Monday, 3 August 2009

School development project

August. And suddenly the mail box is inundated with 'back to school' shopping catalogues. School thoughts start creeping in. Last night I even had my first annually recurring start-of-school-year nightmare of being hopelessly late, but not finding my clothes anywhere, and ending up rushing to school in my nightie! (Freud might have an interpretation or two about that!)

Our first day of school will involve each homeroom teacher welcoming their flock back and going through all the necessary admistrative and other details and paperwork with them. It's also an occasion to motivate and inspire students for a fresh new start.

Today I started thinking about our school development group's achievement from last year - a slideshow on guiding students how to gradually be more self-directed.

View more presentations from sinikka.
The ideas of the slides were compiled by our development team by studying literature and research on motivation, learning to learn, lifelong learning etc. and also visiting experts on these fields at Finnish universities for consultation. All the ideas were also passed through all the staff, and revised accordingly. This was done with the hope of all teachers committing themselves to applying these principles in their lesson plans by varying their teaching methods to help different students learn to learn. The visual look of the slides was developed by a group of students, some of whom also adjusted the Finnish language to sound right for teenagers (the English translation you see here is mine).

On the first day of school, each homeroom teacher is going to introduce the slides to their group in a way that they feel comfortable with - some may use drama, others more traditional class discussions. As in our school system senior high school is an optional establishment (about half of 16-year-olds choose a more practical-oriented vocational school instead, some even enter the working life at 16). In Finnish 'senior high school' is called 'lukio', which is derived from the verb 'lukea', meaning 'to read'. This clearly indicates that it is a rather academic type of school preparing many students for later university studies, and thus it is generally believed that students at this level should be capable of studying much like at college. This belief is reflected in the very structure of our senior high schools, which is rather unique in the whole world. The underlying idea is that students compile their own yearly schedules from a choice of courses, which, in our school, looks like this.

Every year students choose one course on each of the horizontal lines with the aim of getting together the required minimum of 75 courses to graduate. The number of compulsory courses per subject varies, and depending on their preferences and plans, students then choose any number of optional courses in different subjects. They can, for example, focus on mathematics, physics and chemistry and only study the bare minimum of humanistic subjects. Or they can take several courses in history and social studies, and only fewer courses of lower-level mathematics. Many different combinations are possible. In practice, it means that students don't study with the same group or with the same subject teacher all the time, but with different teachers and students and following their own schedule that changes 5 times a year, ie. we work in 5 different grading periods. Also students' school days may be very different. Because of this unusual structure of the school, I would actually like to talk about the Finnish lukio even in English, since translating it into senior high school or secondary school or anything else is rather misleading.

Most students spend 3 years in senior high school, but 4 years is gradually becoming more common, which is often due to students slacking, ie. only choosing very few courses for some grading periods. Because they can. There is no denying that it is a demanding system, and unsurprisingly, not all students can handle the freedom they are given responsibly and wisely. We developed these levels of study skills as a tool to make students aware of how they could cope and develop themselves better. Not all of them starting at senior high school at 16, are even at level 1, whereas some get stuck on that level and waste their time on rote learning their textbooks and still wonder why their results aren't improving. In my school, it's rare to meet anybody at level 5. Most students need a lot of scaffolding and guidance.

We also have a much more detailed teacher's version of the levels with suggestions on how teachers could develop themselves to facilitate student learning. The teachers' version is in the form of a wiki that is supposed to be built together once we have more experience of working with this model. Hopefully the wiki will start 'living' next year after the initial sceptical opposition of many colleagues.


Marcy Webb said...

This post has been very educational and informative to me. I am admittedly ignorant re: the structure and process of schools and education in other countries. So, I am blessed to be able to read your blog. :)

While the majority of students do complete 4 years of hs in the US, I can't say that many have sound skills. We're finding that for those who go on to higher education, they need remedial work - at the college level. For those who don't go on are in for a shocker. There's not much one can do with a basic hs education in the US. Some form of higher ed is necessary. The fact of the matter is, many are opting for a traditional four year college program, because this is what is demanded - by parents, by teachers and school administrators, and by politicians. Personally, not every young person should go on to a traditional college education. In fact, more young people would probably thrive in a technical education program. However, unless they're attended a technical high school, or has had someone guiding them along the way, this isn't going to happen, for the reasons cited re: parental and societal expectations.

sinikka said...

Thank you for all this interesting info, Marcy! I am equally ignorant (I guess it's just natural that most teachers are only familiar with their own systems) and blessed to know teachers like yourself to share ideas with!

It's very similar here, our 'lukio' ie. high school really doesn't prepare you for any profession, so everybody will need further studies. But those who choose a vocational school at 16 usually end up with a qualification for a job (car mechanic, hairdresser and such like). Some kids go to vocational school after high school, and in a way end up wasting the high school years, especially if they didn't learn much. But like in the US parental pressure often forces them to the more prestigious senior high school. The government has been promoting vocational schools strongly, and has succeeded quite well. Fewer totally non-academically-minded kids come to high school these days, thank goodness!

Dominique said...

Hello Sinikka!
I am a student from the US.I think that is awesome that you are a English and French teacher in Finland (surtout la francais parce que je suis une etudient de francais et j'adore francais!Je regrette pour mon francais: je suis seulement en college). Also that you do projects in Europe and Asia involving international communication: right up my alley. I love languages, traveling, and learning about different cultures.
Nice slide show!Those tips you put in there are useful: I study very hard but often find myself procrasinating, "I can go outside for a little bit, I will have enough time for homework later," etc, and nearly run out of time (I always do manage to get everything finished neatly and well-done on time though!). When my new school year starts I will try to be more focused (one can not help but get distracted though with three adorable dogs wandering around!)Your slideshow might help me focus with it's tips.
I think lukio sounds awesome: students attend there because they want to learn (am I right in interpreting this from your post?) and it is more academically based. In the US we just have high school after junior high, no senior high schools that you can choose to attend at age 16. Instead you just decide to go to a public, private, charter or technical highschool. I think "lukia" schools would be good introduced to the US school systems: then it could give academically-geared students a moe challenging and college-like atmosphere to help them in college/university studies later on. I would definitely want to go to a lukia school if I lived in Finland. I hope you have a great school year!
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arbeiten Canada said...

Great blog,has a very informative video. Thanks for sharing....

sinikka said...

Hi Dominique

Sorry for not replying to you sooner, but I spent 5 days in England with no internet connection and only came back today.
I was so pleased to find your comment, especially as it is from a student! I am also pleased to hear that you might get some inspiration for your own studies from my post.
Our 'lukio' sure is different from American schools, and most of our students come their to learn, just as you assumed. Unfortunately, we also have students who are still a little bit lost with who they are and what they want in life, which is naturally reflected in their approach to studying. They are the ones who need a lot of extra guidance to get on the right track to make the most out of their time in school.
I will visit your blog very soon, thank you so much for giving me the link!
Have a great summer and all the best for your new school year, too!