Amanda Surrusco hadn’t expected the freedom. Maria Almeida hadn’t expected the differentiation. Kyle Conway hadn’t expected the trust.
Surrusco, Almeida and Conway, three of the four NIU College of Education student-travelers on the inaugural Educate Global trip to Finland this May, witnessed a school system quite unlike the ones they grew up in near Chicago.
May’s two-week immersion in the Finnish Comprehensive School Curriculum, Content and Language Integrated Learning Method exposed them to Finnish philosophies in classroom management, lesson planning and project work guidance, concepts they had learned about in advance.
But observing classrooms and practicing their teaching skills with first- through fourth-graders in Liminka, Finland’s Ojanperä School brought those philosophies to life.
“In the Finnish education system, they give a lot more independence and responsibility to their students,” says Surrusco, a senior Early Childhood Education major from Downers Grove.
“They let the kids roam around the school; they know when they’re supposed to be back, and there’s usually no problems with that,” she says. “Even with activities, like a scavenger hunt, they let them roam outside freely without worries. That’s definitely something I want to bring back to the U.S.”
Providing children such personal accountability “isn’t something we really do here,” Surrusco adds, “and I think it would be very beneficial. I’m not sure why we don’t do it. Maybe we don’t want to put that much effort into it, or we’re nervous that they might make mistakes, but they’re kids. They should make mistakes.”
For Almeida, the Educate Global glimpse at how teachers deeply comprehend and skillfully accommodate the abilities of each student opened her eyes to “see that there’s not just one way to do things.”
“We’ve been taught different methods, but seeing it in practice reminds me that every student is different. Every student has a different background. You have to focus on what they need from you as a teacher,” she says.
“My teacher gave them a math assignment on measuring liters and milliliters. When some students needed extra help, she printed out a worksheet, got them into a small group and worked with them,” adds the senior Elementary Education major from LaGrange. “Others who breezed through it were given an opportunity to work on another assignment – some of them were knitting scarves – but all of them were very productive. All of them were on task.”
Conway was impressed with the “relaxed” approach to classroom management.
“The trust between students and teachers there was incredible. You just don’t see that very often. The teachers are not constantly yelling at them, or harping at them to stay on task. Students respect each other, and they respect the learning environment,” Conway says. “They establish these relationships right off the bat, and students are more engaged to learn if they’re interested in what they’re learning.”
Almeida – Conway’s teaching partner in Finland – saw that as well. “You have to trust your students,” she says, “to work by themselves, to work in pairs, to go outside in the hallway and move around.”
Unique classroom configurations left a strong impression.
“Schools there look like Google offices. They don’t have the traditional lockers or desks,” says Conway, a senior Elementary Education major from Villa Park. “They have moveable tables and bouncy chairs. It was really cool. I didn’t feel like I was walking into a school.”
NIU students planned and delivered lessons during their second week at Ojanperä based on their first-week observations.
Surrusco and Amarine Quiroga taught about the four seasons and how birds migrate in accordance to those times of the year.
“We taught the lesson in English, and our teacher translated into Finnish if they had a harder time understanding. Second grade is when they start teaching English to the students,” Surrusco says.
“In the beginning, it was kind of hard because of the language barrier, but we split them up into groups to figure out what you do during a specific season, and they got more engaged in the activity because they were able to work together,” she adds. “Almost all of them were able to do it in English, which was amazing because they’re just starting to learn it.”
Almeida and Conway also taught about birds, focusing on the anatomy of the creatures.
The duo “used three common species that all of the fourth-graders knew, so it was mostly an English lesson: ‘beak,’ ‘feet,’ ‘wing.’ We showed them the word in English and helped them translate into Finnish so they could see both,” Almeida says.
“We used pictures and repetition – ‘Say the word after me’ – and sentence frames. Each student had different words to move around on their desk to make out a sentence: ‘The bird has a beak.’ Others would say, ‘The bird has a long beak,’ and things like that,” she adds.
“For students who needed help, and needed more reinforcement with reading and writing English, their sentences were shorter. Students who got it, and knew what they were doing, wrote longer sentences.”
“I wanted to broaden my horizons as an educator, and just to see a different part of the world, especially a different culture,” Conway says. “The host families were fantastic, the culture was very laid back and welcoming, and I gained the experience and the confidence to know that if I can do this in Finland, I can do it anywhere.”
He hopes to someday adapt the Finnish philosophy of providing several recess periods during school hours that offer rest but still require learning.
“I truly believe that education is the greatest form of freedom,” he says. “Being able to teach, especially younger children, that learning is a good thing that helps you to become a better person, and the best person you can be, helps us to instill that concept of lifelong learning and that knowledge is important to survival.”