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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 3.  Physics, Physics and More Physics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English is a Powerful Gift

IMG_2602The more I travel and work internationally, the more I realize what an outrageous blessing it is be a native English speaker.  It is a gift, a powerful gift, that I do not take for granted.  This incredible highly pursued and valuable skill is one that I inherited naturally because I had the fortune to grow up in an English speaking household and in an English speaking country.   This incredible advantage feels very much as if I have a secret key/open door through which I can easily and confidently communicate to the entire world.  I understand the profoundness of this advantage and I am thankful for it every day.

Last week I attended the 5th Annual Nordic academic conference on Subject Teacher Education.  This was a conference that brought together University researchers, professors and doctoral students from Universities in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark.   The purpose was to exchange ideas and promote the development of Nordic education.  The language that was used for this Nordic conference was English.  All of the lectures, Keynote speeches, PowerPoints, printed programs, signs and directions were all in English  Most of the discussions at the dinner table were in English.  There were over 250 different lectures and presentations and all were given in English.   Yet, I was one of only a handful in attendance who’s native language was actually English.

And I was suddenly reminded what an extreme gift and blessing it is to be a native English Speaker.  I could listen to the presentations easily.  I could process the presented information comfortably and rapidly.  I did not have the added challenge of many of my peers who had to translate the technical papers and jargon in their heads while  also trying to also learn and process the new information.  When I sat down to a dinner table full of a combination of Swedes, Finns and Danes I knew that the language of choice would be English.

At times I felt guilty that the entire conference was being led in a language in which I was one of only a handful in attendance could claim as their mother tongue.  This I am learning, however, is the way of the world.  English is becoming the instrument of global communication.  It is especially how European nations communicate to and with each other.

This was not the first time I had been made aware of English’s global presence in the world.  I have been to over 30 countries and I have never had any major difficulties finding directions, advice or even friendly conversation in English.  I have yet to visit a country where I could not find someone who understood at least a little English.  Some parts of China were a little less fluent than others, but I would usually be able to find someone (usually a teen) who could easily answer my questions and help me get back on the right path.

When I was traveling from hostel to hostel in New Zealand, there were times when I found myself listening to random conversations between international travelers.  These groups would included random variations of German, French, Italian and Dutch students and their vehicle of communication was English.   At first I had assumed everyone was politely talking English because I was in the mix.  However I began to notice that even when the native English speaker was not part of the conversation ( Instead she was rudely eavesdropping)  the medium of communication was still English.   Everywhere you go (Even Cambodia!)  information in English is readily available.  If you ask you can usually find an English version of any map, menu or information packet.

My experiences demonstrate to me that English isn’t going anywhere.  It is going to be the way in which nations communicate with each other in the future. Most researchers want their publications to be in English.  Most international companies conduct their business in English, and most international social events and gatherings are conducted in English.  I watched Euro Vision for the first time this year and most of this event was broadcast in English and most of the songs lyrics were English as well.  It can’t be escaped.   It is becoming the language of the world and it is being categorized as “Powerful Knowledge”.

At the conference a few of the keynote speakers alluded to the fact that in Education we must give our students the education skill set that empowers them.  As educators our primary focus should not be mere facts or even arbitrary skills.  Instead we should be selectively teaching Powerful Knowledge Skills that empower students to be leaders and innovators in the world.   English was included in that powerful knowledge skill set.

I feel a little conceited writing all of this as a native English speaker.  It sounds arrogant and elitist of me.  It sounds as if I think my language is the best language.  I DON’T!   English is a dumb language with silly rules!  It makes no sense and is not even very pretty- especially when compared to Latin based languages.   If it was based on beauty or logical structure I think Spanish would win!

It is not that I think English is a better language than any other.  There is however, no denying  that being fluent in English is a Powerful Skill.  It opens doors and possibilities than many languages of the world simply cannot.  Students around the globe want to know and must know how to communicate in English in order to be able to compete globally and advance themselves in their careers.

This isn’t new information to Europe.  Most of the world has known English is important to learn for a long time.  I just wanted to express my understanding of how truly blessed I am to have grown up speaking and knowing this language.   I want every native speaker of English to recognize how fortunate they are to be able to communicate freely and openly with people from around the globe.  That is a gift my friends, an amazing incredible powerful gift and we take it for granted.

I also want to thank all of my wonderful friends around the world who have graciously spoken English to me.  I understand this is not always the easiest for you.  I see all of the hard work and effort you are making to be my friend and communicate with me.  I appreciate your efforts and willingness to speak with me more than you could ever know.  I am always amazed and impressed by your ability to be so articulate, gracious, funny and warm in a language that is not your own.  I am so incredibly blessed and thankful for having you in my life!  You all are incredible and talented and I look up to you in so many ways!  I am impressed and humbled by your skill and I love you all!Screen shot 2015-06-01 at 3.57.30 PM

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 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!

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!