Posts by "Sara"

A Quiet Surprise: The Finnish Education System

I recently attended an education conference in Finland where I had the opportunity to observe five different schools, interact with students, and talk to teachers and principals. Finland has been the envy to other education systems, who fawn over the success of both their students success as well as student happiness. My first day in Finland, I was expecting to witness drastic differences in teaching, learning and the overall setup of a school. However, much to my surprise, I found Finland’s schools to look quite similar to Canadian schools. Walking in and out of classrooms, the lessons looked the same from a distance, but I noticed a lack of defiance on the student behalf. I noticed that with teachers taking their time within their lessons, students did not rush from one subject to another. They quietly took their time and seemed to thoroughly enjoy each and every one of their lessons.

Finland took me by surprise entirely. I was expecting to have to dig deep and drill teachers with specific questions regarding standardized testing, performance results, report cards, and assessment strategies. I wanted to memorize their curriculum and understand what each lesson meant, but rather than questioning anyone, I found it the most beneficial to quietly observe the lessons being taught, watching the teacher’s interactions with students and vice versa. What I found to be vastly different from our Canadian education system was a major cultural difference, which was breathtaking to observe in the Finnish education system. To put my observations simply, I found that Finnish people as a whole trust their teachers, and with trust comes high expectations. Teachers in Finland have willingly risen to the challenge because…

  • Teachers are empowered and highly motivated.
  • Teachers make their own curriculum and work collaboratively with each other.
  • Teacher’s are given options and choice over rigid structure.
  • Teacher’s are encouraged to teach in whatever manner they excel in. For example, if a math teacher also enjoyed music, the teacher would be encouraged to make songs about math to help their students learn.

What happens when teachers are trusted and valued? From top to bottom, it effects the whole education system, and the students are equally as valued. Teachers are appreciated and take pride in their work, which is the overall wellbeing of each and every one of their students. Teachers are offered the time to get to know their students, which leads to…

  • Students opinions are valued, and have a direct impact within their environment. ~ Students are also offered choice and options over rigid structure and enjoy their autonomy.
  • Students are involved in decision making and have a voice
  • Students are encouraged and are intrinsically motivated

Watching a specific lesson in a grade four class, a group of five boys asked to work in the hallway. In this particular hallway, there is table hockey set up. Before I could even consciously predict what would happen, I just assumed they would become distracted from their work and begin to play table hockey. Much to my surprise yet again, the students were too involved in their project to be distracted. I made my way over to the students and very blatantly asked why they wouldn’t want to play in the hallway. They informed me that this particular project was their idea, and they were excited to execute their ideas collaboratively.

Finnish teachers are valued and empowered, leading naturally to the students feeling equally as valued and empowered. It is such a simple and honest idea, that makes a large difference to a child.

Finland, in the quietest voice, you have surprised me.

Our Week of Discovery

At the beginning of January we opened up Discovery to a group of families to run a whole week of fun and exploration for the kids. Everyone involved worked tirelessly to make sure it was successful with Kirsten and Jennifer organizing up a storm and Sara preparing activities to keep everyone engaged.  We received amazing feedback and everyone had a very positive experience. Ms. Sara has kindly written up her thoughts after this first full week of Discovery.


Last week was the first official Discovery Week at Peregrine Discovery in our classroom and I am very proud to say it went wonderfully. Although it was the first time I met a few of the kids, they warmed up to me quickly and were sharing ideas and interests in no time. The interaction amongst each other was also positive and they all seemed to get along quite well despite their age differences. We completed small projects and tasks surrounding our topic of snow, with lessons involving melting, freezing, temperatures, and time. The kids were interested and eager to complete our experiments. I documented their learning, and took photos of what they had made after individual lessons.

The week went well and I had more fun than I thought possible. I enjoyed getting to know each and every one of the kids and by the end of the week I knew who didn’t like certain foods, who preferred playing independently and what makes each of them upset. (Interrupting others talking really made them upset, so we talked about it and had a lesson about interrupting). Even this notion of interrupting was a positive aspect of the classroom. We were having group discussions and they would interrupt each other because they were all so excited to share their own thoughts and opinions.

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Age Range

We had 8 children attend Discovery Week, aging from 3 – 7 years old. Physically, there are vast differences between a 3 year-old and a 7 year-old, not to mention the intellectual differentiation. I was unsure how this was going to play out with two sets of siblings, two 3 year-olds and the ages ranging up to 7 year-olds. Much to my surprise, the week went much better than I thought it could, with regard to their social interaction. The older children catered to the younger children and enjoyed being helpers so much that they would actually wait their turn to assist one of our younger children.

By the end of the week, all of the kids knew that our two 3 year-olds needed to hold someone’s hand going up or down stairs, as well as climb up or down the hill outside. They knew that they needed assistance with their winter gear, as well as with their shoes. If they couldn’t reach something or had trouble with absolutely anything, they could ask, and one of our older children would actually RUN to help them. I enjoyed watching how the older kids naturally wanted to help their younger peers, and the look that our younger children gave to them. They really look up to them, and not just physically. Two kids in particular seemed to be best friends by the end of the week, one age 3, and the other age 6. There were no problems with the mix of age range or siblings being in the same room.

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Project-based Learning

Although I would love to say I am an expert at project-based learning after our Discovery Week, that is simply not the case. I learned a lot this past week with the kids but I think now more than ever, I have questions. The kids loved our experiments, and enjoyed working in pairs to complete different tasks. Yet, by the end of the week, they wanted to work on something different and the interest had decreased in our chosen topic. Rather than pushing the same topic on them, I rolled with it. They started discussing dinosaurs instead and I took note of how many of them were interested. They drew pictures of dinosaurs and had conversations about what different dinosaurs looked like. On Friday morning, I found myself researching pictures of dinosaurs and comparing photos to their drawings. We looked at pictures together and noted the distinct differences they had. Although we were still learning, I wondered why our topic of “snow” wasn’t lasting as long as intended. To be fair, I had created a week’s worth of lesson plans on snow, yet when Discovery Week began there was no snow left on the ground outside. Perhaps it wasn’t relevant enough for their interest to remain. We also had one extremely cold day where we didn’t go outside, which further hindered our plans. All in all, it was a week of experiments, excitement, and discovery.

Finland’s Education System: Inspiring and Intriguing

Finland’s education system is constantly in my vocabulary when speaking with other educators. I have read articles, watched movies and entirely fawned over Finland’s glorious, successful education system.

For me, it boils down to the basics. The students are happy and excited to attend school. The teachers are inspired, full of energy, and confident in their system. The students and teachers work collaboratively to achieve the same goals. What more could an educator hope for? Learning combined with ease, enthusiasm, and enjoyment.

Finland’s education system is the envy of educators from across the globe, yet, how does it really work? As an Ontario Certified Teacher, I have learned the Ontario curriculum and guidelines. I have learned how to formally assess students learning and achievement. I have developed skills and learned how to break down learning goals and success criteria in each and every lesson. I wonder how they assess their students? Do they have formal assessments or written documents that go home? Do the children’s knowledge levels vary the way they do within our classrooms here? How do they deal with behavioural issues? My questions could fill pages. I want to know everything. What I do not question is whether they are confident in their system; I just wonder how it all breaks down and looks day-to-day from a teacher’s perspective. How do they plan and prepare for each day? How do they communicate with parents?

My curiosity inspired extensive research on Finland’s education system. One particular day during my research, I came across a conference being held in Finland in January 2017 for 800 educators from around the world.  LIFE 2017 is an exclusive opportunity to visit ordinary Finnish schools and see how teaching is organized, talk with local teachers and students, and listen to the top Finnish pedagogical experts. I saved the link and would go back and visit it from time to time, dreaming of what it would be like to actually see their classrooms first-hand. One day, I was having a conversation with my employer when the topic of conferences came up. She encouraged me to send the link over so we could talk it through. Could I realistically go to Finland in just 2 short months? While we were discussing the possibility, the questions asked from my employers were as follows: Did I have any plans late January? Do I have an up-to-date passport?

My heart stopped.

Could I actually see this magical education system in live action? It’s been a dream of mine for quite some time. I’m already beginning to make a list of questions for teachers. Just to sit in a classroom and observe a lesson would be remarkable.

It wasn’t long before my flights were booked, and I AM GOING TO FINLAND! In just over a month, I will be on my flight out, and for now, my focus is to prepare for my trip.

Stay tuned for updates!

Natural Learning: From Skeptic to Believer

Natural methods of almost anything seem to benefit our minds and bodies better than the manufactured or artificial type.

Throughout the past few months, I have read countless articles and watched multiple videos about alternative education, and specifically natural learning. What that term “alternative education” is defined as differs among educators based on their own belief system. Recently, I have been investigating how natural learning works, and what it means for teachers.

I attended Peter Gray’s discussion about his book, Free to Learn. Natural learning is the idea that children are active leaders in their own learning and are naturally curious. Natural learning environments are open-ended and allow children to play freely without instruction. Being a teacher, the questions that always comes to mind when someone raves about natural learning are the following:

  1. How do children learn to read and write without formal instruction?
  2. How do they advance if there is no written assessment?
  3. How do they receive entry into post-secondary institutions?

Peter Gray’s informative session blew my questions out of the water. As an educator, I want to ensure my students are moving forward constantly and scaffolding their skills appropriately. Peter Gray talked about a school called Sudbury Valley School that has been open since the 60’s in Massachusetts. This school holds no formal lessons, and students are free to spend their time as they wish. There are no classes, no lessons, and no homework. Report cards don’t exist and there is no pressure to hit certain milestones (i.e. reading and writing).

Again my questions were along the lines of:

  1. Did they receive entry into post-secondary institutions?
  2. Could they become citizens who positively contribute to society?
  3. Have they obtained enough skills for successful careers?

Gray conducted a study based on the graduates of Sudbury Valley School. To me, the findings were absolutely incredible. He found that the graduates of Sudbury Valley (which runs from ages 3-17) were not only successful, but happy and contributing members of society. Their careers range from math professors to fashion designers, and everything in between. Gary found that the same percentage of Sudbury Valley graduates attended post-secondary institutions in comparison to traditional schooled graduates. The findings also found that children who attended Sudbury Valley School were more likely to be active in their surroundings (ie. involved in politics, the economy, and local interest groups, etc.).

Mind blown.

Our new alternative school will not be a replica of the Sudbury Valley School, nor will it be dominantly natural learning based. However, hearing about it has given me the confidence to be open-minded in learning more about alternative education. I am confident in veering off the path of formal assessment, homework, and the entire curriculum I have come to live by.

Moving forward, of course I still have questions, but rather than being weary to ask them, I am excited to investigate the answers. Not only am I confident in what I am working on, but I am starting to build a network filled with other individuals who wish to achieve the same goal in the field of education.

Meet the Teacher

Hi, I’m Sara!

I’m a teacher and I am part of a team creating a new alternative education environment.

Before we discuss school, I wanted to talk about how I was as a student. I was always an anxious child in school. I was painfully shy and couldn’t stand being asked questions aloud in class. The hardest years for me were when my teacher picked on me often. My anxiety would take over and I would repeatedly ask to go to the bathroom, or pretend to be sick. One year I pretended to be sick so much that my parents had to meet with the principal to discuss holding me back a grade. I had missed 33 days that year, each one of those days actively pursuing my mom to let me stay home.

That being said, I grew up. I attended high school where I made friends and felt more comfortable. I moved on to post secondary education where I finally excelled both socially and academically. I worked hard to receive an Honours degree as well as entry into the Bachelor of Education program.

I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher; but why? My memories of elementary school are less than ideal, so why did I make it my goal to go back? I wanted change. I wanted to make my students comfortable. I wanted to be warm, welcoming and friendly. I wanted to change the way a classroom was designed, I wanted to change the way teachers talk to their students. I wanted to change the whole concept of learning.

I went through the normal, traditional schooling method and I turned out just fine, right? I received two degrees as well as honours. I adjusted socially, I have friends and I am married. I still can’t help but think…What if we can make it better? What if rather than “getting by” we could get our students excited about learning? What if they enjoyed coming to school so much that they took charge of their own learning? What if children didn’t have to sit still at their desks all day? What if we increased their outdoor and play time and decreased the structure time? What if teachers became facilitators?

What if it works?

Let’s find out.