 16.

However all children in Finland take physics as part of their regular curriculum. As early as 4th or 5th grade Finnish students learn the basics of physics. They have a physics class every year in middle school and high school. Most of the math teachers are also qualified to teach physics.

It is a common subject and one that does not breed disdain and fear. In fact many of the students I have questioned or interviewed stated they actually prefer their physics classes to their math classes. Why? They prefer physics because it is actually APPLIED mathematics. The students can see how math is being used, applied and how it is relevant to the actual physical world in which they live.

When you look at the questions being asked on the PISA test the questions are more geared toward an understanding of physics than actual mathematics. This is the huge difference.

While American 15-year-old students can calculate circles around Finnish students, they are clueless when it comes to physics and mathematical application.   Our students don’t know how to properly apply the math they know so well. Where Finnish students, who have had years of physics classes, understand the questions being asked and know how to apply their knowledge of math in a real and logical way.

Learning by Doing! 11 Life Lessons learned in a Finnish Classroom.

IMG_0283_2We don’t make anything anymore.  Don’t get me wrong- I know there are several talented crafty people in this world who have dedicated their lives to creating beautiful and functional works of art.  However, in today’s world of instant gratification and consumerism, it is unusual to find someone who creates most of their own possessions.

When was the last time you wore a homemade outfit? When did you last build shelves, a stool or a doorbell on your own? Why would you waste your time and energy building something that you could easily buy at the store for less than it would cost to buy the tools and materials to make?

The art of creation is slowly dying. No one sews, or builds, or does their own wiring anymore. If something is broken, instead of fixing it, we simply buy a new version of the deceased article. Woodworking, sewing and knitting are becoming obsolete archaic skills that do not have a place in our world…. let alone our classrooms.

We don’t have enough time to teach the basics of math and English.  Why would we waste time on knitting? Yet, these so called archaic skills are at the FOUNDATION of Finnish Education.

One of the aspects of Finnish education that has made the most sense to me as a math teacher has been the early focus on something called Craft Education.   From as early as 1st grade, students spend a few hours a week learning how to do useful handy skills such as sewing, woodworking, knitting, cooking, cleaning, sawing, drilling, hammering, and much much more!

Finland does not see these basic skills as outdated or obsolete.  Instead they recognize the immeasurable value in teaching a child to create something from scratch. I spent a few days observing craft education classes and I left feeling like I had found the missing link to education!

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My education in this area started in a 4th grade class where students were sewing mittens on a SEWING MACHINE!  The class started with the students sitting at their desks.  They had already retrieved their projects and were waiting eagerly to get to work.

The teacher introduced me to the class and then she simply said, “Ok, you may start working.” The students immediately sprang into action.  They didn’t ask her a million questions of what was next, or what they should do. And even though they were all at different parts of the construction process, they all knew what they personally needed to get done and they got to work.

After the 4th grade textile class I went downstairs to watch the corresponding 4th grade woodworking class.  Here the students were making doorbells.  They had made the wood frame from scratch, nailed it together and were now in the wiring process.

11059636_10100111927759286_2444284735660780765_nI watched as a 4th grade boy used a soldering iron to weld together two small wires in his doorbell.   The teacher was not even in the same room!   The teacher had taught the processes previously and simply trusted the student to follow the instructions.

I then visited a cooking class, a knitting class, a cleaning class, and another woodworking class.   The more I saw of craft education the more convinced I was of the fact that this is Finland’s hidden gem when it comes to education.

What can we learn from Finland’s Craft Education?


1.  Strategic Planning:

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Behind any created object there is usually a game plan or design. It is imprudent and almost impossible to start making anything from scratch without a strategic and logical plan of action.  The development and understanding of a strategic design is the foundation of craft education and a very valuable part of the education process.

Craft education helps mold and develop the child as a strategic and logical thinker.  It provides the student real life applications though projects that allow them to create a blueprint to find a solution to their problems.  These are not skills that can be gained from memorizing facts from a book. And you can’t regurgitate this information on a test.

Instead it trains students’ brains to naturally conquer tasks in a systematic linear progression. This is what we want our students to be able to do at the end of their academic career.   Yet it can only be gained from the practical application of doing something, building something and creating something.    Finland understands this.

2.  Problem Solving

IMG_0193We can all agree that creating a strategic plan is essential to fixing or building anything in life.   However, we also know that things don’t always go perfectly according to the plan.

There are inevitably going to be problems and obstacles along the way.  This happens on a daily basis in a craft education classroom.  And when something goes wrong with a student’s project it is up to the student to figure out how to fix it- not the teacher.

The students in this type of classroom are constantly forced to adjust and then readjust their plan along the way.   This was most apparent during my visit to a 7th grade woodworking class where they were piecing together the wooden boxes they had spent the last several months creating.

The students were learning the skill of joinery, a method that uses no nails just a precise series of interlocking joints. This technique requires precision and careful attention to detail. The students worked diligently because they knew each side must be measured and cut perfectly.

However, when they put the boxes together some noticed the joints were not fitting as well as they would like. Therefore they needed to figure out which parts to chisel off in order to create a perfect fit.    They saw a problem and they had to figure out how to fix it.  This is how problem solving should be taught.

 3.  How to Properly Use and Respect Equipment

IMG_0306Something that I found really intriguing was how skilled the students were at using the tools and machines necessary to perform their needed task.   Sometimes these were very dangerous or complex pieces of equipment.   I saw students using equipment ranging from soldering irons, jigsaws, drills, hand saws, hammers, expensive sewing machines, ovens, industrial sanders and much more.

Yet the students used these tools independently with skill and respect.   This is due to training the kids at an early age how to follow set guidelines and procedures when it comes to using a tool. (Again this is a very valuable skill set for any employer.)

I told a group of third grade students using a sewing machine how impressed I was with them and that I had no idea how to use one let alone how to thread a bobbin.  They thought that was hilarious.  I am an adult after all! I should know how to thread a bobbin!  Any child can do it.  Thankfully a 3rd grade boy took me over to his sewing machine and showed me how it was done so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself next time.

In the wood working class a few students asked the teacher if they could use the industrial sander to finish their box. The instructor said yes and showed the students how to use this very intimidating tool.  He demonstrated with a piece of wood that it would take less than two seconds to sand off the top part of their fingers and how to avoid that accident. Then he left them to do the task on their own. I was amazed.

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It should also be noted that this is also due to Finland’s underlying trust in students. My American mind was in a state of panic most of the time I was in a woodworking class. I kept thinking- You can’t trust a 7th grader to run that dangerous machine without an adult supervising his every move! However, the teacher trusts the students to follow the safety procedures and guidelines.   It is expected that the student will follow the rules and therefore the teacher allows the student to actually do the work.

Not only do students know how to use the equipment they are also trained in how to take care of and clean the equipment. At the end of the day the students are expected to clean and pack up all of their tools. This is another valuable lesson.

4. Independence

IMG_0379Craft education teaches students how to think and work independently.   They have the freedom to make and learn from their mistakes. There is no micro managing in Finnish Education. The students know what they are supposed to do and are then given the freedom to do it. This is a skill that carries over into all other academic fields. I have noticed that Finnish students are very good at independent work and I think that craft education is the reason.

11144989_10100111927255296_1700566063936847604_nNot only does working on independent projects teach a student how to work on a task until it is finished, the skills themselves teach students how to be independent and do things for themselves.

At the beginning of a 5th grade class I noticed one girl got to class a little early to use the sewing machine. She had ripped her coat pocket on the way to school and needed to patch it up. She didn’t ask the teacher. She didn’t complain. She went to the machine, threaded the bobbin and fixed it herself.

5. Motor Skills and Focused Energy

IMG_0277Knitting and crocheting are also skills taught to all students at a young age. Again this sounds like a skill reserved for little old ladies not young nimble children. However, all of the recent neuroscience claims that there is a direct correlation between fine motor skills, hand eye coordination and the development of the brain.   It also teaches students to concentrate and focus. I have heard about teachers in Finland giving a knitting project to a boy who has problems with sitting still and listening in class.   This gives him something to do with his hands, teaches him to focus and also allows him to listen to the lesson.   This is a great skill to have! Plus, you end up with several beautiful scarves and socks.

 7. Gender Equality:  

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What I love most about craft education is that it takes away gender stereotypes. Both boys and girls learn how to knit and sew and cook. Both boys and girls learn how to woodwork and hammer and use power tools. They are seen as equally important skills and not just for one gender or the other.

11180297_10100111927544716_2445437988585592114_nI asked some boys if they liked their textile class. They said they liked the lamps shades they were designing and seemed to be genuinely proud of what they had created and how they had made it their own.

I talked to some girls about if they liked woodworking class.  They loved it.  They said they really liked using the power tools.  I asked them which one was their favorite.  The girl answered the drill.  She then went over to the cabinet got out two drills and she and her friend did a contest to see who could drill through a piece of wood the fastest.  My head was still reeling at the fact that these 3rd graders were using power tools!  I mean this is so cool!

8. Math Skills

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Ok, I had to throw this one in there as a math teacher. Students use a lot of math when they are measuring, designing and planning their projects. I saw a group of older students designing a greenhouse for the school. They were using trigonometry to figure out the angles of the greenhouses design and placement in the lawn.

They also use math when they are cooking. I can’t tell you how often I am amazed at the number of 7th graders in my U.S. classroom who have no idea how to use a ruler or a measuring cup. They simply have not been asked to use these objects regularly and they just can’t do it.

U.S. students never get to use math in real life applications. We don’t have time for it. The result is that students don’t see the practical use for mathematics and therefore disdain it as a subject. Sometimes I feel like we are too busy teaching students math to let them use the math.

Craft education allows them to see first hand how mathematics is used and applied in the real world. It shows students instead of just telling them that math is important and applicable to their lives.

 9. Patience and Perseverance

IMG_0382The projects the students are working on in these classes cannot be finished in one or two lessons. They are often the result of months of hard work. It often takes an entire term to do just one project. This teaches students patience and perseverance. We live in a society obsessed with instant gratification. Making something, especially something worthwhile, is often a slow and tedious process. Delayed gratification and the ability to stick with a project until the very end is an important life lesson to teach students.

10. Life Skills and Responsibility

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Home economics classes start quite young in Finland. This class is for all students and it teaches them to cook, clean, and plan healthy meals. It also teaches them how to shop, budget money and do personal finances.   These are all life skills necessary for the real world. (These are also great ways to teach mathematics!)

When I was observing a cooking class, one group of students finished before the others and the teacher asked them to pick up some materials from the store for the next lesson. She then gave a group of four 8th graders a shopping list, her credit card and sent them on their way. They left the school campus, walked a few blocks to the store, got the materials and returned 20 minutes later.

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Again, there is this all encompassing feeling of trust that does not exist in the U.S. We would NEVER allow students to leave school grounds in the middle of the school day unsupervised- let alone take a prepaid card and go shopping without parental consent! It just wouldn’t happen. We are too worried about lawsuits and accidents. I am realizing just how paranoid we are in the states.

11. Confidence and Pride

IMG_0290The biggest takeaway from my experiences in a craft classroom was the very apparent pride displayed on the child’s face as they showed me their project. They had made something. They accomplished something and they take great pride in that.

They also have the confidence to know that they can build or fix something in the future. There is no need to ask someone else to fix something that is broken. This self confidence and pride is a gift that will stay with them their whole lives. I have talked to some adults who remember their projects from when they were children. A 30+ year old man bragged about awesome soccer knee pads he made in middle school and how his children use them to this day.

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When you make something you take ownership of that item in a very unique and powerful way.   Finland understands the power of creating, fixing and building. It gives students the life skills and confidence they need in order to be successful in life.

IMG_0196It gives them the developmental tools to become life long thinkers, independent workers, strategic planners and logical problem solvers. Instead of removing these programs from our U.S. classrooms we need to be incorporating them at a younger age. Kids need to see the practical applications of their education.

Instead of just talking about the importance of problem solving or adding a few story problems to the end of our lessons, we need to actually give our students something worthwhile to create, to build and to call their own.   We need to let them USE their education.

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Learning for Learning’s Sake

educational-headerStudents in Finland are incredibly independent and self motivated.  When they are asked to perform a task they don’t wait for someone to tell them specifically what to do and how to do it.  They don’t feign incompetency so that someone eventually does the task for them.  And when something is put in front of Finnish teenagers they get started on it right away with almost a sense of relief instead of complaint.   It is as if most of them were simply waiting for the teacher to stop talking so they could start the work.

As far as I can tell, a typical Finnish student would much rather be working than listening.  I am not the only American teacher who has noticed this marked difference between Finnish middle school/ high school students and those found in the U.S.   We have all been initially extremely bothered by the amount of Finnish teenagers on their phones during classroom instruction.  Instead of listening to the class lecture, a good majority of the Finnish students are watching videos, playing games, texting or on facebook.  Most teachers don’t seem to mind and they definitely do not confront the students or redirect them during lecture.  ( To be fair, some teachers have a stricter cell phone policy than others, but on a whole in-class cell phone usage is a LOT higher in Finland than the U.S.)   As an American teacher seeing kids on their phones in class feels like bugs crawling all over my skin.  It takes everything in me to not ask the students to put away the video game and listen to the teacher.

I have asked a few teachers about this and they simply state that it is up to the student to decide if they want to listen to the lesson. It is not the teacher’s job to force them to pay attention.   The teacher then said that these students (14 to 18 years-old)  are seen more like adults than children.  They explained that it would be inappropriate to force an adult to get off of their phone or take a phone away from them during a professional lecture or meeting.   They give that same respect to these teenagers.  The phone is their personal property.  The students have the choice to listen or not listen and the consequences will be found in their overall marks.

That trust in the student to make their own choices is astounding and so foreign to me.   We have all heard the phrase; “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.”   However teachers in the US are trained to believe it is our duty to force everyone to “drink the water”.  It is seen as a personal failure if we can’t get our students to decide to learn.   I feel like the amount of students not listening to me in my class is a reflection of me as a teacher not a reflection on the students as learners.  In Finland it is the opposite,  the decision to learn or not to learn is made by the student, not the teacher. hmmmm.

All the same, it still really bothers me when they are playing video games/ watching movies during class lecture.   HOWEVER, those same kids who were distracting me the whole lesson with their phones put the phones away VOLUNTARILY when they are actually given something to do!  As soon as a tangible assignment is placed before them they start working and paying attention.  All of the phones get pushed aside and the learning begins.

They also know that these assignments are more than likely not going to be collected or graded.  No one asks how many points the assignment is going to be worth.  No one asks if it is going to be for a grade or how many of the questions they have to do to “pass”.   They are doing these assignments because they were asked to do them.   If they finish with the suggested math problems they may even look in the back of the book for more practice problems.

This is the exact opposite of an American classroom where kids pay attention (or at least pretend to listen) during the lesson, but then do not do the work after it has been assigned.   For some of them it is like pulling teeth to get them started on the work, others rush through and try to get it done as fast as possible without any real thought or effort.  During the work time is when they are tempted to be on their phones or talking to their friends.  ( Maybe this is also because we don’t give them any breaks during the day.)  They also inevitably ask me if the assignment is going to be for a grade and  how many points the assignment is worth.  They need to know to what extent the assignment will affect their grade, so they can choose if it is worth doing or not.

Grades are not that big of a deal in Finland.  I have tried to talk to some students and teachers about grades and how their grades are earned and it doesn’t seem to concern either the students or the teachers too much.  In Finland the competition for grades isn’t really there.  None of the students really know who makes “good grades” and who makes “bad grades”.  I mean they can tell you who is smart/ works hard, but the grades are not the “end all be all” of a student’s existence.

I know growing up I found most of my identity in those A’s I earned.  I worked like a maniac to make sure that I earned a perfect grade point average and I felt like a failure if I lost even a few points on an assignment.   It didn’t matter how much I actually learned on that test that was an A- instead of an A+……all I could see were those points I missed and I instantly tried to calculate how much it was going to affect my overall grade and how much I needed to do to earn more points to compensate.

This is our problem.  We have trained our students in the U.S. to see an assignment in terms of monetary value, where grade point average is the currency.   Even the best students don’t do the work because it is going to help them learn, they do the work because it is going to give them points (money).  In a truly American style we have systematically removed all intrinsic value of learning and exchanged it for a capitalistic incentive.

Those with A’s have worked hard, earned the points, put in the hours and hours of work and by all measurable means are “successful”.  Those who don’t care or buy into the grading currency system didn’t do the work because it isn’t important to them to save up “A”s in the bank.   And no amount of coaxing them to do the work will help.  They simply don’t care what is in their academic “bank account.”   They don’t see how that “bank account” is going to help them in the real world and they don’t want to waste their time doing what is perceived as arbitrary work.

The book Freakonomics describes the social implications of exchanging a moral incentive with a fiscal one.   The book says that when society gives a monetary value to something that was once perceived as a moral obligation, society looses that moral obligation forever.   The book talks about how a daycare, who was fed up with tardy parents, started charging a late fee. However, the fee made parents more likely not less likely to be late.  Before the fee, parents felt guilty for being late and really did make an effort to be on time.   However, the fee took away the moral obligation in the minds of the parents.   The fiscal incentive was not as strong as the moral one and once the guilt was removed parents were willing to pay more to have their children stay longer.  The daycare took away the fee and tried to go back to as it was before, but what they discovered is that once that moral incentive was taken away, it was gone for good.

In our grading focused, exam-centric, data driven education system we have removed that moral incentive to learn from our classrooms.  In an effort to “trick/ force” our students to learn we assign points and grades and homework.  Hundreds of points can be assigned to one project if we really want them to do the assignment.  What we gain are stressed out students with too much homework,  teachers with tons of grading and students who simply give up.    We give our students all of these inauthentic incentives to do the homework but we never show them WHY they need to LEARN the material.

I wonder what would happen if we took a page out of Finland’s book and we assigned less.  What would it look like if we took the pressure away from the students.  Maybe instead of  just trying to get the work done and fill in the correct blanks so that they can get the “points/ gold star”  they would think about the content.   Maybe instead of assigning so much work that they must stay up past midnight every night just to get it all done, we can give them a few assignments in class in which they can authentically attempt to understand. Maybe if we gave them the freedom and choice to learn or not learn , they would actually take school more seriously.   Maybe if we slowed down and did less, we would give the students the option to really learn the material and the content just for the basic joy of learning.  Maybe then our students would learn for learning’s sake!