Hei! from Helsinki: Rhonda’s Eisenhower Fellowship

When you arrive in Helsinki, it feels a little like entering the bar from Cheers. Hei, pronounced Heyyy! is the formal greeting in Finnish. I thought that everyone was really happy to see me. That, coupled with mild fall temperatures made for a very warm welcome to Helsinki.

There are three facets of Finnish education that inspired me to study here, and they have framed my meetings and conversations with local educators:
• Language immersion and bilingual education commitment. Finland has two national languages, Finnish and Swedish. The Swedish minority (about 5% of Finns are Swedish speakers) has successfully lobbied for legislative protection of Swedish language. There are Swedish schools for Swedish speakers and in Finnish schools, Finnish speakers can take Swedish immersion. In more recent years, Finland has added bilingual programs in Russian, Estonian, Spanish, and Chinese.
• Teacher training. Finland has three key components to teacher education that set their teachers apart in the global context: selective entrance into teacher education programs (top 8-10% of applicants are admitted), Masters degree in education is required for lead teachers in basic compulsory grades, training in pedagogy and research.
• Achievement gap on the PISA. Finland has been a top performing country for absolute achievement in the PISA exam, but what impresses me most, is that Finland has the smallest gap in academic performance between their highest income and lowest income students. How do they do it?!

I began the week on Hanasaari, a small island outside of Helsinki, that houses the Swedish-Finnish Cultural Center. Hanasaari is a lovely conference and retreat center, open to tourists and business groups and includes a restaurant, sauna, bikes, nature trails, and art installations. When I arrived there was a photography exhibit of painter, author, illustrator Tove Jansson as part of a country-wide commemoration of what would have been her 100th birthday. Tove wrote in Swedish and is most known worldwide for creating the Moomins (Moomit) for children and adult life lessons.


My intent at the outset was to listen and learn as much as possible about Finnish education (see above) and Finnish cultural context that supports their education expectations. During my first day of listening, I quickly understood two things: Finns are very humble, quiet, perfectionist people and many of them share a growth mindset. In virtually every meeting in Helsinki, educators were looking for practical ideas to address their own concerns and needs. That’s my kind of people! The spirit of thought partnership prevailed and I’m thankful for all of the candid conversations that we had last week.

After explaining the nature of the Eisenhower Fellowship and my primary attraction to Finland (see above), I basically asked each person or group the same question: Finland is currently living the legacy of what was planned for the education system forty years ago. What’s the vision for the next forty years? How will the education system need to change to serve the new generation of Finns?

In week one, my meetings had the following stated, complex and inter-related themes :
• Understand Swedish Minority Language with Svenska Nu (politics, social perception, protectionism, language immersion)

• The Ministry of Education and Culture‘s viewpoint (getting real about disaggregating performance data and implications for educational attainment and acculturation)

Parliament viewpoint(s) on education: (Social Democrats, Conservatives, Swedish People’s Party, True Finns)

University of Helsinki, Multicultural Education(how are teachers prepared to work with diverse populations in a Finnish context)

• School site visits (Swedish immersion, Chinese FLES, Finnish-Spanish bilingual)

I will write mini-posts about each of these later. The biggest unstated part of my fellowship is understanding daily culture and how it impacts political and societal beliefs and decisions. Finns believe deep,y in autonomy and are very trusting people. Finns trust their government (even when they may disagree), Finnish parents trust schools and teachers. Finnish youth trust adults. Finnish adults/parents trust kids. The greatest sources of evidence that I observed were around the logistics of schooling. The vast majority of students take themselves to school starting in first grade. You may see groups of neighbors or siblings walking together, but you’re just as likely to see individuals walking solo. Within any individual elementary school, classes, grades or cohorts of students report for different periods of time. First graders will typically have shorter school days and may go home alone at 1pm while their older siblings are still in school. Many schools have programs like Mosaic for 1st and 2nd grade, but by 3rd grade everyone goes home at the end of their daily schedule. Kids call/text their parents to check in. If you have three children in the same elementary school, they will likely have different start and end times from each other and may have different start and end times for different days of the week. Students are expected to know their specific schedule and manage their time accordingly.

This autonomy carries over into school day routines. Depending on school culture, classes may line up and be escorted from one class to another. In those schoos, teachers may leave the hallway line or classroom unattended while they attend to personal or professional needs (bathroom break, picking up supplies, etc). In other schools, elementary students are responsible to come in from recess and go to class alone. Teachers don’t pick up their class, monitor the halls, or redirect students during playtime. Students may arrive late to class with little or no attention from their teacher, other than, you missed the instructions. Imagine students going from completely self-directed play, dribbling the soccer ball up to the classroom door, crossing the threshold, and entering in silence and going directly to work. No late passes, no demerits, no stern but loving talk about accountability and respecting the learning environment. I don’t recall seeing anything that resembled a hall pass or any adult asking any child where they were going or what they needed. Students were purposeful and adults trusted them to be purposeful.

What does school culture in our schools resemble ? Why ? What would it take to establish a more trusting environment for students and teachers ?

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