That time I visited 30 countries before I turned 30 years old.

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About six years ago I decided I would visit 30 countries before I was 30 years old. This obsessive goal of mine that ended up defining and directing my early twenties originally had more modest origins.   When I was 17 and relatively untraveled, I wanted to visit 15 countries before I died. I dared not ask for more than this. Traveling to 15 countries seemed about as likely as traveling to the moon to a 17-year-old girl from rural Indiana.

However during a college back-packing trip to Europe I officially caught the travel bug. And this expensive disease is not easily satiated. Like a race where the finish line keeps getting moved further and further away, the more I traveled the more I wanted to travel. I realized I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of all of the humanity, the history and the natural beauty God had placed on this amazing planet.

So as my experiences expanded and I matured into a veteran traveler my goal simultaneously grew and changed as well. Therefore at the age of 22 and with 10 countries under my belt, the humble goal of 15 countries in my lifetime suddenly became 30 countries before I was 30.

And so I had 8 years to visit 20 countries.  This may not seem like such an outstanding accomplishment to those living in Europe where international travel is common, cheap, fast and as easy as jumping on a train or taking a short flight. But to a girl from Indiana, where a large majority of the population has never owned a passport or been outside of North America, this rare aspiration seemed like my own personal mountain.

It was ready and waiting for me to climb, but its fulfillment required careful planning, strategic decisions, personal sacrifice, good money management, reliance on God and His faithfulness and the ability to recognize and seek out opportunity.

Today, through the grace of God, I accomplished this goal of mine. This morning I took a train from Stockholm to Copenhagen and when we crossed the bridge into Denmark I silently smiled to myself. I allowed myself to relish quietly in my personal triumph and say a quick prayer of gratitude for all God had done to get me to this point.  I know that I could not and would not have had any of these experiences without Him and His provision.  And I celebrated- I was in country number 30.  I had reached my personal summit and I had officially met my goal! And with two years to spare!

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As I think back on all of my experiences in 30 different countries I am amazed at what God has done in my life.  I can’t believe all of the outstanding ways God has blessed me.  I can’t describe all of the incredible places I have visited, people I have met and opportunities that have presented themselves.  I can’t express the gratitude that fills my heart as I look back on the past 30 countries and all of the life-changing-experiences, friendships and lessons they have given me.   I am truly blessed and truly amazed at the ways God has worked in my life and how he has provided me such amazing opportunities to see his perfect and beautiful creation.  I have had more than a life-times worth of experiences and I do not deserve such amazing grace, love and blessings.   However, that is what makes my God so fantastic!  He gives them to me anyway!

So…with a grateful heart full of joy and thanksgiving I realize I have reached my goal.  I have visited 30 countries!  Now, the real question is….  What is going to be my next mountain?

10 Tips on How to Travel Extensively with a Teacher’s Salary!

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I decided my first year of teaching that I would do something interesting every single summer vacation.  This usually means finding ways to spend a few months traveling the world.  I have been able to travel to 20 different countries since I have been a teacher to meet my goal of visiting 30 countries before I am 30 years old!   However, because I am a teacher, I had to find ways of doing it economically. The key is to think outside the box and find interesting alternatives to traditional vacations.   You must also have the follow through and drive to accomplish these plans.   You can’t sit around and wait for travel and adventure to knock on your door- that only happens to Bilbo Baggins. There are more opportunities out there than you could ever imagine, but you may have to do some leg work and research to find them!

1. Apply for grants and awards. 

One summer I got to visit 7 different countries in Asia as part of a self-designed independently conducted research trip to Asia. I got funding from an Indianapolis based company (Eli Lilly Foundation) that provides grants to teachers with interesting creative summer projects. With this special funding I was able to spend two glorious months learning about Asian education. Two years later I applied for a Fulbright research grant and I was selected to receive a Fulbright Distinguished Award in teaching. The amazing opportunity has allowed me to spend 5 months in Helsinki researching Finnish education. While these experiences sound intimidating and far-fetched, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there! My advice is to find out what opportunities exist in your own community. If none exist, don’t hesitate to ask! You are capable of so much more than you realize but you will never find out just how much you have to give unless you take a chance on yourself and try.

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1.  Find a summer job abroad

The fall of my second year of teaching I took an online course to become certified to teach English as a foreign language. I then found an organization that connected me to a Spanish family who wanted to learn English. In exchange for a few months of room and board I conducted a few English lessons a week and conversed with them over meals. The rest of my time was my own to travel and explore as I wished. This was an incredible opportunity to learn about Spanish culture, make new friends and get to live in Madrid for a whole summer for free.  There are great opportunities to get a short term working visa Australia if you are under the age of 25.  Plus- minimum wage in Australia is 25 dollars an hour!  Also check out WWOOF- New Zealand.  This allows you to live and work on an organic farm in New Zealand!  What an amazing experience.   http://www.wwoof.co.nz/  These are two great options for young teachers looking for amazing experiences!

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3.  Plan, Plan, Plan

While I simply abhor a tediously planned travel schedule and I often market myself as a traveler without a plan I actually send a lot of time planning my trips.   While the day-to-day activities are usually uncharted, unplanned and always open to spontaneous adjustments, I do usually have a basic agenda to most of my travels (i.e. what countries I plan on visiting and how I will get there. ) To accomplish the goal of 30 by 30 I had to spend a lot of time planning a logical path and plan for my trips. I always try to maximize my time and money while also visiting as many countries in one trip as possible.

This takes time, up front research and an ability to think globally. I had to train myself to think in terms of regions instead of countries. For example, while I was in Singapore I decided I might as well make a stop in Malaysia and Thailand. While I was living in Spain I took the advantage of the cheap transportation in and around Europe and I visited many different countries and cities.

It is much cheaper to visit nearby countries while you are already “across the pond” than to make a second trip back. If you want to get to a lot of countries in a short amount of time you have to plan and organize your trips in a way that capitalizes on both time and money. I suggest you always look at the area you want to visit and see if there are any nearby countries or areas you also might want to see. Then you must research and find the cheapest way to get there be it an economy flight, a bus or a train. Don’t be afraid to think BIG, but also know that it will require a lot of pre-planning and work to pull it off.

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4.  Get creative with saving strategies

While planning can cut back significantly on expenses, the travel bug is still an expensive disease and teachers do not make that much money. I had to get creative with my spending and saving habits. For example, before my two month backpacking trip to New Zealand, I did several money saving contests with myself.   For 6 months the only store I allowed myself to patronize was a Kroger, my local grocery store. I did this after I realized that if I entered other mega stores like Target or Wall-Marts I would inevitably be tempted to buy unnecessary items. Is shampoo and face cream more expensive at Korger? Maybe.   However I certainly saved money in the long run because I only bought household necessities like food and toiletries. I also went a few years without cable, only let myself go to the grocery store once a month and didn’t allow myself to turn on the heat until after January 1st for 4 consecutive years. Now, these contests with myself were a little extreme, but these strange self-challenges did end up helping me save enough money to spend my summer in New Zeland and Australia. The key is to be creative! Think of fun ways you can cut back and save money.

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5. Don’t be afraid of budget travel.  Hostels are your friends! 

You learn pretty quickly that you do not have to stay in a fancy resort to have a great time in any location. I suggest staying in hostels to anyone and everyone. I know I know….sleeping in a room full of strangers sounds like a nightmare to most Americans who are used to building a wall of protection between themselves and anyone who is a little different. Yet, we go to summer camp as children. We sleep next to strangers on airplanes. Why are hostels any different? I promise they aren’t scary and they aren’t dirty (usually) and you won’t get killed in your sleep. If you do your research you can find pretty awesome Hostels- even ones with private rooms! Plus all you really need is a place to sleep and shower anyway. Everything else is superfluous luxury.   So why pay 100 to 200 dollars a night when you can pay 20 dollars a night for the same thing and travel 10 times as long?   Also in a hostel you get to meet new exciting people who may have great advice on what you should see and do.   See- Hostels provide built in friends!

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6.  Say “Yes” to experiences and “No” to things.

I decided a long time ago that I would spend my money on experiences, not things. Things can rust and rot and be lost. Experiences stay with you forever; they become a part of you and help mold you into who you are destined to become. Experiences are worth my time and money; things are not. I don’t have a house, a fancy car or any furniture. I have either rented a small apartment or lived with a roommate. I am fairly content with hand me down items and free or really cheap garage sale finds. If I am tempted to buy something I often ask myself if I will still want/ need this item in 6 months. I also put the item in terms of a percentage of a plane ticket. I look at a new set of decorative curtains and think….that would be half of a plane ticket somewhere or a new dress and think….that is ¼ of a flight to New York. Ultimately I would much rather have a memory of an incredible experience than a new outfit or household item.

Now…while I just told you to fiercely save your money- you can’t be afraid to spend it on exciting opportunities, exciting adventures or unique cultural experiences!   I learned the hard way back in Venice that it is better to do what you want to do on your travels than to experience the later regret of being at a location and not “going for it”. When I was in Venice I decided that 40 Euros would be too much to spend on a gondola ride. I can tell you this- I would not be regretting or mourning the loss of that 40 Euros now- what is 40 Euros in the scheme of my life? However, I do regret the fact that I was in Venice Italy and I didn’t get to explore the canals via a gondola. I now have the desire to go back and rectify this regret and I can assure you it will cost me a lot more than 40 Euros to make it back to Venice.

Ever since Venice I have always had the mentality of spending my money while I am on my travels- Travel is what I saved it for after all! I might as well use it. Now while I would never condone going into debt for travel, I don’t regret spending all of my savings on experiences.  It isn’t unusual for me to end my summer travels with around 100 to 25 dollars left in both saving and checking accounts.   Even with only 12 dollars in my back account, I have never ever regretted a single dime I spent on travel or experiences. I do not wish I had more money. I can always make and save more later in life. Money is common and I wouldn’t trade all of the things I have been able to see and do in my life for a giant pile of cash in my bank account.

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7.  Don’t be afraid to travel alone.

If I had waited for someone to be available to go with me on every one of my adventures I never would have gone anywhere. While there have been moments where it has worked out for a friend to go with me, more often than not I was going on these adventures on my own. And I have learned to actually prefer solo travel. You meet so many more people when you are traveling alone than when you are focused and dependent on a companion. Plus there is the added benefit of getting to make all of the decisions, having total flexibility according to your whims and fancy and time for personal self-reflection. You also learn to rely on God to send you help and guidance in different forms along the way.

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8.  Make “stranger friends”. 

Stranger Friends are random people I have met on my travels. These friendships might be fleeting in length but essential and no less true than the ones formed in more traditional settings and with more natural tenures. These friends have helped and guided me on my way. They have given me advice, companionship and at times they even provide a place to stay for the night. We have shared meals and experiences and have become great friends. Sometimes I only meet these stranger friends once, we visit for a short amount of time and then go our separate ways. However, sometimes we become great friends who invite you to visit them in their country someday. And suddenly the woman you met on the street in Barcelona inspires you to come visit her in New Zealand. These random people you meet-these stranger friendships- often give birth to new adventures and experiences and locations.   And you will miss these experiences if you don’t have the courage to start talking to that stranger on the street or on the bus. 9 times out of 10 they are more than happy to talk to you- They just think you don’t want to talk to them.

9. Make personal sacrifices and decisions

Although I am pushing 30, I don’t have a house, a husband, a family, a dog or even a plant to my name. To be a true world traveler you do have to give up the need for some stability and commitment.   These have been choices I have made for the time being. And while there are times I think I might want these things, I have decided that for everything there is a season and right now my season is travel. Perhaps I can get these things in the future.   Or maybe I will never be able to surrender the adventurous, commitment free, nomadic lifestyle I have come to love and treasure.   The truth is that it would be very difficult to have the typical American dream (husband, house, kids, dog, plant) and travel at the same time. And for right now, I choose travel.

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10.  Remain Thankful, Content and Open.

The best advice I could give anyone who wants to be a globetrotter is to learn to have a constant heart of thankfulness, contentment and gratitude. I know that I could not have had ANY of these experiences without God providing and guiding my every move.  He is the one who gets all of the credit and the glory for everything I have been able to see and do.  I am so thankful for all of his provision, love and guidance.  He also thought me how to be content in any situation.   If you learn to be content in any situation you will never be stressed or dissatisfied with anything that comes your way.   When you travel things will go wrong.   Things will be confusing and things could get stressful if you don’t have the right mindset. The key is to be content, and thankful! If you are simply thankful for any and all experiences negative or positive, you can’t be mad or stressed. You also need to be open and go with the flow. This not only limits the stress you might experience when faced with difficult or confusing situations, but openness also can lead you to unexpected adventures that exceed your wildest imaginations! My favorite moments in my travel have not been planned, but were in fact the result of being open to whatever opportunities came my way.

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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!

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.