Friday, October 26, 2012

Want more or want better?

My experiences over the past six weeks have led me to think about what people want in an educational system. What does it take to create a strong, reliable system that will promote learning, respect, and social responsibility? What I've seen in Finland is a system that wants better without more hours. The pupils go to school for 4 1/2 hours as 1st and 2nd graders, then about 6 hours daily from 3rd through 6th grade. This phenomenon of going to school for half a day and getting excellent results from the pupils is hard for most countries to wrap their heads around. Most countries, including the U.S., Japan, China, and Korea have taken the school day to fairly long hours and think this will get better results. This is the mentality that the U.S. has built  themselves around for decades. Working longer will get better results. Is this true?  Finland is showing everyone that this is not necessarily true. Not only are the pupils going to school for less hours daily, but the amount of time they spend on math, science, Finnish, history is only a couple of hours a day with the 7 and 8 year olds and approximately 3 1/2 to 4 hours a day with the 9-12 year olds. The rest of the day is comprised of physical activity, recess, creative time, lunch.

In the U.S. we pride ourselves on working longer hours to get more done. Do we really get more done? Could we get the same amount of work done in less hours if we focused on the task and then had a break. Focus on another task, then have a break. Leave at a reasonable time and relax at home. This high work ethic mentality has been taken to the U.S. schools as well. Finland children rarely take assignments home with them and they focus on learning content at school for less time with breaks in between. End result: better test scores and more productive learning across the students. Shouldn't we look at this phenomenon and consider making some changes in the U.S. schools? Parents, administrators, communities are crying out for change in the schools. We all know that more assessments is not the key, more time in a desk is not the key, less active time is not the key, but what are we doing? We're applying more assessments, more time in the desk, less time being active.  This equation continues to produce poorer results!

We need to consider this thought: Do we want to strive for more or do we want to strive for better? If we want better, then we need to coordinate our time on task to be focused and then have a break. If we want more, then we continue to do what we've been doing. Another way of putting this: Coaches for many years thought that keeping athletes on the practice field or in the gym for longer hours would produce better performance. What we now know: less time on the field or in the gym, but more focused practice produces better performance. This is the same mindset I want to see for the U.S. schools. Less time in the desk - more productive performance based on more focused learning. So I'll end with the question I began with: What does it take to create a strong, reliable system that will promote learning, respect, and social responsibility? This is not an easy question, but it needs to be answered. Good luck thinking it through.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Sports and Culture: The Vision

My week has been full of many different facets of experiences related to the Finnish educational system. I started off Monday observing in a traditional grades 1-6 school, Tuesday and Wednesday at a grades 1-9 school, Thursday at Espoo with the preschool children in the forest, and today I was at the Finnish Sport Federation site. What a week of observation and learning!

Before today, I didn't really understand what the Finnish Sports Federation (FSF) represented for Finland. In the U.S. we have so many different elements related to sport from pee wee programs, to youth sport programs, to competitive school athletics, to the university athletic programs, club teams at the preadolescent through college levels, adult sport leagues, and finally professional sports. They are not all under the same umbrella. In Finland, they are. The FSF is multifaceted. Their main goal is to connect sport and physical activity to the community across the lifespan. They believe everyone should have the opportunity to exercise and do sports from all angles. The FSF, in partnership with the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) for over two years, shared an objective to find new techniques both for activating those who have not exercised and enhance a sense of community through physical activity and sport. What came of this was Vision 2020 which states that the "Finnish will be the most physically active sports nation in the world." They feel their role is to be the leader and coordinator of the many collaborative groups who will make this possible: Professional sports teams, The Finnish Olympic Committee, Finnish Paralympic Committee, and sector-specific groups (children, youth, adults). The communications director for the Finnish Sports Federation, Eila Ruuskanen-Himma, published an article stressing that in order for the Finnish people to become the most physically active by 2020, they are going to have to focus more on different lifestyles to capture the interests of the community. These lifestyles are described in much more detail in her article. The media can play a crucial part in getting the word out with different messages for the different lifestyle mindsets. I wish them well in reaching this goal to be the most physically active!

The Finnish Sports Federation's focus is for the whole lifespan whereas they have a branch of their system called Young Finland that was founded as its own entity in 1993 that focuses primarily on children. This association's purpose is to integrate more physical activity into the pupil's school and after school day. Their objective is to increase the pupil's will to exercise, create equality and attention for all, build honesty & open mindedness, introduce a balance of nature, and develop solid social skills. This Young Finland association (a staff of about 30) has concentrated on several concepts: being physically active, eating right, getting 9-10 hours of sleep, and limiting sedentary behavior. The following are some of the things they have promoted and emphasied through media outlets: that any pupil between the ages of 7 and 18 should be physically active for at least 1-2 hours daily and should sit less than 2 hours at any given time within the day.  Another emphasis of the program is to train peer instructors from grades 5-9 to work with the younger children. They have also influenced the schools to have one long recess per day of 30 minutes, whereas the others are 15 minutes each. I observed the pupils through a cycle of content classes and recesses and understand why they want one longer recess per day.

When the pupils would go out for recess each time, some would begin instantly playing different activities (soccer, tag, stand up scooters, or an activity called diapolo - see the video below). Many others would stand and visit for the first 5 minutes and then begin to break up into groups to play activities. It was interesting to watch this because it happened every recess that way. Since most of the time, the recess is 15 minutes, just about the time most of them would begin to engage in physical activity, it was time to go back in. With one longer recess of 30 minutes, the pupils could actually engage in activity for at least 20-25 minutes and really get some measurable physical activity in the school day.

A couple of things that were stressed today that I feel are important to their way of working sports into the culture: 1) they don't want sport to consume the younger child; they want it to be an avenue for being active regularly, and 2) they want activity or gym areas to be accessible for all ages who want to be active and can't afford to pay for access. Don't get me wrong. Many of the sports will cost to participate, but there are some offered that children can participate free or with a minimal charge (like 2 euros per session). This goes back to the equality emphasis that I have stressed previously which they are now emphasizing with sport as well. The government has given funds to the sports clubs budgets to be able to help children participate without fees for some of the sports. I think the U.S. has a very complex system for sport and trying to have one Federation that controls all of it is virtually impossible. I do, however, like some of the ideas they have that I think can be implemented with our kids to create a more active environment. You can check out what they do at this website: I have to warn you that only a little part of it is in English. Brush up on your Finnish!  Have a great week-end!

Monday, September 17, 2012

High respect for teachers in Finland

I have found that teachers and professors are very highly respected in Finland. All teachers have to have a master's degree before they can enter the classroom or the gymnasium to teach. At the elementary level, the classroom teacher is prepared to teach the content areas and one of the following three areas: physical education, music, or art.  For someone to teach strictly physical education, they have to get the master's degree in physical education and then they will teach at the lower (grades 7-9) or upper (3 years of high school) secondary school settings. There is only one university in Finland that educates students to be physical education teachers with the Master's degree needed. This is Jyvaskyla University. It is located about 3 hours north of Helsinki by train and has a population of about 131,000. Only 80 physical educators are trained at this university at a time in the Master's program and everyone of them has a job when they graduate. Each of the universities is highly selective with the students for each discipline, so these physical education students are the cream of the crop. There is a need for more physical educators, but they don't have the resources to train more than 80 per group at this university.  I will be going up there to observe in the next couple of weeks. This is such a different situation than in the U.S. We have plenty of university graduates in physical education and very few jobs for them. U.S. physical education specialized students have to be able to teach a different subject area in order to be hired most of the time as a teacher.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Crossroads for the U.S.

The United States has steadily dropped in reading, math, and science status for the past 20 years and presently muddles along in the middle of the pack on National and global assessments (Hancock, 2011), even though we continue to throw more money at schools and teach more and more to specific test standards (CDC, 2010). Physical education has all but been removed from the schools across the U.S. as a result of a trend that if we stay in the classroom longer, measure teacher competencies competitively, and teach to a test, we will ultimately be better learners/scholars (CDC, 2010). As a result, our children are becoming more sedentary, obese, and less academically skilled (Dan Rather’s Report, 2012). Research has shown that children who engage in physical activity and play will do better academically than children who are sedentary and less creative and active (Singh et al., 2012; Trudeau & Shephard, 2010). Finland is ahead of the curve with their forward thinking and educational model. The United States could learn from some of their ideas as we ponder how the next generation of children will learn better skills than the last two generations of children. The purpose of my visit to Finland is to observe the Finnish children in their K-12 school environment, take in the concepts and teaching strategies of the teachers in the K-12 school setting, and develop a model for integrating some of these successful concepts into pilot programs in schools across Texas. I began the observations this morning and will continue following the university students and the elementary, lower, and upper secondary students over the next six weeks.