Pat-Med superintendent meets Finland educators
Angry Birds started in Finland.
It’s also the country credited for St. Nicholas’s origins as well as classical music composer Jean Sibelius. Gorgeous pine forests, diverse animal species, lakes, inlets and a low population density rate might also lure a visitor to see the sights here, but Patchogue-Medford superintendent Michael Hynes’ aim was to discover why Finland’s education system is ranked No. 1 in the world by UNICEF, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the World Economic Forum.
Hynes will give a talk about his educational mission, which took place in late October, on Dec. 3 at Saxton Middle School.
Approved by the school board, Hynes’ recent journey was partnered with William Doyle, a friend and educator. A 2015-2016 Fulbright scholar and a 2017 Rockefeller Foundation fellow, scholar in residence and lecturer on media and education at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu, Doyle is also a bestselling author and TV producer.
“Over my eight days there, I spent 70 to 75 hours in a school or interviewing someone in Finland who had to do with education,” said Hynes, who traveled to Joensuu and Helsinki. Meetings began at 7:30 a.m. with a quick blink at his surroundings.
What was the biggest takeaway?
“They really focus on wellbeing inside and out,” he said, stressing that a balanced life is the country’s main goal for children and adults. “They don’t hyperfocus on competition and ranking kids. And they very much believe in trades. They want each child to reach his or her fullest potential.”
Some of the other differences: children start school in first grade, progress to ninth grade, then select a school that prepares them for university or a trade school. “They have 300 trades to choose from and the student selection rate [for university or trade] is almost half and half,” Hynes continued. “If they start at university and want to change to a trade school, they can, and vice versa. Their graduation rate is almost 100 percent and the Finns hold students who choose trades in high regard.”
Student population was diverse; in Joensuu, which is near Russia, it was racially, ethnically and socioeconomically mixed, with a 15 percent unemployment rate, four times that of the U.S., he said.
Doyle was the educational link, Hynes said. What enamored him to Finland?
“I am a New York City playground dad and during the course of my time there, parents love to talk about schools. The idea of what the best schools are is a constant conversation,” he said during a phone interview. “I hear it all the time. One day I was working on a book about civil rights with [African-American Civil Rights movement leader, writer and political advisor] James Meredith, who is 80 years old. His big cause is public education.”
From that, the question emerged, how can the U.S. improve public schools? Doyle interviewed Howard Gardner, the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who also directs The Good Project, initiatives that would prepare students to contribute to society’s wellbeing.
“Gardner said, ‘learn from Finland,’ which is the opposite from what the U.S. is doing,” Doyle said.
“I thought, Finland, it’s small and somewhat obscure, but the more I read about it I thought this small country may be doing many things correctly. I had a 7-year-old son at the time and thought, why not take him to Finland and enroll him into school there, if they are as beautiful and teacher-led as they seem.” So Doyle applied for, and received, a Fulbright Scholarship, which allowed him to lecture at the University of Eastern Finland. “I’ve been going back for three years now and teach at their summer school. My conclusion is: Finland schools are a revelation.”
Doyle said he became friends with Hynes after seeking new educational approaches and the Pat-Med superintendent’s posts appeared on his Facebook feed.
One of the revelations is that standardized tests in Finland take place in a student’s last year and there is no homework. Instead, “they do projects with other students and tackle real-life problems, [by] working together, figuring out the assignment and probing, which takes them a week,” Hynes explained.
The curriculum includes taking breaks several times a day; elementary students can go outside or play pool or Ping-Pong in the hallways four times a day, where those stations are set up. Secondary students are privy to 15 minutes of break time after 75 minutes of instruction daily. “The break time is good for the student and teachers,” he said. School environment is also important. “They have a lounge so kids can stay even after school,” Hynes said. “The cafeteria has booths and tables. It’s like walking into someone’s home.”
Elementary class size is 20 to 22 students; in high school, class size doesn’t exceed 25. The graduation rate is nearly 100 percent.
“They also provide a tremendous amount of support for special-needs children and provide an inclusive model,” Hynes emphasized. “There is no AP, no honors classes. Everyone is the same.”
Some of Finland’s initiatives, also adopted by other countries including Singapore, have been implemented by Hynes, who introduced a five-year plan that included a whole-child approach.
Recess has been factored in, along with a Breakfast in the Classroom program in elementary school, ensuring students are fed at the beginning of the day, he said. And next year, Pat-Med is introducing its own vocational school.
“Over the next three years we will have five trades. Over the next seven years we’ll have 10,” Hynes said.
Physical education is encouraged there, but not high school sports in the American tradition, Hynes explained. “With physical education, they move often. Every five to seven minutes they do something different that strengthens balance and core strength. “They would jump on a 30-foot air mattress or do cartwheels,” Hynes said as an example. “The teachers not only model it, but do it. Here, we’d think of lawsuits, but they trust their kids to make mistakes. Parents trust the teachers because they’re so highly trained, like NASA. It’s competitive to get a teaching job and they are very well paid.”
He held up a compact, 500-page book.
“If I were to present all our K-12 standards, including ELA and math, it would fill up my entire office,” he said, looking at his decent-sized space. “This is Finland’s book.”
The child’s potential was stressed over and over. “School should be a child’s favorite place,” said Heikki Happonen, an education professor at the University of Eastern Finland, to Hynes and Doyle.
“One of the keys to this is that everybody loves children, but the difference with Finland is they love childhood,” said Doyle. “In order for children to thrive in school you have to unleash the joy in childhood. But what does that mean? It means you should be doing what Michael Hynes is doing. What he’s doing is not only validated in Finland, but also in Texas and Oklahoma, where 10,000 lower-income children of color are encouraged to play and have breaks multiple times a day.”
Doyle said Finland also requires every teacher to have a master’s degree from an elite university. (New York State requires a master’s to teach.) “Those universities have major schools with children attached to them, so they get months of training with children from master teachers,” he added.
There were some aspects Finland could learn from us, Hynes said. “I’ve spoken to dozens of educators in Finland and they don’t think their system is perfect,” he said.
“A lot of what they do are universal practices and there are a few things they can learn from us as well, like conversations and bonds with parents and an idea of what’s taking place at the school through social media.”
Hynes plans to return next year and form a partnership with Finland University.
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