The five days in Finland impressed both Spivey and Roberts with not only the educational differences between that country and the U.S. but also the cultural differences which give rise to them.
Roberts said of life in Finland, “Everything slowed down,” explaining they saw few cars but many bicycles and showed a photo she took of an orchestra playing on a Finnish street.
“We talked to teachers on the tour and saw how much they thoroughly enjoyed their job,” Roberts said, adding the culture is built around being physically active and seeing the importance of not sitting for prolonged periods of time. “Their school day is two hours less per day and every 45 minutes they have a 15-minute break—adults, too.”
Spivey added it is a common sight to see children out with both parents, rather than just one and parents are incentivized to stay home with babies during their first three years—usually a year-and-a-half each until the child enters preschool.
“That part was very interesting,” Roberts said.
All of which, they agreed, leads into the educational system where teachers have more autonomy to teach with attention to each child’s needs and without mandatory assessments. There is, however, a test administered to each child at age 14 to assess the general type of work for which the child is best suited and it determines the track that child will follow—toward college or toward a career in the trades.
Teachers are required to obtain their master’s degree, but it is paid for.
“There is a large focus on play. There is no homework and less required curriculum,” Spivey said.
Roberts said not only teachers, but students, also have a great degree of autonomy.
“They have shop. We had that many years ago but it went away. The kids design their own projects and use saws and glue guns themselves. Responsibility comes with early autonomy,” she said. “The art room is amazing. There was a dress designed with chewing gum wrappers. The students are pretty much in charge of their learning.”
Another difference with schools in this country they saw was that reading is not taught until several grades after education starts, but Spivey said they were told many children come to that grade already reading.
Spivey said there was a national survey conducted in Finland which showed 90 percent of respondents respected education and held teachers in high regard.
The two also took note of some general cultural differences between Finland and the United States, looking at lifestyle issues.
“We saw healthy living. We did not see people overweight. In the park people were buying fruit, lots of fresh food in the market,” Spivey said. “It’s a different way of life.”
Roberts said they saw few large homes or shows of excess wealth.
“We did not see class separation. People live modestly. They are happy with the way they live. They live close to work and use public transportation. You do not see cars until you get way out of the city. It is a sheer number of bikes,” Roberts said. “There is not the theft you see here. Their attitude is, ‘I have mine, why would I take yours?’ We learned a lot about things that were not a part of the conference.”
The trip’s five days in Finland was mostly meeting people and touring areas to learn more about the educational system, but there were meetings and workshops in the Netherlands where speakers included Dr. Arun Ganahi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and president of the Gandhi World-wide Education Institute; Ndaba Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela and co-founder and chairman of the Africa Rising Foundation; and Dr. Lauri Jarvilehto, founder of Angry Birds, the most downloaded game in history.
Spivey, who frequently brings up the word “relationships” in her conversations said she learned even more about that topic from her experience in Finland.
“As a leader, I learned to take a step back, to pause and reflect,” she said, adding she tries to immediately respond to e-mails but has changed her thinking about those responses. She said she writes a response, but waits a short time to re-read it before sending. “Reflection is very important in relationships.”
While Roberts came home with some thoughts about ways education could be made better in this country based on what she saw on the trip, she said discussions with other educators brought good responses to some of the programs in the Talawanda District.
“It solidified some of the really good things we do,” she said.