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NewsFeb 5, 2019

Lessons from a week in Scandinavia

Lesley students explore celebrated educational systems abroad

Group picture in front of school building in Finland.
The Lesley group takes a photo outside of a school they visited in Espoo, Finland.

By Georgia Sparling

Students got a glimpse of the near-mythic educational practices of Finland and Sweden during an enlightening week abroad in January.

Fifteen participants joined education professors Lisa Fiore and Frank Daniello on the trip, which included stops at one of Finland’s top primary schools, the Finnish Board of Education and the University of Stockholm.

Students stand in front of a building in...?
Elise Ward, Sarah Williams, Lindsey Scott, Suman Kaur, Yirui Su and Lina Ma on an island known as Museum Island in Stockholm.

“We were dispelling some myths and misperceptions and looking at what we could learn to compare with our system,” Dr. Fiore said. “It’s not that what we saw in the classroom looked dramatically different, but the vibe – the cultural and the societal belief in the role of the teacher and what they’re capable of – was fascinating.”

First, let’s clear up one common misconception about the famed Finnish education system: Finnish teachers do, in fact, assign homework to their students. That aside, the Lesley group observed many of the most touted academic practices with an eye toward how they might influence their own educational experiences in the U.S.

Group photo in front of Helsinki Cathedral.
The group visits Helsinki Cathedral.

The group found that teaching is a sought-after career in Finland, with only 15 percent of prospective educators achieving the distinction. Because of the rigor required to become a teacher, there seemed to be a higher level of trust in them to craft their own curriculum, compared to the United States. There are also no teacher evaluations, at least at the school the Lesley students visited.

“Pay is similar but the respect value is higher,” noted Dr. Fiore. “Once you’ve made it to be a teacher, your administrators trust you.”

Special education and English major Sarah Gimmi paid particular attention to Finland’s SPED practices and was impressed by the provisions for children with learning disabilities. At the school they visited in Espoo, Finland, she noted that children with special needs were integrated into classroom activities but also given room to learn in their own way — such as privacy screens and earmuffs for kids who get easily overwhelmed and overstimulated.

Two students in front of the Sibelius Monument in Helsinki
Yirui Su and Lina Ma visit Sibelius Park in Helsinki.

“If a kid gets the one-on-one help they need, that can change their entire worldview at the same time as [giving them] independence to do what they need to do,” said Gimmi, a junior.

Also different from the U.S., Finland has no standardized testing, and while there is a general curriculum, educators have freedom to teach it as they choose.

The absence of more specific guidelines was tough for Lesley student Yirui Su to embrace.

“The Finnish system don’t have criteria, which makes me crazy,” said Su, a Chinese native.

Su brought a unique view to the trip as one of the only non-education majors in the group. She used her business management studies to evaluate Finland and Sweden’s public schools, comparing them to a flat management system (a structure with few layers of management) versus China’s top-down management system.

Lisa and Frank swim in the freezing Baltic Sea
Professors Lisa Fiore and Frank Daniello take a freezing dip in the Baltic Sea.

Dr. Daniello found the Lesley students to be inquisitive and thoughtful in their interactions with the Scandinavian educators.

They were so passionate in the schools and wanting to learn more about the education system,” he said. “I was blown away by the questions they were asking.”

They also sought to engage with the culture beyond the classroom during tours of the cities and even took plunges in the icy ocean, a tradition at Finnish saunas.

Now back in the throes of the spring semester, the students and professors are still thinking about their experiences in Finland and Sweden.

A photo of Stockholm on the river.
A view from Stockholm

“You can’t bring ‘it’ back – you can’t bring a whole culture and society’s mindset back,” Fiore said, but they carried home a lasting appreciation for things like the freedom in the education system and the emphasis on outdoor play for kids.

The group plans to share more about the trip at Community of Scholars Day in March.