11 Ways Finland’s Education System Shows Us that “Less is More”.

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When I left my 7th grade math classroom for my Fulbright research assignment in Finland I thought I would come back from this experience with more inspiring, engaging, innovative lessons.  I expected to have great new ideas on how to teach my mathematics curriculum and I would revamp my lessons so that I could include more curriculum, more math and get students to think more, talk more and do more math.

This drive to do more and More and MORE is a state of existence for most teachers in the US….it is engrained in us from day one.  There is a constant pressure to push our students to the next level to have them do bigger and better things.  The lessons have to be more exciting, more engaging and cover more content.  This phenomena  is driven by data, or parents, or administrators or simply by our work-centric society where we gauge our success as a human being by how busy we are and how burnt out we feel at the end of the day.  We measure our worth with completed lists and we criminalize down time.  We teach this “work till you drop” mentality to our students who either simply give up somewhere along the way or become as burnt out as we find ourselves.

When I arrived in Finland I did not find big flashy innovative thought provoking math lessons.  I did not find students who were better at mathematics or knew more math content.  In fact the Jr. High and High school math classrooms have been rather typical of what I have experienced in Indiana.  And most of the struggles (like students not remembering their basic math facts) were the same.  The instruction and classroom structure of a math classroom in Finland follows the basic formula that has been performed by math teachers for centuries: The teachers go over homework, they present a lesson (some of the kids listen and some don’t), and then they assign homework.  While some lectures have been wonderful and I have gotten to observe some fantastic teachers, I would say that on the whole I have seen more engaging and interactive secondary math instruction from teachers in the United States.  It is rare to see a math lesson that is measurably better than those found in my district and I have seen several that were actually far worse.

So, what is the difference?  If the instruction in secondary mathematics is the same or sometimes worse than those found in the US,  why are Finnish students succeeding and ours are failing?  The difference is not the instruction. Good teaching is good teaching and it can be found in both Finland and in the US.   (The same can be said for bad teaching.)  The difference is less tangible and more fundamental.  Finland truly believes “Less is More.”  This national mantra is deeply engrained into the Finnish mindset and is the guiding principal to Finland’s educational philosophy.

Less IS more. 

They believe it.  They live by it. Their houses are not larger than what they need in which to comfortably live.  They do not buy or over consume.  They live simply and humbly.  They don’t feel the need to have 300 types of cereal to choose from when 10 will do.  The women wear less make-up.  The men don’t have giant trucks (or any vehicles at all, really).  Instead of buying hundreds of cheap articles of clothing the Finns buy a few expensive items of high quality that will last for decades rather than months.  They truly believe and live by the mentality of less is more.

Conversely in the US we truly believe “more is more” and we constantly desire and pursue more in all areas of our lives.  We are obsessed with all things new, shiny and exciting and are constantly wanting to upgrade our lives.  Out with the old in with the new!  This mentality of “more is more”  creeps into all areas of our lives and it confuses and stifles our education system.

We can’t even stick to ONE philosophy of education long enough to see if it actually works.  We are constantly trying new methods, ideas and initiatives.  We keep adding more and more to our plates without removing any of the past ideas.  Currently we believe “more” is the answer to all of our education problems— everything can be solved with MORE classes, longer days, MORE homework, MORE assignments, MORE pressure, MORE content, MORE meetings,  MORE after school tutoring, and of course MORE testing!   All this is doing is creating MORE burnt out teachers, MORE stressed out students and MORE frustration.

Finland on the other hand believes less is more.  This is exemplified in several ways for both teachers and students.

Less = More


1.  Less Formal Schooling = More Options

Students in Finland start formal schooling at the age of seven.  Yes, seven!  Finland allows their children to be children, to learn through playing and exploring rather than sitting still locked up in a classroom.   But don’t they get behind?  No!  The kids start school when they are actually developmentally ready to learn and focus.  This first year is followed by only nine years of compulsory school.  Everything after ninth grade is optional and at the age of 16 the students can choose from the following three tracks:

• Upper Secondary School:  This three year program prepares students for the Matriculation Test that determines their acceptance into University.  Students usually pick which upper secondary school they would like to attend based on the school’s specialties and apply to get into that institution.  I think of this as a mixture of High School and College.  (In recent years a little less than 40% choose this option.)

Vocational Education:  This is a three year program that trains students for various careers as well as gives them the option to take the Matriculation test to then apply for University should they so choose.  However, the students in this track are usually content with their skill  and  either enter the workforce or they go on to a Poly-technical College to get further training. (A little less than 60% choose this track.)

(But wait!  Shouldn’t everyone take calculus, economics, and advanced chemistry?!  Shouldn’t everyone get a University degree?!  No, not everyone has to go to University! Hmmm….. interesting….. What if we provided options for those who want to become successful (and very profitable) welders or electricians?  What if we didn’t force students who know that their talents reside outside of the world of formal academics to take three years of high school classes that they found boring and useless?  What if we allowed them to train in and explore vocations they found fascinating and in which they were gifted? What if we made these students feel valued and like they had a place in the education realm?)

• Enter the workforce. (Less than 5% choose this path)

2.  Less Time in School = More Rest

Students typically start school between 9:00 and 9:45.   Actually,  Helsinki is thinking of creating a law stating that schools cannot begin before 9:00 am because research has consistently proved that adolescents need quality sleep in the morning.  The school day usually ends by 2:00 or 2:45.  Some days they start earlier and some days they start later.  Finnish students’ schedules are always different and changing; however they typically have three to four 75 minute classes a day with several breaks in between.  This overall system allows both students and teachers to be well rested and ready to teach/learn.

3.  Fewer Instruction Hours = More Planning Time

Teachers have shorter days as well.  According to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development)  an average Finnish teacher teaches 600 hours annually or about 4 or less lessons daily.   An average U.S. teacher almost doubles that teaching time with an average of over 1,080 hours of in-class instruction annually.  This equals an average of six or more lessons daily.  Also, teachers and students in Finland are not expected to be at school when they do not have a class.  For example, if they don’t have any afternoon classes on Thursdays, they (both teachers and students) can simply leave.  Or if their first class on a Wednesday starts at 11:00, they don’t have to be at school until that time.  This system allows the Finnish teacher more time to plan and think about each lesson.  It allows them to create great, thought provoking lessons.

4.  Fewer Teachers  = More Consistency and Care 

Elementary students in Finland often have the SAME teacher for up to SIX YEARS of their education.  That is right!  The same teacher cares for, nurtures and tends to the education of the same group of students for six years in a row.  And you had better believe that during those six years with the same 15-20 students, those teachers have figured out the individual instructional needs and learning styles of each and every student. These teachers know where each of their students have been and where they are going.  They track the kids’ progress and have a personal invested interest in seeing the kids succeed and reach their goals.  There is no “passing the buck” onto the next teacher because they ARE the next teacher.  If there is a discipline or behavior problem, the teacher had better nip it in the bud right away or else deal with it the next six years.  ( Some schools in Finland only loop their elementary children for three years at a time instead of six, however the benefits are still the same. )

This system is not only helpful to a child because it gives them the consistency, care and individualized attention they need, it also helps the teachers understand the curriculum in a holistic and linear way. The teacher knows what they need to teach to get them to the next step, while also giving the teachers freedom to work at the pace of their students.  Teachers don’t feel the pressure to speed up or slow down  so that they are “ready” for the teacher next year.  Again, they are the teacher next year and they control the curriculum!  They know where the kids are and what they have learned and will plan according to the students’ needs!   I really believe this is a HUGE part of Finland’s success story and it does not receive enough attention.

5.  Fewer Accepted Applicants= More Confidence in Teachers

So……children have the same teacher for three to six years.  What if your kid gets a “bad teacher”?  Finland works very hard to make sure there are no “bad teachers.”  Primary education is THE most competitive degree to get in Finland.  The elementary education departments in Finland only accept 10% of all applicants and turns down thousands of students annually.  A person not only has to be the best and the brightest to become a primary teacher, they also have to have passed a series of interviews and personality screenings to get in.  So, it isn’t enough to be the smartest in your class, you also have to have the natural ability and drive to teach.

Finland understands that the ability to teach isn’t something that can be gained from studying. It is usually a gift and passion.  Some have it, some don’t.  The few universities with teaching programs in Finland make sure they only accept applicants that have that gift.  On top of excellent grades, and a natural disposition to be a teacher, all teachers must get a Master’s degree and write a Master’s Thesis.  This generates a lot of confidence and trust in Finland’s teachers.  Parents trust the teachers to be highly qualified, trained, and gifted individuals.  They do not try to interfere or usurp their authority and decisions.  I asked a math teacher how many emails they typically get from parents.  They shrugged and answered “About five or six”.  I said, “Oh, I get about that much a day too.”  They then answered…”No!  I meant five or six a semester!”  Again, what would it be like to live in a society based on trust and respect?

6.  Fewer Classes= More Breaks

As I stated before, students only have three to four (or rarely, five) classes a day.  They also have several breaks/recesses/ snack times during the day and these usually happen outside come rain or shine.  These 15 to 20 minute gives them time to digest what they are learning, use their muscles, stretch their legs, get some fresh air and let out the “wiggles.”   There are several neurological advantages for these breaks.  Study after study supports the need for children to be physically active in order to learn.  Stagnation of the body leads to stagnation of the brain and unfocused, “hyper” children.

The teachers also have these breaks.  The first day I was in a school in Finland a teacher apologized for the state of the “Teacher Room.”  She then commented on the fact that all teacher rooms must look like this.  I laughed and politely agreed, but in my head I was thinking; “What is a teacher room?”  A teacher’s room is what used to be called the teacher’s lounge in the U.S…back before they went extinct.  In Finland these rooms are always full of teachers who are either working, preparing, grabbing a cup of coffee, or simply resting, socializing, and mentally preparing for their next class.

Secondary level teachers usually have 10 to 20 minute breaks in between classes and often have a few skip (prep) periods as well.  These rooms are different depending on the school, but from what I can tell the basic formula is a few tables, a few couches, a coffee pot, a kitchen, a selection of free fruit and snacks, and teachers to talk and collaborate with.  A few of them even have massage chairs! Ha!

So, why don’t these rooms of collaboration, support and solace exist in the U.S.?   We do not have TIME!  Every day we teach six to seven classes in a row with no breaks.  The three to five minute passing periods we do get are often used to answer emails from parents, erase the board, get ready for the next class, make copies, answer student questions, pick up the mess left behind by the students, and (heaven forbid) go to the bathroom!  If we have a spare moment we are then expected to monitor the hallway because we can’t trust students to get to class without supervision.  The luxury of actually sitting down for 10 minutes and enjoying a cup of coffee with some colleagues is an absolute dream, and having a day with only three classes—that is a fantasy!

7. Less Testing = More Learning

Imagine all of the exciting things you could do with your students if there wasn’t a giant state test looming over your head every year.  Imagine the freedom you could have if your pay wasn’t connected to your student’s test scores.  Imagine how much more fun and engaging your lessons would be!

Although it still exists, there is overall less pressure on the teacher in Finland to get through the curriculum.  The teacher is simply trusted to do a good job and therefore they have more control over their classroom and its content. The teacher is able to take more risks and try new things and create exciting, engaging curriculum that allows students to become skilled individuals ready for the real world.  They have time to teach skills that allow students to develop into individuals who know how to start a project and work systematically to accomplish a goal.  They have time to teach craft education where students get to learn how to do real life skills like sewing, cooking, cleaning, woodworking and more!   And while they are learning these amazing skills they are also learning math and problem solving and how to follow directions!

8. Fewer Topics = More Depth

I have observed several fifth through ninth grade math classes in Finland.  I have looked at the curriculum covered over these five years of education and I realized that I attempt to teach the content of five years of  Finnish math education in one year.  Each math topic presented in every grade level I have observed here is include in my seventh grade curriculum.

Again, the American mentality of “more is more” simply does not work.  If I am to get through everything I am expected to do in one year I have to introduce a new topic/lesson every other day and I always feel “behind”.  Behind what, I am not sure, but the pressure is there pushing me and my students along.  In Finland, teachers take their time.  They look deeper into the topic and don’t panic if they are a little behind or don’t cover every topic in the existence of mathematics in a single year.

Also, students only have math a few times a week.  In fact, after Easter Break, all of my seventh graders only have math ONCE a week!  My heart still panics a little when I hear this!  I can’t believe that is enough math time!  How will they be ready for the tests?!  Oh— wait.  There are no tests.  There is no need to rush through.  The students get to actually understand the material before they are forced on to a new topic.  One teacher showed me a course book and said that it had too many topics for one five week grading period.  I looked at the entire book and had to stifle a chuckle because it essentially covered what would be found in ONE chapter from my textbook.  Why do we push our kids in the U.S. to learn so much so quickly?  No wonder they are stressed out!  No wonder they give up!

9.  Less Homework = More Participation 

According to the OECD, Finnish students have the least amount of homework in the world.  They average under half an hour of homework a night.  Finnish students typically do not have outside tutors or lessons either.  This is especially shocking when you realize Finnish students are outscoring the high performing Asian nations whose students receive hours of additional/outside instruction.  From what I can observe, students in Finland get the work done in class, and teachers feel that what the students are able to do in school is enough.  Again, there is not pressure to have them do more than what is necessary for them to learn a skill.  Often the assignments are open-ended and not really graded.  Yet, the students work on it in class diligently.  It is very interesting to see what happens to the students when they are given something to do.  The students who were not listening to the lesson at all put away their phones and start working on the task set before them.  Even if it is just a suggested assignment, they give it their full attention up to the end of class.  It is almost like there is an unspoken agreement: “I won’t give you homework if you work on this while you are in my classroom.”  This system has really made me think about the amount of homework I assign on a daily basis.

10.  Fewer Students = More Individual Attention

This is obvious.   If you have fewer students you will be able to give them the care and attention they need to learn. A Finnish teacher will have about 3 to 4 classes of 20 students a day- so they will see between 60 to 80 students a day.   I see 180 students every single day.  I have 30 to 35 students in a class, six classes in a row, 5 days a week.

11.  Less Structure =  More Trust

Trust is key to this whole system not structure. Instead of being suspicious of one another and creating tons of structure, rules, hoops and tests to see if the system is working, they simply trust the system.  Society trusts the schools to hire good Teachers.  The schools trust the teachers to be highly trained individuals and therefore give them freedom to create the type of classroom environment that is best for their individual students.  The Parent’s trust the teachers to make decisions that will help their children learn and thrive.  The Teachers trust the students to do the work and learn for the sake of learning.   The Students trust the teachers to give them the tools they need to be successful.  Society trusts the system and gives education the respect it deserves.    It works and it isn’t complicated.   Finland has it figured out.

Less IS More. 


Finland: A Society of Trust.

IMG_0924Imagine a world where you simply expect everyone to follow the rules and do the right thing.    This is a world where mothers leave sleeping infants in their strollers outside of little shops while they run in for a quick purchase.   This is a society where all school doors are left unlocked and public transportation basically operates on an honor system.  It is simply assumed that you have already paid to ride the bus or tram.   Here you can see children as young as 7 or 8 years old calmly riding the public bus/tram to get themselves to and from school or walking/ skipping down the street alone.  Parents simply expect their kids to make the right decisions and also trust society to be looking out for their child while they are in public alone.   Here you can leave your things at your seat in a cafe while you run to the restroom and it is perfectly normal to leave your toddler for an hour at a public park that has an designated “overseer” who watches the kids play.  Here you can accidentally leave your wallet on the bus and someone will find a way to return it to you the next day, which happened to my friend.   To the people in this world the worse case scenario does not even cross their mind.   Why would they expect someone to take their child?  Why would they expect someone to abuse/ misuse the system?

IMG_1740I find this faith in society absolutely refreshing.  However, sometimes this Finnish dedication to following the rules can be almost comical.  For example,  there was once a group of about 20 people standing on both sides of a one lane road.  The cars were clearly stopped at a red light and the walkway was free and clear, yet the walk signal said stop.  Everyone, 40 people in all, just stood there two full minutes  staring at each other one car width apart waiting for the walk light to turn green.  I could see the internal conflict playing out in the Finnish people’s minds and faces….should we break the rules and just go or should we wait?  Even though it was painfully obvious we could go, we all collectively waited for the green light. photo-1 I asked someone about this phenomena where the Finns ALWAYS wait for the green light.  They explained it to me that they are setting a good example for the children who can’t judge the situation as accurately as an adult.  If you always wait for green not matter the cost, you know you and the children are going to cross safely.  This reasoning has helped me wait more patiently in such a situation as described above.  I do it to set a good example for the children, to keep them safe.  And with that mindset waiting an extra minute or two does not seem like a sacrifice.

The trust found in society is especially apparent to me when I observe Finnish schools.  The amount of trust given to students has been the biggest shock to me during my time in Finland.  First of all it still floors me when I can just walk right into a school, any school, and it is unlocked.  IMG_0032I often find kids roaming the halls or grounds freely.  If they don’t have a class or if they finished their work early they are allowed to leave.  The set up of a school day, even beginning in 4th grade  is more of what we find in college.  The students have different classes every day.  Some mornings their first class begin at 9:45 and then they finish at 2:00.  Some days in the week they start earlier and they can leave at noon or 1:00.  I don’t know how they keep track of what classes they have when because they are constantly changing.  Yet they do!

IMG_0028Sometimes  in middle school and high school the kids have skip periods in the middle of the day.   They are free to leave the school and go get lunch, or go home or simply chill in public places around the school and get some work done, got outside and get fresh air…or nap!   This is why it is not uncommon to see kids just hanging out in the hallway.   As an American public school teacher, this makes me panic a little.  In my head I keep thinking, where are you supposed to be?  Who is in charge of you right now?  I am realizing that this “in Charge of” mentality only exists in the US because our litigious society has to know who to blame should something go wrong, because heaven forbid we blame the student!

This trust extends to the classroom instruction as well.  Teachers trust students to do the work the students need to do to learn the content.  The very first math class I observed, I was shocked when it was time for the teacher to assign the homework.  She said,  ” You might want to try the following problems to make sure you understand before the test.  You can start with a few problems in this section that seem interesting to you, if those are too easy you might want to try this harder section.  If you finish with all of those, there are more examples in the back of the book you can look at.”  The most amazing thing was that ALL of the 8th graders started working.  They were all working on different problems and NONE of them asked  “How many do we have to do?”  or, my personal favorite,  “Is this for a grade?”   They were trusted to do the work they decided for themselves was necessary….. and they did it!  They weren’t doing it because they had to to get a good grade, they were doing it because they wanted to learn.  That is the biggest difference I have noticed.  The students work on the work that is given to them out of an intrinsic desire to learn the material and do the task presented to them.

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This underlying current of trust and faith in society is apparent in every aspect of Finnish life.  It will occur often as a theme when I describe more about the Finnish Education and Finnish teachers.   It is important to understand this about the Finns if we are going to understand their education system.

A Finnish Easter with Bonfires, Mämmi, Mignon Eggs, and More!

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IMG_0060I was told before and after moving to Finland that the overall population of Helsinki was not as religious as the population of Indiana.  So I wasn’t sure what I should expect of a Finnish Easter.  I knew that from the beginning of March there were beautiful Easter displays in shop windows.  Fazer, the major chocolate company of Finland and a major national obsession,  had the most beautiful Easter display in their windows.   It was full of chocolate (obviously) and colorful eggs and chickens and rabbits and bows and color and flowers.  It filled me with hope of spring!   Even when it was cold and snowy, I would look at the window of a flower shop and just pretend like it was a nice 50 degree day with sunshine and cheer!

Here at the Fazer shop (and really everywhere in Finland) they 113307594_07c5b072ab_mf0eac681bc8036fd319e443d6e4ed820were selling what I thought were regular eggs.  However, they were actually Fazer Mignon eggs!  These beautiful Easter eggs are a strong Finnish Easter tradition.  They are made by hand in the Finnish Fazer factory by cutting a small hole in the bottom of a real egg and then sucking out all of the egg and replacing it with chocolate/hazelnut/almond nougat inside the real eggshell.   So, when you crack open what looks like a hard boiled egg you actually find  a solid chocolate egg that tastes very much like solidified Nutella.  I am bringing several of these home for my cousin’s children and I am going to tell them that this what all of the chickens lay in Finland…..Chocolate eggs!

So, while there is definitely a commercial side to Easter very similar to the U.S. with Easter Bunnies and chocolate and decorated eggs, it all seemed to  me to be made of higher quality content.  There was not a lot of flimsy cheap/ plastic looking Easter merchandise.  It all seemed to be done with a little more artistry and reverence.  Almost like they took the holiday a little more seriously.  I found it refreshing.   Then I found outIMG_0058 that the entire city shuts down Friday through Monday for Easter and I was even more impressed.  Very very few businesses and restaurants are open on Easter Weekend.  These business are not just closed on Easter Sunday but also Good Friday (which they call Long Friday) and the Monday after Easter as well.  Which is wonderful!  Some other ex-pats have had a hard time with this somewhat inconvenient halt to the city and I suppose it was a little inconvenient.  However, I loved the respect the holiday was given.  And I planned for the holiday and bought some groceries ahead of time and it has been fine.   I think the U.S. should reevaluate our priorities.  Do we really need to shop/ go out to eat on holidays?  Can we have just a few days a year where we stay in and be with family and do nothing?   Perhaps we could all do with a little more “inconvenience” in our lives.

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On Good Friday there is a tradition of having an Easter play of Jesus’ last night leading up to his crucifixion.   Every year there is a different twist to the story and this year it was done in modern times.  The disciples were all normal guys with common jobs from road construction worker, to police officer, to bus driver.  I thought this was very fitting.  Judas was a smooth looking businessman who betrayed Jesus for a briefcase of money.  I showed up to the performance about 45 minutes early and I am so thankful for that.  Even in the dark and the cold rain there were hundreds of people who showed up for the performance.   However, if there is one thing I have learned about Finnish people it is that they do not let bad weather stop them from doing what they had planned on doing….if they did, they would never get anything done!  As they say;  “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”  This I have found to be really true.

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So, Thankfully I got there early and I got to stand in the front where I could see everything.  This was particularly helpful because the entire thing was in Finnish.   The production started at 9:30 at night in a park downtown.  It was dark, rainy and ominous, which actually made me reflect on the darkness of the actual evening 2000 years ago.    The performance began with a song and a dancing angel.  The only word in the song I recognized was hosanna, and still it was moving and the dancing angel was captivating in a somber reflective way that brought me to tears.  IMG_0105Then they told the story of the last supper, Judas’s betrayal, Peters betrayal and all of the events that happened in the garden of Gethsemane leading up to Jesus’ arrest.   Somehow standing in the dark park in the middle of the night made it all seem so much more real.  It was as if I really was in the garden of Gethsemane.

After Jesus’s arrest he was led by modern looking soldiers down the path right in front of me to the Courthouse.  Then the large audience followed him on that path.  We were guided along the way through the dark city by angels and drummers.  Again, it was strange to be walking in the middle of the night with a giant crowd in the middle of usually busy streets.   Everything was usually open and vibrant and glowing with light, but tonight it was somber and silent.  The traffic had been redirected and the whole city seemed to be put on hold in order to focus on the meaning of Easter.  Finally the long procession stopped in front the courthouse.  Here they did the reenactment of Jesus’ trial with first the Sanhedrin IMG_0116and then with Pontius Pilot.  Again, this was done with a modern twist and so it felt like a modern day game show where the crowd got to vote for  the either Jesus or Barabbas to be released.   Pontius Pilot tried to free Jesus but the crowd voted for the Barabbas who was dressed in an orange prison suit and who looked liked a mass murderer.    After the trial, Jesus was given a cross and He, followed by the crowd of hundreds of people, was lead by police to the Helsinki Cathedral on Senate Square.  Here he was symbolically crucified next to two inmates.  The play ended with him saying “It is Finished”.  The lights went out and we were left to go home in the dark and the rain and in silence.

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Although the cross is where “It was finished”, I left feeling so thankful that it did not end there!  I am glad I knew, unlike those who where at the original Crucifixion 2000 years ago, that the story did not end with the cross but with an empty tomb!   Yet on my long, cold walk home I couldn’t help but wonder at how dejected alone and confused Jesus’ followers must have felt that evening.  However, we know the rest of the story!  We know that Jesus defeated death!  And because of that empty tomb we are all saved!   What a glorious day!  What a victory!

Saturday I attended a special Easter Bonfire at an open air museum on an island by Helsinki.  This is where I found out about some interesting Eastern traditions that are very different than the US.IMG_0176  For one thing, all of the children were dressed up as cute little witches with brooms and pointed hats and everything. It was like a weird combination of Easter Meets Halloween.    I suppose this started as an Easter tradition on Palm Sunday, where the kids go from house to house waving palm branches and reciting poems and songs in exchange for chocolate eggs.   This happens more in the country.  This Bon-fire in Helsinki is a way for the  kids to do that without going from house to house.  They lit the bonfires at 6:30 and then the children got in a line in front of the microphone and took turns singing songs.  It was really cute.  I disappointed, however, to learn that only one or two of the dozens of songs sung had any religious connections.   Another part of the fire is supposedly to scare away evil spirits and the bad winter weather.  I suppose this did not happen as it started to snow and sleet on my walk home from the fire.

imagesSunday morning I woke up and had some Mämmi for breakfast.  This is a traditional Finnish Easter dessert. It is made out of rye, water, molasses and salt.  It takes several days to make as the rye bread has to soak for several days to get the uhem…beautiful texture.  It is usually only had for Easter.  It looks like brown goo, but tastes like soggy raisin bran cereal.  It is served with cream and sugar.  It isn’t bad.  I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I need to eat it everyday or anything.   I think once a year at Easter would be good enough.  🙂

Then I set out for church.  I decided to try an large international church that was on the other end of Helsinki.  So I took a tram and a metro and I finally arrived, but the doors were locked.  Apparently the times listed on the website were wrong and I had missed the services.  Thankfully, as I was standing there a very kind family came up to me and suggested a small church to me.  They said the people were fantastic, but then warned me that it was not very traditional because it has guitars and drums and is non-denominational. The preacher went to school at Hillsong in Australia. photo And told me it was all the way over  near Kampi.  AND with every word they said my heart swelled!  It was EXACTLY  what I was praying for!  It sounded just like the churches I had grown up with and it was RIGHT next to where I was living!  God is just so good!  So I found this new church and I instantly felt like I was home.  It felt so right.  I had attended a few other churches in the area, but they were Lutheran and felt really formal….plus they were in Finnish.  I was lost.   This service was run exactly the way I was use to in Indiana and they had headsets with English translation.   I recognized all of the songs being sung and many of them were in English!  Everyone was so welcoming and kind.   I even won a prize during the sermon.   After the service, everyone went upstairs for more Mämmi, and I got to meet a lot of the members.  It was great.  I have found my Finnish church home!  I can’t wait to come back next  Sunday!  It has turned out to be a wonderful Easter!

A Cabin Dripping with Hygge, a Fireless Fire, A Journey over a Frozen Lake, and a Cannonball in the Snow: Lapland Day One

IMG_1065Lapland is a winter lover’s dream.  Seeing how I gravitate to all things cold, snowy and cozy, I instantly fell in love with this winter wonderland.  It was seriously like I entered into the secret world of perpetual winter as described in C.S. Lewis’ timeless tale the Lion the witch and the Wardrobe.  Everything sparkled with a perfect dusting of clean, fresh, white snow.  The homes, which stood in direct contrast to the the icy landscaped beyond, looked cozy, warm and inviting.  Even time itself seemed susceptible to the cold and seemed to pass in a natural and unburdened manner.  It was liberating to be free from the distractions and business of our age while we drifted back into the age of yesteryear.

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The Cabin was everything a cabin should be and I wanted to stay here for a month instead of one night.  I imagined myself vacationing here with my family in the future.  I could see myself sitting in the rocking chair next to a roaring fire place while safely watching the wintery exhibition displayed through the frosty windows.  It felt safe and warm and full of goodness and “Hygge”.  This Danish word pronounced “Hoo-ga” has no actual translation into English as it is a cultural feeling/ sensation.  IMG_0857

The closest translation for the word Hygge is and I paraphrase:  The feeling of complete coziness, fellowship and contentment you get when you are in a rocking chair next to a roaring fire, roasting marshmallows while holding a warm cup of coco in one hand and a warm cookie in the other with all of the people you love most in the world sitting nearby laughing and talking as you listen to Christmas carols and smell the pot roast that is in the oven while the snow gently falls on the roof of a moss covered cabin in the middle of the woods on a beautiful starry night.  Phew….say all of that in one breath! 

IMG_1034 Hygge is a word that needs to be introduced into our vernacular because the above definition is a little too long to put into an actual conversation and it is such a valuable concept!  The word that describes this feeling of complete happiness and contentment is hygge.   The warmth and glow of candlelight- that is hygge.   Sitting around a table talking and laughing with friends- that is hygge.  Curling up with your favorite book in your favorite chair and warm blanket- that is hygge.   And the cozy cabin we found in Lapland was dripping with hygge.  

IMG_1328The landscape beyond the cabin looked pretty great itself.  While I wish I had the luxury of wasting the day inside the cabin, I knew my time in Lapland was limited.    So I had to leave my cozy little haven of Hygge and explore.  The first thing I noticed when we first arrived to the Kakslauttanen winter resort was the dozens of sleds standing in attention outside of the main lodge.  I couldn’t wait to ride them.  I quickly found out that they were actually designed to transport luggage to the cabins and Igloos.  I did not let this stop me from having my fun though.

IMG_0922IMG_0951Then I set out to cross the open field just down the hill from my cabin….and halfway through crossing the “open field” I figured out it was actually a frozen lake.   It was at this point that I realized I had made a major mistake.  I suddenly noticed the bridge and wished desperately to be on that bridge instead of standing the middle of a frozen lake.  It wasn’t that I was worried that the ice would break and I would fall through.  The problem was the amount of snow on top of the ice.  Somewhere along the way I found myself standing in waist deep snow.   For a moment I had a hilarious flash forward of someone finally finding me in the middle of the night stuck in snow up to my armpits in the middle of a lake not being able to move…like a frozen Kelly Popsicle.  Thankfully this did not happen and I struggled through crawling and clawing my way across the lake….I am sure I looked really cool doing it too.  I also wished I was wearing snow pants not just regular jeans…… Anyway, I finally made it across the lake and I found the Igloo chapel, and the…well I am not sure what to call it but “iceberg” seems fitting.   Anyways, these were beautiful sculptures made out of giant piles of snow and ice and they drastically added to the charm of this little cabin village.

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On my way back to the cabin I saw a building on Fire…..There was smoke billowing out of the windows and edges and I was immediately alarmed.  I of course, went to the front desk and told them about the fire.  They said that building I described was their smoke sauna and I could enjoy a wonderful smoke sauna from 2 to 6 that afternoon.  I politely thanked them for the invite and left knowing I would never want to do a smoke sauna….ever.  It looked like my worst nightmare.

I finally returned to our cabin soaked and cold so I decided to make use of our private (regular, non-smoke) Sauna.  So I got in my bathing suit and sat in the Sauna….I don’t know what I did wrong but it didn’t get that hot.  Anyway,  I still wanted to do the whole jump in the snow thing.  So half way through my sauna I went outside in my bathing suit and did a cannonball into a big pile of snow.  This was not as fun as it seemed.  1) It was cold, like so cold it took my breath away.  (duh.)   2).  The snow was kind of hard and icy and I ended up with scratches all on my legs and arms.  3). It was so deep there was not a clear exit strategy.  I suddenly had to relive the whole lake fiasco of me crawling my way out of snow that was deeper than myself…. only this time I was in my bathing suit.  So, I would not recommend this to anyone who thinks it would be fun to see what it like to cannonball into a giant pile of snow wearing only a swimming suit.

Late that evening we were taken on a Reindeer sleigh ride through the Tundra under the most spectacular display of northern lights Lapland had seen in the last decade…..but that is worthy of a  blog post all on its own.   It was amazing and incredible but also very cold.

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We returned to the cabin that night wanting desperately to sit and warm up by a nice fire in the gorgeous fireplace.  However….making a fire turned out to be an exercise in futility.  I spent more than an hour, an entire box of matches, several flammable hair products an entire notepad of paper and several ripped pages from my book and we ended up with a big fat nothing in our fireplace.   I vowed then and there that the next time I visit the most perfect little cabin in Lapland I will either A)  know how to build a fire,  B)  have a husband with me who can build me a fire  or C) bring a fire starting log thing….they make those right?

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I didn’t let the lack of fire keep me from enjoying the hygge cabin…..for too long.  I am not going to lie I was a little bitter at one point.  I mean why had adults warned me my whole life not to start a fire and burn down the house or the forest.  I couldn’t start a fire even when I wanted to!  OBVIOUSLY it is more difficult to start a fire than adults let on and I should have just gone ahead and played with matches.  Oh- well.   I settled into my rocking chair and I finished knitting a scarf I had started on this trip and I simply enjoyed being in Lapland.  I knew that tomorrow I had another day of adventures ahead and I was so thankful for all that had happened to lead me to this point in my life because I have a wonderful life!

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Finland: Initial Thoughts, Experiences and a trip to Jyväskylä.

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Helsinki Harbor

I have been in Finland a little over a week now.   When I first arrived I was shocked to discover how warm it was. The Polar Vortex of 2013 followed by another historically cold Indiana winter had drastically changed my definition of cold. That combined with the fact that I was just a few hundred miles away from the Arctic Circle made me brace myself for truly glacial temperatures. I was certainly not expecting to be greeted with the mild(er) temperatures of Helsinki. Yet ever since I arrived the temperatures of this humid city has been comfortably shifting between 35 to 45 degrees. I have even slept with my windows open most evenings.

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Apartment Living Room

I arrived Wednesday morning and went straight to my apartment and it was perfect! (Blog post on the apartment coming soon!) I unpacked all of my things and set up camp for the next few months. I took a short nap and then I went out exploring that afternoon. I got lost a couple of times, but I eventually figured out how to get to the University. I also found Kampi (the main shopping center) where I could buy some essentials that I was not able to bring with me (EU hair dryer and hair straightener).   I also got a small amount of groceries and bought a bus pass and a Finnish Phone system. By the time I did all of this I was quite exhausted and I made the trek back home to my apartment. (I had not yet figured out the tram system and as I had reached my limit of learning new processes I decided it was just easier to walk.)

The next morning I woke up early and set out to meet my adviser. I got to campus early, met with the director for international students, filled out some paper work and then I and got the keys to my office. I had no idea I would have an office on campus! This made me realize how well respected the Fulbright program is in Finland. While this is quite an honor it also made me understand the level of performance that is expected from me during my time in Finland. This is when my insecurities started to rise. I suddenly began to worry that I may not be what they were expecting.

IMG_1028So, I was suddenly even more nervous to meet my academic adviser. Ever since he had been assigned to me I have been reading all of his papers and research in the field of mathematics education. I came in with so much respect for him coupled with the intense fear that I would disappoint him.   However, He was great, and helped me observe a math education course for first year education majors at the University.

Then we discussed my project. I instantly realized I was not as prepared to discuss my research as I had previously thought. I am in a whole different ball game when it comes to University level research at an institution as dedicated to academic research as Helsinki University. I left the meeting feeling very insecure about my abilities to perform at the academic level and produce doctoral level research. I realize now, that was partly my fault. I had not accurately communicated the expectations of my program goals or the level of my own experience when it comes to formal quantitative research.

I left the meeting feeling very tired and worried. It was probably a combination of jet lag, exhaustion, hunger, and my personal demons of intellectual insecurity. I also realize now that I had just had my first meeting with a Finnish person. They are not known to be overly talkative and enthusiastic. Many people had warned me that the first time you meet a Finn you might not think they like you. Looking back with a different lens perhaps he was perfectly receptive to my project. He just didn’t respond to it the same way an American would.

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View From Restaurant

Later that evening I met up with my adviser again and He and his girlfriend took me out for dinner to a very nice restaurant that overlooks Senate Square, the most beautiful and iconic spot in Helsinki. It took a little while to warm up, but once we did, we realized we had so much in common. The evening was perfect. It was full of laughter, fun and conversation. They told me about their incredible lives and I was able to entertain them with some of my classic “Kelly Day” stories. We also made fun how uncomfortable Americans (in general and me specifically) are with silence, while Finns think that silence is a perfectly normal part of a conversation.   After Dinner Dr. Hannulu took me for a walking tour of Helsinki and it was nice to see the city from the perspective of a native Finn. It is true what they say- the Finnish people are reserved when you first meet them, but once they open up they can be some of the most fun and inviting people in the world.

image_previewThe next day I got to work. While I am sure many of my insecurities were self imagined I also knew that I still had a lot to prove. Then there was also the added pressure of my looming presentation in Jyväskylä.  in just a few short days. Other than a short trip to Suolimena island with some newly made friends, I spent the next several days bunkered into my apartment researching, reading and creating a cohesive presentation.

Finally, the week of the Fulbright Forum arrived. I woke up early to catch my train to Jyväskylä, a small city in the middle of Finland. About 10 minutes outside of Helsinki, I realized how unique the capital is to the other parts of Finland that are not surrounded by the temperature moderating Baltic Sea. The rain I had experienced the past three days suddenly transformed into snow and I found a whole knew country that looked like a winter wonderland. The sudden difference was quite a shock. It was as if someone had drawn an invisible line in the ground and I had magically entered the land of Narnia.

As I watched from the train window I was suddenly enchanted by the Finnish countryside. It was covered with brilliantly white snow, perfectly green pine, quaint little farms and sprinkled with frozen lakes and ponds. I don’t know if it was just me, but the greens were greener, the snow was whiter and there were moments where I wished I was not in a high speed train, but in a one horse open sleigh exploring the powdery forests filling with quiet snow.

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Although there is a fabulous foot Bridge across the Lake in Jyväskylä, some local students still walk on the ice to get across to the University.

Once in Jyväskylä I check into my room, practiced my presentation for the umpteenth time and then headed to the town in search for food. I suddenly realized that the beautiful snow came at a cost. The city of Jyvaskyla does not salt or plow its sidewalks. Instead they sprinkle it with small rocks to give it traction to the many pedestrians and bikers who use these sidewalks daily. While this is a financially sound decision (especially considering the amount of snow they receive), it does however create a very cold and slushy 20 minute walk into the city center.   And while the view was gorgeous along a beautiful frozen lake, I was a little less enchanted with the snow than I had been while watching from my comfortable train window. I was also very hungry. In my feverish attempt to create an awesome presentation for the Forum I had kind of forgotten to eat in the past couple of day.

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Jyväskylä Harbor

I needed something good and something Hot. I wasn’t sure where to go. So I asked a woman on the street. In true Finnish style she went above and beyond the call of duty. She told me that if I allowed her to drop some things off at the post office she would then walk with me to the city center and help me find a good place. 11054502_991214752146_5336294002768095866_nSo after a wonderful stop at the post office we headed towards a Viking restaurant. She not only took me there, she followed me inside, helped me order from the Finnish menu and sat and talked to me while I ate. ( She had already eaten lunch.)   This was so incredibly kind and we had a lovely chat and visit. I think I made a real friend. Now, fully fueled and warmed, the walk back to the hotel felt a lot less daunting and I was able to enjoy the gorgeous Jyväskylä Lake.

That evening I was able to meet up with some of the other Fulbright researchers in Finland. We went as a group to visit the Alto Museum that showed the amazing contributions this Finnish Architect made to the world.  They are an incredible group of individuals and it is quite an honor to be counted as one among them. The U.S. Ambassador to Finland also made an incredible and inspiring speech to the Fulbright crew. This reminded me again how much respect and esteem the Finnish people have for the Fulbright program. IMG_1185

The next few days we did our presentations and I was immediately impressed by the breadth and depth of knowledge represented.   My presentation went very well and I am proud of what I was able to produce. I feel like I conveyed my message in an informative, clear and interesting way.   I left the conference feeling absolutely amazed by the individuals studying here in Finland.   I was inspired by the diverse and incredible projects presented. The topics ranged from the mechanics of wind turbines, the transformations in information technology, education reform all the way to the gene expression of the Stickleback Fish. It was clear this world is full of interesting, intelligent and passionate individuals and there is just soo soo much to learn from this world!

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I left the conference feeling like I had made many friends and I was ready to be a Fulbright recipient. I also left feeling a great sigh of relief. My presentation is over and while there is still a lot of work to be done I now feel like I have the freedom and time to focus in and do the work I set out to do over the course of the next five months.

But first I must visit Russia!

Tune in next time to hear about my exciting one day trip to St. Petersburg!

How Fulbright? Why Finland?

1538713_915985696776_2591682710804324384_nHow did I become a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher?  How did I end up here in Finland researching at the University of Helsinki?  Why did I choose Finland?  These are all very interesting questions and the answer is very simple.  God planned it.  He set out an intricate plan for my life.  He wove a very intricate trail of experiences that have led me to this point at this time for His purpose.

It all started with me wanting to spend a year in Bolivia in November of 2013.  Yes. Bolivia.  A country that couldn’t be more different than Finland if it tried.  I don’t know why in particular I wanted to spend a year in Bolivia.  Maybe I had just hit the 5 year slump as a teacher and felt I needed a change…… and teaching in Bolivia would be a real change.  I do know that in October of 2013 I suddenly felt very restless.  I had started dating a great guy, but I realized I didn’t want to settle down.  I was terrified of commitment and I wanted to do something else.  Something big.  I broke it off with him and knew that right now if a “normal” life with a house and kids was not what I wanted then I had better start pursuing what I did want.   I remember finally expressing this decision out loud for the first time to my group of girlfriends at our favorite restaurant in November.   I told them my fears of leaving a school I loved, but that I felt like I needed….more.  More of what I wasn’t sure, but I know I needed change and a challenge and Bolivia seemed like as good as place as any.  I could learn Spanish. It would be cheap.  And that was all I knew.  I had literally just picked Bolivia out of thin air, as if I had just picked it out of a hat. I knew it was in South America, but that was about it. The following weekend I told my parents I was planning on spending a year in Bolivia.  I didn’t have a plan or a reason, however I have the most supportive friends and family in the world and they told me that I needed to follow my heart!

So, I had finally made my proclamation and verbalized the fact that I wanted to move on to something new. Now I just needed a game plan.  I remembered that a woman I had met  randomly in July 2013 when I was researching in China suggested I looked into researching for Fulbright.  I was telling her about my project in Asia and she said a Fulbright placement was just right up my alley.   I  hadn’t heard of it before, but I wrote it down and thought I would check it out later.   God had sent her to me all the way in China to plant this seed in my head.  However, He usually has to drop me several hints before I recognize His plan.  Then last October (2013)  I found myself back in Idaho with my great aunts visiting my great uncle.  Idaho is where I go to recenter myself and this trip meant so much for several reasons.  During my time there, I was starting to discuss my feelings of unrest with my Uncle.  He also brought up Fulbright.

IMG_0763So a few weeks  later when I was looking up opportunities in November of 2013, Fulbright was fresh in my mind.  I started trying to find a Fulbright placement in Bolivia.  I didn’t meet the requirements for the placement, as I would need a PhD.  I decided it would be easier to switch programs than get a PhD.   So, I started looking down a different rabbit hole.  I looked into other Fulbright placements and found myself in a placement described the Fulbright Distinguished Award in teaching.  I read the description of what this program did and I KNEW this was for me.  I JUST barley made the requirements.  You had to have 5 years of teaching experience.  I was currently in my 5th year.   You needed to have a minimum of a master’s degree, which I had JUST completed thanks to a seemingly random and quick decision on my part 18 months earlier. I just kind of woke up one morning and signed up to get my master’s degree.  I literally went to work one day not even thinking about going back to school. Then I got an email advertisement for a program through Purdue and signed up that afternoon.  It seemed like a whim, but it was God working everything out!  He had me start and finish my degree just in the nick of time!

So, I met ( barely) the Distinguished Award in Teaching criteria, but there was one problem.  They didn’t have a program in Bolivia.  So, I started looking at where they did offer this program. I looked at the list and Finland instantly jumped out at me.  I didn’t know much about Finland so I started to research and read about its education system and became mesmerized and obsessed.  The more I read the more excited I got about the prospect of studying and learning here from some of the BEST educators in the world.  I discovered that Finland was one of the few countries where girls out performed boys in mathematics and I knew I just had to figure out what they were doing to support female development in math!   So I sent a text to my parents and my friends:  “Change of plans:  Finland, not Bolivia.”   Yes,  like Finland, Finland!  And they were all instantly relieved.

So, I started the application that fateful morning!  And as I did I started to laugh and cry at the same time.  I prayed that God would use this, and I thanked him for leading me to this point in my life.  I was so filled with joy at the prospect of going to Finland and researching here, but more importantly I was filled with absolute glee at knowing I would be fulfilling God’s plan for my life.   I thanked him for that and my heart was in a state of reverent worship and total giddiness as I wrote my application. I seriously sat there laughing and crying because I knew….I just knew that God was going to make this happen for HIS glory!  And if He didn’t, he had something even better planned.  The absolute joy of knowing God is in control of your life is truly indescribable.   He was in control not me.  I don’t have to be perfect.  And although I just barely met the criteria for this award, I knew that if He wanted me to go He would make it happen!   This became even more apparent to me when I botched the interview.  I did not do very well on the interview, but I am so thankful for that.  If I had done well, I would have been tempted to give myself the glory.  However, God gets all of the glory here!  He worked it out even though I was/ am imperfect and I messed up.   This is the beauty of our God!  He uses imperfect and messed up people like me to fulfill His purpose and to bring Him glory!

IMG_0815So, why am I here?  I am here because God led me to this point.  That is all I know for now…and that is good enough for me!  I know that without a question of a doubt.  I just pray that I am open to the opportunities He sends me to expand His Kingdom and bring Him all of the Glory and Honor and Praise forever and ever!