09 September 2007

Finland's Education - A Noteworthy Comparison

University of Helsinki, Finland

Which country wouldn’t want to be regarded as the best-educated nation in the world? During my recent visits to Finnish schools, I discovered that Finland, in fact, feels a bit uneasy about its unrivaled number-one ranking in the international PISA student assessment surveys. “Sure, we’re proud of our students’ success,” noted Esko Poikela, principal of Kotimäki School in Kaarina, during our chat in May. But Poikela also questioned, "What do the results really mean? What do they really tell us about the Finnish education system?”

In case you've never heard of PISA before, PISA stands for the Programme for International Student Assessment. It is an internationally standardized assessment of the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old students from nearly sixty participating countries in the areas of mathematical, science, and reading literacy. Finland has scored the highest overall in the first two surveys, PISA 2000 and PISA 2003. Both assessments show that Finnish students are better at reading than students in other high-literary OECD countries, such as Korea, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Finland also performed better in sciences than the two other top OECD countries, Japan and Korea. According to the official PISA 2003 report, Finland is now at same level with East Asian countries, whose performance in mathematics and science had been previously unmatched. However, many Finnish educators wonder, if not worry, where Finland will stand when PISA 2006 results are released. “We can only go down from the top,“ observed Poikela, “and then what will happen? What will that tell us about the Finnish education system?” While Finnish educators may have some reason for concern, the rest of the world has begun to view the Finnish education system as a model or, certainly, a worthwhile point of comparison.

I will expand much more on this in my upcoming article in the New World Finn journal. In this blog post, I will take the opportunity to share some general observations and comment on a few photos from my recent visits to Finnish schools. Finland's PISA success has peaked a great deal of interest in the U.S. K-16 institutions and systems, including Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, which are increasingly concerned about the rising number of students entering higher education under-prepared.

By all accounts, Finland’s PISA success appears to be a sum of factors. Some most common reasons include the equity of schools, school autonomy, highly-qualified and highly-motivated teachers (all have minimally a Master degree), the popularity of reading among all socio-economic groups, and the flexibility of curriculum, classroom interaction, and teaching methods. Also, disruptive behavior and violence are uncommon in Finnish schools. For example, Poikela recalls only two incidents of school bullying during his two-year tenure as principal of Kotimäki School, which serves about 600 students in grades 1-9 in a small town right outside a major city, Turku.

Theft in Finnish schools is also uncommon. A visible proof of Finnish schools' calm and trusting atmosphere is this photo of Kotimäki School's front yard, which shows dozens, if not hundreds, of bicycles, mopeds, and helmets unlocked in the schoolyard. I spent an entire 15-minute recess period in early May examining the bicycles and many rather expensive-looking mopeds and helmets - not one was locked! Bicycles and mopeds are a common form of transportation for Finnish students and teachers.

By the way, all Finnish students, at least through middle school, have several recess breaks during the day to catch fresh air and an opportunity to socialize and exercise between class sessions. In contrast, many U.S. schools, even elementary schools, have reduced, if not altogether given up, their recess breaks. I think it's a pity and, I suspect, not the best choice educationally.

A common feature of Finnish education system is teaching that occurs in real life contexts – a goal that is shared by many U.S. schools. Here’s a photo of Ulla Haapanen, a biology teacher in Kaarina, on one of her regular bird watching excursions into a nearby nature reserve, a familiar locale for her middle school students. The photo was taken in early May, before the nature's green summer growth.

My visits also revealed that much emphasis is placed on creating bright, spacious study environments within the school buildings. Here (below) is Ulla Haapanen in her biology classroom.

So, in terms of the PISA survey, where does the U.S. fits in? In contrast to Finland’s assessment success, the survey results place the United States at, or slightly below, the PISA average. In some areas, U.S. students rank at the end of the scale, prompting U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige in a December 6, 2004 press release to exclaim, “’The PISA results are a blinking warning light" ("PISA Results Show Need for High School Reform"). However, the United States is not alone. Many other industrialized countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom, have also received disappointing PISA results, and many of them have began to look to Finland to learn from its assessment success.

Above is a picture of a school yard of Joensuu Bilingual Preschool, where students play and learn using both Finnish and English. Natural settings, with open spaces are common features of Finnish schools. This is not a surprise to anyone who has experienced the country's expansive natural beauty. Finland, which in size is about as large as Minnesota and Iowa together, has over 100,000 lakes, and it is fair to say that much of the country resembles Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near the Canadian border. Left is a photo taken in June near the city center of Joensuu, a mid-size town in Eastern Finland, where many of my relatives live.

Whatever the true reasons behind Finnish education system's assessment success are, I believe that Finland can serve as an informative and interesting point of comparison and model to educators, parents, and students worldwide.

Tartu, Estonia - Listen Up!

Before my sabbatical ended in June, I had a chance to attend an interesting, small conference in Tartu, Estonia. Tartu is located relatively close to my home country Finland – it took me three hours by boat, from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia, and six hours by an express bus to reach Tartu. Tartu is the second largest city of Estonia, with a population of over 100,000. While Tartu might not be familiar to many Americans, it is a well-known historical university town in Europe. The first written records of Tartu date from 1030; the University of Tartu was founded in 1632.

University of Tartu, founded in 1632

To a tourist familiar with other European locales, Tartu resembles a charming medieval Italian or Spanish town, with narrow, windy cobble-stoned streets and interesting architectural features and medieval churches (like the Tartu Cathedral shown on left). Unlike its comparisons, Tartu is still recovering from the neglect of Soviet rule. All over the city, buildings are being renovated, largely with EU restoration funds, and like Tallinn, which has experiences rapid “clean up” and modernization, I predict that Tartu in five years will have many more beautifully restored buildings, along with ultra-modern office buildings similar to those that have changed Tallinn’s skyline, and most of the rundown, cluttered alleyways and backyards will have been replaced by modern parking lots and tidy street cafes and restaurants.

I was lured to Tartu by the city’s reputation as an old, respected university town and by the international Conference Alerts website, which I had been checking regularly prior to my sabbatical leave. I spotted an alert from the small International Association for Citizenship, Social, and Economics Education organization, whose conference title, “Constructing Curricula for International Understanding: Challenges for Citizenship, Social, and Economics Educators,” promised an opportunity to learn more about my sabbatical theme, internationalizing curricula.

The networking opportunities in Tartu didn’t disappoint me. The conference introduced me to many new, interesting contacts from England, Scotland, Sweden, Japan, and Estonia, among others. In the photo on the right, I am joined by a Swedish colleague on the left and an English colleague on the right. Our day trip across the Russian border in a small mini-van, with participants from eight different countries, was an unforgettable experience – notably thanks to the Japanese participants’ eagerness to sing karaoke (mostly old Beatles tunes) as we strolled along windy, narrow Southern Estonian highways. However, I found the conference program less relevant to my teaching. The presentations focused far more on the subject areas, such as methods of teaching economics, than ways to internationalize the curricula – which should have been the conference theme. Thankfully, my frequent discussions with international colleagues made the trip worthwhile.

The Estonian participants, in particular, opened my eyes to different ways of teaching and learning. They tend to view education from their former rulers’ (the Soviets’) perspective – more as a hierarchical, authoritative experience, where the professor talks and the student listens. One of the Estonian professors noted that he feels much more comfortable with this approach than the more democratic, collaborative Western approach. He commented, “In Estonia, one person speaks and everyone listens; in Western universities, everyone speaks and no one listens.” Well, I must admit that this made me think about the collaborative teaching methods many of us in the U.S. and many other Western countries employ to inspire student participation and thought. Certainly, there are many times when we learn a great deal through dialog with others, but how can we better utilize the moments when “everyone [just] talks and no one listens”? How could we learn to listen better? I suspect that in both approaches, true thoughtful, deep listening is not adequately encouraged and taught. After all, haven't we all witnessed - and been guilty of - moments when one speaks, yet no one listens? Thanks to my Estonian colleague, I am curious to learn more about the art of listening – both from the teacher’s and the student’s perspective. Having recently accepted an interim dean’s position, I am also interested in discovering and practicing better ways to listen to faculty and staff needs and ideas.

Strolling along the streets of Tartu in late-May heat, watching the city renew itself through ongoing, rapid building renovation, I felt a sense of personal renewal…. We can, and we should, open our eyes and ears to different ways of doing things. How can I “renovate” my thoughts on teaching and learning? What can I learn from my new international colleagues?

Listen, that’s what I can do. Listen, and I hope, learn from it.

A summer evening rock concert in Tartu's medieval town hall square - the times are changing!

26 May 2007

The Arctic Norway in May

Sunbathing in the Artic Norway in mid-May - not just a vacation

My blog has been inactive for a little while since I have been traveling in Europe, experiencing global contexts firsthand. Traveling is, of course, still one of the best ways to learn about other cultures. A visit to a different culture always involves active learning as we engage ourselves through seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and speaking, often in situations that inspire, if not demand, our keen attention, challenge our limits, and surprise - and sometimes even humble - us with new insights and discoveries.

Although I have traveled a great deal over the years, I am constantly amazed at how much one learns from any new travel experience, at any time, anywhere. My recent visit to University of Tromsø in the Arctic Norway is a perfect example! Admitedly, I had been joking about a May visit to the Arctic. Why experience snow in May? Why seek the ever-present company of seagulls? Why give a lecture at the northern most university in the world? Why sunbathe wearing a Russian fur hat?

Many of the answers can be found in the following photographs: The Arctic is incredibly beautiful in May. The Arctic waters provide flavorful fish and whale meat. Even the seagulls provide eggs for breakfast (just remember to boil them for about 20 minutes!). And the best and most magical of all, the midnight sun appears in mid-May and rewards the Artic region with constant sunshine for weeks and weeks. Why not visit the Arctic Norway in May?

Finnish sisters Hanna and Minna against the backdrop of Norwegian Arctic beauty

Welcoming the Midnight Sun at a writer's hut overlooking a fjord - it stayed this light most of the night!

A chilly, tranquil Arctic fjord

One of many old fishermen's houses

A fishing village in the fjord

Cod on a rack

Beware of reindeer - we saw plenty!

Every fjord reveals a treasure

No kidding, this picture was taken at midnight on May 18!

A humbling moment: wearing Russian fur hats to stay warm at midnight

Main street in Tromsø, Norway
Besides admiring the Arctic Norway's geography for its remarkable beauty, I also discovered that the region is an opportune location for online teaching. My presentation titled "Quality Online Education: A Shared Responsibility" attracted good attention and feedback from a variety of sources, from enthusiasts, skeptics, and curious newbies alike wanting to learn more about online teaching. University of Tromsø offers some online courses, but so far, there appears to be more enthusiasm for expanding the online programming than actual works in progress. I also witnessed some understandable, but I think largely unfounded, nervousness about the potential negative impact of online education on the unversity's traditional course offerings. These are the same concerns we faced in Minnesota about 8-10 years ago and soon afterwards discarded as largely unwarranted concerns. I think a major Norwegian university that attracts students from a wide, remote Arctic region (just see the pictures!) would be wise to invest in more e-learning. I understand that more support services, especially for students, would need to be created, but I trust this could be done. I encourage my colleagues in Tromsø to keep exploring e-learning opportunities and to solicit feedback from those of us who have already been involved with e-learning for many years. Let's keep these global connections alive!

Sharing about e-learning

19 April 2007

Made in China: Mardi Gras

In my previous post, I mentioned an excellent resource, a documentary titled Made in China: Mardi Gras (Sundance, 2005), which I plan to use in my College Composition course to inspire and prepare first-semester college composition students to compose an argument essay about the human impact of globalization, as shown within the context of a documentary that follows the trail of Mardi Gras beads from China to New Orleans.

Made in China: Blouse

I suggest some of the following preparatory steps and resources for teachers planning to use the documentary for an argument writing assignment:

Suggested guiding questions:
  • What is globalization, and how does it impact product manufacture and sales?
  • Who produces goods for the U.S. market and where?
  • Why do more and more U.S. companies manufacture and source products overseas, and why do U.S. consumers purchase these products?
  • Why do overseas factories welcome U.S. customers and investors?
  • What are the working conditions at foreign factories producing goods for the U.S. market?
  • Why do factory workers in foreign factories work under the current conditions?
  • What role, if any, does gender play in the U.S.-overseas production chain?
  • How are artifacts/products embedded with social and cultural meaning? How and why does a product become disposable?
  • What are the economic and social impacts of globalization?

Suggested teacher resources:

Suggested Opening Activities:

"Made in China" Label Search
Ask students to check their clothes, shoes, and other personal items to look for “Made in China” and other product labels, and ask them to record the names of all countries printed on the labels. Use pins or masking tape to record the countries, along with the number of items, on a large world map (which has been placed on the wall or taped onto the whit board). Without further commentary, ask students to proceed to the next step.

Reflective Writing
Give the following instructions to the students: What does our map, with our notes, tell us about global trade? What do you already know about today’s global trade and its impact on people in the U.S. and other countries? What are your personal assumptions about “Made in China”?

Have students share their thoughts with the entire class. Write their main points on the board in two columns: global trade and “Made in China.” Ask the students to summarize what they already know about global trade and what their assumptions are about “Made in China” products in particular.

My complete lesson plan, which is available upon request, suggests two follow-up assignments:
1. An oral presentation, by groups of 4-5 students, summarizing and analyzing the motives and conditions of one category of people shown in the documentary and proposing one argumentative thesis statement about their topic. The students will get to choose from the following: The party crowd in New Orleans, the New Orleans businessman, the Chinese factory owner, the young female factory workers in China, and the families of the factory workers in China
2. An argument essay, expressing and supporting an opinion on some specific aspect about the human impact of globalization, as shown within the context of the documentary Made in China: Mardi Gras.

By the way, the documentary has also been used as a resource by many other disciplines, including sociology, history, and anthropology.

15 April 2007

"Made in China" - Visible Globalization

Why study China? It’s the future, right? But what does that really mean to us – and how can we get a good handle on such a broad topic in our classrooms?

Made in China: Box 2

At a recent Minnesota Humanities Center seminar titled Made in China: Economy, Environment, and Globalization, the seminar's leader David Davies, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Hamline University in Minnesota, suggested that it would make the most sense for us to study the underlying forces of “Made in China” products and product labeling. Why? Because we all have something made in China. Just ask the students to check the labels on their clothes or the items they own! What better way to show that China matters – that China already has a strong presence in our lives.

As we teach about the underlying – and often invisible - forces of today’s vast and fast-paced globalization, we could, Davies suggests, explore the relationships that already exist between homegrown companies and China. Minnesota students might have very little idea that many prominent local companies, including Hormel Foods, Medtronic Inc., and the Cargill Inc., have a strong presence in China, producing goods for both American and Asian markets. Davies questioned the relevance of studying the popular “hot” issues of sweatshop and child labor. Why study the anomaly, he asked, explaining that most U.S. factories in China are clean, well run, and law-abiding. It would make more sense, according to Davies, to examine the underlying motivations for Americans and Chinese to do business with one another, the forms in which such two-way exchanges manifest, and the economic, social, and environmental effects of the exchanges. For example, why do the Chinese welcome U.S. companies and why are the U.S. companies interested in working in and with China? Why does one U.S. company (such as Wal-Mart) decide to open retail shops in China while another (such as Target) has decided against it? How do U.S. companies and their Chinese partners and employees adapt to globalization?

During the seminar, Davies made a rather provocative parallel between the images of Sam Walton used in Wal-Mart’s advertisements and inspirational posters created for the company’s Chinese consumers and employees and the propaganda posters of China’s former leader Mao Tse-tung, showing both wearing caps and socially appropriate suits, with the right hand raised to a fatherly wave. Perhaps partly in jest and partly to provoke us, Davies introduced the term Wal-Mao” to us! Whether one accepts his “Wal-Mao” theory or not, a comparative study of the images could lead to interesting class discussions about cultural values and symbols, the nature of cultural exchanges, and other underlying forces of globalization.

The seminar also introduced me to an excellent recourse, an award-winning documentary titled Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005), directed by David Redmond. The documentary makes thought-provoking observations of the global ramifications of the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans. The focus is on the Mardi Gras beads, made in China. The documentary reveals interesting contrasts between the Mardi Gras partiers, a New Orleans businessman who imports beads from China, a Chinese factory owner who produces the beads, his young female employees, and their families in rural China. Since the documentary includes some nudity typical of a Mardi Gras celebration (e.g., bare breasts and bottoms), it may need to be edited for younger viewers. However, I find the 80-minute documentary a very compelling way to make the invisible forces of the “Made in China” phenomenon visible to my students.

11 April 2007

NAFSA Webinar on Global Competence

Today a few colleagues and I had an opportunity to participate in the first session of the 2007 Professional Development Webinar Series hosted by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. As stated by the presenters representing three institutions, the objective of today's webinar was two-fold: (1) "to list and describe the salient characteristics of three aspects of global competence" and (2) to "describe at least two strategies other than traditional study abroad for achieving global competence."

I found the webinar's opening observations about global competence very interesting. The presenters stressed the importance of developing and combining three kinds of global competence in our students: knowledge, attitude, and skills. Not only should our student gain facts and understanding of global issues, but they should also develop the ability to see global issues positively, from a perspective that is different from their own, and then be able to demonstrate their knowledge through foreign language skills, interpersonal skills, and task performance.

However, many of the practical applications mentioned by the presenters from Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Illinois, and Purdue University were, honestly, not very practical to much smaller two-year community and technical colleges like our institution, Lake Superior College. All of these institutions have large international education departments, with adequate funds and staff to initiate and support large-scale internship and research opportunities for their students and, in case of Georgia Institute of Technology, an institutional International Plan that requires and supports each department to integrate a degree-long international education plan. Yet, in small dozes, some of the ideas could work on smaller campuses, such as providing increased opportunities for language study. I could see great possibilities for offering more language courses online. Also, short-term internships might be possible for students in certain programs.

I am particularly curious about granting qualified students some type of global competence certification, with a designator on their diploma. At this point, I am not sure how much importance such designators actually carry. I suspect that a global competence certification would not have a great influence on a student's ability to gain employment, but what impact would it have on an individual student's self-awareness as a global citizen? And how would providing global competence certifications impact the institution's culture as a whole?

Obviously, each institution must select global education approaches that fit the institution's culture. As a common challenge, the presenters called for democratizing cross-cultural learning by encouraging us to seek ways to provide global education opportunities to all students, also those who "stay behind." In short, we must integrate global perspectives and issues to our curriculum plans not only through a greater variety of learning abroad experiences but also the rest of the curriculum.

09 April 2007

Typing Foreign Letters

Ää Üü Öö

When we are in contact with students, other people, places, and texts from different cultures, we often encounter words and names that contain characters that don't exist in our own language. What do you do when you are using a U.S. keyboard and need to type a word with a Swedish å, a Portuguese ç, a Finnish ö, or a French ÿ?

Some simply ignore the special characters while others try to memorize keyboard shortcuts. Since I often write in my native Finnish, which uses the characters ä and ö, I have tried many methods. For many years, I simply ignored the special characters, especially in emails and other casual correspondence. This, however, resulted in many amusing words and even some not-so-amusing misunderstandings. Then I installed a Windows keyboard layout, but that also had its problems, often interfering with my ability to type normal letters.

A few years ago, when I bought a new computer, I decided to search for another option. Through an Internet search, I discovered a website created by Tomasz P. Szynalski, a Polish translator, teacher, and web designer. Based on an idea he got from a Russian keyboard on the Apronus.com site, Szynalski created useful text boxes, or editors, for French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish. He even created a text box for IPA phonetics symbols, which types English pronunciations of English words as they appear in English dictionaries. This could be an excellent tool for many ESL and foreign exchange students!

How do the text box editors work? Each text box allows you to type characters that are specific to the language without having to use a special keyboard. You can edit your text in the box and then copy it to your email message, blog posting, or word processor, just as I have done in this blog entry. According to Szynalski, we can thank "the miracles of Unicode and JavaScript" for these tools! Personally, the text boxes have made my life a lot easier, and they have also inspired me to be more sensitive to the correct spelling of foreign names and words.

Obviously, Szynalski's text boxes don't help everyone. Another option, which I haven't tried personally, involves the use of keyboard stickers, like those described on keyboardstickers.net. I'd also be curious to learn about other solutions, as I am committed to trying to type every student's name correctly, especially in online courses, where the written word is the primary form of communication.

Şş æ ð Ăă

06 April 2007

Minnesota Humanities Center

If you live in Minnesota, or nearby, I recommend you to explore the professional development opportunities offered by the Minnesota Humanities Center (formerly Minnesota Humanities Commission) in St. Paul, Minnesota. Year round, the center offers evening and weekend seminars on a variety of cultural and global topics at a very reasonable cost and free lodging, in very nice hotel-like rooms, for anyone who drives to St. Paul from some distance. On occasion, the center schedules events at other Minnesota locations, including Duluth.

While most of the seminars are aimed at K-12 instructors, the materials can easily be adapted to college-level courses. The courses are taught by professors and other subject experts from a variety of public and private institutions, including Macalester College, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, St. Olaf College, Carlton College, and Hamline University, and the weekend seminars can also be taken for optional Hamline University graduate credit in Humanities, also at a reasonable cost. The weekend seminars tend to be somewhat lecture-heavy, but you can count on receiving a great deal of useful information and resources.

So far, I have attended two of their seminars, one titled The Art of the Cold War, which included fascinating information about Soviet poetry, propaganda posters, and fine arts as well as a field trip visit to the magnificent Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. Another seminar, titled Immigrants/Citizens in France, gave a wealth of information about the impact of North African immigration on French society and culture, including rai music and contemporary Arab-French films and literature. This seminar introduced me to the Inch 'Allah dimance (Inch' Allah Sunday) film featured in the earlier Character Analysis Exercises.

Next week I will be attending a seminar titled Made in China: Economy, Environments, and Globalization, expecting to gain - and then share - more useful resources for globalizing literature and composition courses. Stay tuned!

31 March 2007

Copyright Concerns

Today I decided to make this blog public (though not yet searchable by Google, but that could change too). Like many instructors who consider posting their work on the web, I experienced a healthy doze of paranoia as I considered the "safety" of going public with my new resources. Yet at the same time, I realized that any student taking one of my online courses could download and share my materials. I suppose I also worried that my peers would judge me out of context. However, aren't we always at the risk of being judged out of context?

To ease my mind, I decided to examine copyright laws. I ran across two helpful websites: Copyright and Fair Use hosted by Standford University Libraries and the U.S. Copyright Office website. On its FAQ's page, the U.S. Copyright Office answers the following question: “How do I protect my sightings of Elvis?” Could it get any better than that? Somehow, my question about going public with this blog no longer seemed silly and, oddly, no longer mattered. While you will find no Elvis here, you'll find a few new assignments and resources to globalize first-year college composition and literature courses, as the blog sub-title promises.

Thanks to my colleague Lawrance for suggesting the literary phrase "The Importance of Being Earnest" for the statement in the right-hand column. I think it captures the true spirit of appropriate sharing of work!

27 March 2007

Harbor City International School

Photo of and by Harbor City International School, published with permission

This blog entry does not contain an assignment, but I'm identifying a potential resource. Today I had an opportunity to tour Harbor City International School, a small public high school in Duluth, Minnesota, with an emphasis on global citizenship and the international perspective. As I am working on globalizing my curricula, I am interested in learning about the school's philosophy and teaching methods and the possibility of sharing ideas about curricula and projects. The school's mission seems very similar to the mission of my former school (for grades 5-12), Tampere Teacher Training School, which is one of many UNESCO Associated Schools in Finland.

Sharing the same goal of globalizing our English curricula, my friend Ted Anderson, English teacher at Harbor City School, and I will begin to exchange ideas and, I hope, make some realistic plans for collaboration. Personally, today's visit was a good reminder that we have many good resources and like-minded colleagues right within our own communities.