Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Student counselling classes and meetings: Helping students find their way

There is a curious subject called Student Counselling in Finnish core curriculum. There are two Student Counsellors in every upper comprehensive school (Grades 7 to 9). What student counselling involves is to get students to start thinking about their future under certain guidance. In 7th grade, they learn how to learn. In 8th and 9th grades, they start considering their options for future. All ninth graders, and in some schools eighth graders also, obtain 2 weeks of work experience in some corporation, with a bit of help from schools. (I was told the community is generally very happy to cooperate in offering some unpaid internship opportunities). Each 9th grader gets to have a chat individually with the Student Counsellor and discuss his/her future path seriously.

The reason why that decision matters in Finland is after 9th grade, students split into two streams: high school VS technical school (roughly half half by statistics). High school is the general grammar stream, while technical school includes art, sports, design, hairdressing (and even plumbing I heard) etc. It's a lot harder to get into high school because they require stronger academic qualifications. But it is done on an absolute rather than competitive basis: in theory if you have demonstrated to be academically competent to handle high school and you want to do it, you will get a place. If you aren't ready yet, you can repeat a year and apply for high school again. In general only high school students can go to university.

So in many ways this is a much bigger decision than the S4 'stream division' I had to make.

This reminds me of how I made my decision to take science stream rather than arts stream in Grade 9 (ages ago). I made that choice without much thinking, but essentially for a few reasons: 1. science stream offered much wider choices in society and university subject choices; 2. the science classes were a lot better taught in my school; 3. Science subjects took less effort than arts subjects and i was quite lazy.

To a certain extent I regret that decision. While I think I only managed to come so far because I had taken science and got the grades, I would have liked arts subjects a lot more in retrospect.

The point I'm trying to make is that when young people make critical decisions in life, they rarely have the complete picture. It helps a lot to have someone go through the options and help them to make an 'informed' choice as far as possible.

On a more macroscopic level, this is essential to an efficient allocation of resources. Students are better informed about what they have to do in order to achieve their dreams. For example, if they want to be a designer, they need to take certain subjects in schools, that kind of thing. Opportunities are meaningless if they are not known and cannot be taken up by the 'right' people.

Having individual professional advice for everybody makes it more likely for students to know how to get to their desired paths of life.

I see this as a key aspect of the ability of Finnish education system to channel people into the right fields for them in society.

Self-respect: some food for thought...

I had a short chat with a teacher from Moision School at the train station before heading back to Helsinki. I shared with him my frustration with the education system in Hong Kong, and how teachers don't get the same respect as in Finland. He asked me this question: 'do the teachers respect themselves in HK?'

I gather he didn't mean to make a massive criticism about teachers on no basis. I myself can testify to the significant number of very decent and respectable teachers in HK. But his remark seems to suggest all the teachers in Finland in his opinion 'really respect their job as teachers' - it's quite something to say. He raised that question in a disinterested way and wasn't trying to boast about anything. This nonetheless touches on one of the critical reasons for the success of Finnish education system - good, responsible teachers.

All teachers of primary and secondary schools in Finland are master degree holders. Also teaching is one of the professions which is most competitive - only one in ten gets to be selected into teacher training schools. From my limited experience, I could see that a lot of them were definitely 'cream' of their society. They were qualified and interested in teaching and learning.

English teaching at Moision

English (grade 8) Esko Saarinen (a very bright class I was told)
Esko has done a lot to put the language into context I thought - you will see a lot of photos of different aspects relating to English culture or English speaking countries. They were stuck up all over the classroom.

An interesting thing was he played the radio in the background when students checked their work – he did not like silence. This also helped to immerse students in an English environment.

Esko's teaching approach is to teach the essential and leave the extension for the gifted to explore themselves more deeply. Students started with translation of Finnish into English, and teacher reads out the answers to the questions.

some quotes from him: ‘I don’t know if they like doing it, but that makes my life easier.’ ( I think he was being quite straightforward. This is referring to checking answers in class. It might intuitively sound boring, but if answers are checked together efficiently face to face, that can also be a quick learning process. It also saves the teacher a lot of time, which means they can spend more time on preparing lessons well. This of course works well only in environments where students are cooperative.

‘hurry up.’ (that gives me a strong impression of efficiency in finnish way of life, in eating, in checking their work, they seem to get so much done in an hour)

‘no problem.’

Esko reads aloud a passage in English, and the students read after him. then they started reading together with Esko. Esko reinforced their learning of the text by asking them to translate the finnish version of the text in short sentences into English, and playing with the text by substituting some words with others.

They also had a listening exercise of guessing the accent of the English speakers – this gives them more awareness about the world, eg Jamaica, India, new Zealand, Australian, American etc. I was amazed most of them could distinguish these different accents.

Leaving no one behind: special education and core education

The success of the Finnish system is its focus on basic education and its attention to students with learning difficulties, according to many. I talked to a science and maths teacher, who believes that the key is to teach the core, essential curriculum well, and ensure that all students attain a minimum standard. For the more interested and capable students, they can explore the materials themselves on the basis of a strong foundation.

Another aspect is the special classes for helping students with learning difficulties. They are put in a smaller group, and on average, the ratio of teacher to students is about one to five.

But special help does not mean answers are fed to students. In fact, a substantially similar teaching method was applied in regard to the weaker students in the sense that they are still required to try their best to deal with the questions and materials on their own. They try, and they get to check the answers. The difference is the teacher devotes more time and individual attention to each student, but that does not mean spoonfeeding or explaining everything to the student. For certain students, if necessary, they use special materials designed to lower the level of difficulty and impart the absolute minimum of knowledge.

Art class at Moision - professional painter teacher

Art class (Jarmo Lepistö)

The art students of the school are a lucky group to have a professional painter teach them! Jarmo works away in France and Germany from time to time and hold exhibitions abroad. He must be a great role model for students to look up to - a teacher with his own hobbies and interests to pursue in life. It's a pity I haven't been able to see more of the way he teaches other than the basic instruction of theories and methods about graphics.

I could see that he first taught the theories, and then told them several possible methods, and showed them model products that previous students have made. He also demonstrated the technique on the blackboard very roughly by sketching the drawing.

It reminded me of ex-libris, which is what I once did for my secondary school art classes.

Jarmo has his own website where you can admire his paintings.

Music lesson at Moision Koulu: steel band shows

Music class (Annika Viitanen, Grade 8)

Students were making posters about their own computer music products. They had worksheets for computer music which were guidelines for them for an entire year. Basically they all sat down to do their own work, and asked the teacher when necessary. (A bit quiet for a music class I thought, but this confirms the emphasis on independent learning.)

In grade 7, music is compulsory, and students learn about rock and roll history, guitar, bass, drum, singing, and a bit of music theory. From Grade 8 onwards, music is optional.

This school has a special music oriented scheme which continues the music training for students who mostly have begun their special music scheme since grade 3, and this scheme itself will be followed up on by high schools. Students learn about music history, singing, classical music, jazz, etc.

This is only possible because the municipal government and local community give a lot of resources. The equipment for computer music production (the keyboard and computer equipment) is very costly.

The school has quite a lot of music-related activities: choir training, 10 gigs and concerts every year. Music projects are common for other subjects too eg theatre.

They have also started a steel band, and I had a chance to see their steel band show. (they had only had 4 hours of group practice together, and started learning it two weeks ago – very impressive). It is not a difficult kind of instrument apparently, and Annikka has marked the notes on the drums so students can get the hang of it more quickly.

(unfortunately the video is not working at the moment because of technical problems...)

I asked the teacher whether she valued the inspiration of interest more than the honing of skills in musical instruments. She said this was a personal choice for the teachers, and she personally tries to strike a balance between the two. There is not much individual music instruction in the school because teachers don’t have much time, but when teaching in group, the teacher cares a lot about the holistic cooperation between the group and learning together on the same level.

Their philosophy is to give students enough time to develop their interests and skills in their instruments – rather than churning out young prodigies in music.

(Reflection: This is good for the kids who can’t stand a competitive training, and reveals their policy of equality rather than elitism. For the more able and interested students, they can generally thrive if there are opportunities to go a bit further. Finland has a significant number of music institutes for additional training for such students.)

Annikka herself is a substitute teacher for a year because the school music teacher is on maternal leave for a whole year. Annikka is a cellist and she has an interest beyond music in law and politics. I asked her how she ended up with music. She said the decision was straightforward for her when she first started playing the cello – she told her mother after the first lesson that she wanted to be a cellist. Things got slightly more complicated after she has started Turku Academy training, and she is considering some other options as well. Maybe further studies in law and politics. Money is one consideration.

Biology class

Biology class (Anne Martin, Grade 9)

Anne taught them the function and operation of the heart in pumping blood, with the help of coloured slides of heart diagrams and an overhead projector. Students got to try using the stethoscope, mechanical blood pressure monitor, and observe microscopic slides of heart tissues. That much is pretty standard science theory teaching plus experimentation.

The interesting bit was to see students' active participation in class. They asked interesting questions such as international trade of organs, and I saw the teacher showing the world map in explaining the related geography. Another question was why a person’s vision sometimes blacks out temporarily when one stands up quickly after squatting.

Anne emphasised relating the subject to their daily life to help students remember and understand.

Moision Koulu

Moision Koulu is located in Salo, about 1 hour and 10 minutes away from Helsinki by train. Salo is the town of the first mobile phone factory of Nokia, and hence a fairly well off area.

It is a upper comprehensive (offering Grades 7 to 9) with approximately 443 students.

Compared to the other two schools I visited, this school has a relatively homogeneous Finnish student population, with only 25 international students mainly from Russia.

There are a few special features about the school:
1. It has a special music programme for students with more talent in music.
2. It has a special computer science programme for students more keen on computer technology. Both programmes admit students by selection.
3. It has initiated a Comenius Project with Poland and Scotland for teachers to share their teaching experience. It has just started so it's still too early to assess its effectiveness.

A further note about the school - it is fairly resourceful because of the funds provided by the municipality as they can afford expensive teaching equipment (for music, art etc) and apparently they give teachers extra subsidies (which is fairly unusual in Finland). I was told usually one vacant position from this school would attract 50 or more applications.

And a big thank you to Anneli for agreeing to and organising my visit, as well as looking after me!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Englsh teaching in Finland(illustration from Meilahden secondary school)

It was a rather surreal experience meeting the English teacher, Riikka. As with other English teachers I met, they all sounded like native speakers, and had learnt their English in Finland. She only said she used to watch a lot of TV in English when she was young. (I have read and heard from various sources that the non-dubbing policy of foreign language programmes in Finland is a main reason why people's English standards are generally so high.)

But after having sat through an English class myself, I had a better idea of what it was that contributed to their success in English language teaching. As far as I can say there are a few reasons:

1. the high quality of English teachers. They learn from good examples, which is really important as imitation is always the first step in learning languages.

2. the appropriate curriculum and teaching materials: what they learn is directly applicable in daily life, thanks to the amazing publishing industry there. The authors and publishers are very enthusiastic about their work and liaise with teachers. I have read about how they could go through discussion meetings to revise the drafts by ten times.

It has very interesting topics like moving houses, pet, school, friendship like ‘what kinds of friends are you? what would you do if your friend told you a secret or you have promised your friend something?, shopping, music, sports, clothes, food, travel in the UK. I wish I had a book like that.

3. appropriate teaching method. They emphasise building a language immersion environment in primary school for kids to get used to the environment, and use it comfortably. More importantly, they adopt a communicative approach in establishing foundation by talking and listening, which makes the use of language alive. This has in fact been heavily criticised because it has been poorly implemented in many parts of the world.

Finland however does it differently in a way that strikes the right balance: they focus on grammar and groundwork in secondary schools. This suits children's general linguistic development quite well. Children first learn to use the language in daily life, and develop an interest in it. Then they learn the rules which consolidate their language skills and build a strong foundation.

Another special feature is they teach grammar with considerable Finnish. In Hong Kong, mixed code is frowned upon for fear that people can't speak either language well. (And I used to feel the same, but this trip has made me rethink!) It is a valid concern in many ways, but this begs the question - what kind of students are we catering for and what is the objective of language teaching?

Admittedly, if you want to be an amazing user of the language, you'd better learn to think in the language early on, and I agree with that completely. But not everyone needs to speak impeccably English.

I think Finland sets a realistic goal of ensuring that everyone understands the complexities within the English language. It may be too easy for some students and may interfere with one's linguistic development to a certain extent because of the use of another language. However, for many people, native tongue is the basis for learning to think and analyse. Resort to native tongue in teaching foreign languages can actually help students to grasp difficult concepts much more effectively than otherwise.

Having said that, the key is to understand the way native tongue is used in teaching foreign languages. It cannot be excessively relied on, and it shouldn't encourage any 'mixed' mumbo jumbo use of languages. I was impressed by the English teacher as she spoke each sentence exclusively in English first, and then in Finnish - as if she were playing the dual role of teaching and instantaneous self-interpreting. She hardly used any English word in a Finnish sentence and vice versa. So some food for thought!

cookery class: independent thinking and working together

It initially seemed no different from the cookery classes I had been through in HK myself, but after some observation I realised there are two interesting differences.

The teacher gave instructions and explained how to make the apple pie once. The teacher refused to give any demonstration. In this way students were encouraged to think for themselves how to make it and the teacher said ‘they were here to learn to think for themselves’. Teacher was of course there to answer questions and help out in small groups. (It's a bit like reading math problems in exercise books and attempting questions, and to be fair the recipe for apple pie is not terribly complicated!)

Another amazing thing was everyone got along really well and worked in groups. They naturally went around and helped each other out in other groups, very nicely. They were like a big family together, and would see how others were gettnig on.

And they were generous kids who liked to share ;) i got to try their apple pies as well, sweet! Another plus, the Finnish teacher didn't speak English, and I used my limited German to talk to her!