"The world is changing very rapidly right now so we cannot leave the schools to be isolated from the real world, and children's lives are changing,” says Anneli Rautianiainen, the head of early childhood education in Finland.
Rautianiainen is leading an effort to introduce an early childhood curriculum, similar to the highly praised one in our state. Interaction between students is important, as is giving teachers more creative license than here in the U.S. He recently traveled to Virginia to see preschool in action.
"Lots and lots of standardized testing in Virginia, and in Finland virtually none. And that's the biggest difference," says Rautianiainen.
Finland has a test that is considered that country's ACT or SAT. It's a national test for college entrance. However, only half of the high schools are required to take it. Rautianiainen says he finds the amount of testing in Oklahoma to be appalling.
"I saw the stress of the students and the teachers and the principals and the superintendents and the whole central office up to the state officials. Just the idea these tests tell us how good the teachers are or who's the better student and how do you rank the schools and all those rankings. Competition. It wears people out and I saw it first hand," says Rautianiainen.
He says he noticed Virginian teachers know their curriculum inside and out, but believes that is because of fear of not fulfilling their needs of the curriculum. He says America’s system of ranking anybody makes no sense to him.
"I was asked, so how are you held accountable? Because it doesn't seem like you are held accountable. And I had to think about it and I answered, and you know what, I’m trusted to be accountable,” says Rautianiainen.
All Finnish teachers have a master's degree in education received through a rigorous, five-year program.
After reading about the Finnish system extensively, Price decided to travel with us to Finland. We asked whether he trusts teachers in Oklahoma.
"You do to a certain degree. I hate to say it, but you trust 90 percent of the teachers. If you have five-year professionals that have gone through a training that is intense as this one there's greater trust, it's going to naturally evolve that way," says Price.
The training is so extensive for Finnish teachers that one teacher is able to be involved with the same students from first through sixth grade.
This also factors into the Finnish philosophy: Don't compete, collaborate.
Teachers are given at least two hours a week to share ideas, lesson plans and seek guidance with a team of fellow teachers. Students are also expected to seek guidance from their counselor and others throughout school, to find specific fields of interest.
6th graders and older then start having much more of a say in their classes and projects.
Many students say they prefer group projects because of the interaction. That interaction helps them remember more of the information. And, there is not a lot of homework. Students also get to decide what type of classes to take.
"I think it's pretty cool you can decide what you want to do this early. You can choose if you want woodwork or another language," says one student.
A variety of classes range from woodworking to cooking, all part of the framework to prepare each student for the decision they must make in the ninth grade.
Once a student finishes comprehensive school at the ninth grade, they get to decide to either to go Upper Secondary School, 10th grade or Vocational School. About half of students go to Upper Secondary. The other half or so go to Vocational School. And, about one percent goes to the 10th grade, which is meant for students who just need an extra year.
With the attendance low and major budget cuts expected the Finnish national board may eventually cut the 10th grade option. That will leave two paths for 16-year-old students.
Many in the U.S. see the Vocational route as groundbreaking, with Upper Secondary being the more familiar path to Oklahomans. In Upper Secondary school, students get their general education with an emphasis on either language, science or math, depending on the school.
Jeanette Sadikova and her peers typically make the decision to go to Upper Secondary School because it's the traditional path for students who want to go the university.
"Just general knowledge but this school specializes in languages so I'll get a diploma that says i studied languages," says Sadikova.
Students will apply to at least five different schools based on those specialized fields of study, which can also include areas like arts, gymnastics and even basketball.
Just like every school in Finland. this Upper Secondary school is controlled by its own school Board. The board is made up of about 10 people - the principal, teachers, parents and students like Jeanette. They meet twice a year.
Price calls that site control.
"They tend to have control over the school building and that way a teacher asking can do something doesn't have to ask some distant administrator they can just ask the principal. It adds to the morale of the school. But, it also gives much more control to the teacher and principal,” says Price.
Upper Secondary school is also considered the safe option for some.
"I decided on upper secondary school i didn't know like what i wanted to study specifically so i have more time to think and then maybe after this school i will know what to do," says Anni Malila, a Finnish first grader.
To help each student find that answer teacher's like Heidi Kohi use one simple word: Empower.
“Well i think that one of the future skills to be learned at school is to be responsible at your own studies, your future for everything you do in life so that is how I see we should empower our students, so whatever kind of responsibility we can transmit to them in the classroom, or with homework or with projects and that's how you empower them and i relate this work," says Kohi.
"I think it's useful if they feel that they are empowered to learning and get to learn the things that are interesting and they want to learn," says Upper Secondary teacher Marja Tamm.
How they're able to so freely empower their students, comes back to the core of the Finnish system.
"I am trusted. I get to plan my own lessons and I get to grade my students the way I want and I decide with students at the beginning of each class. And, we get to decide how the course is going to be and how many tests we will have what the projects will be. I let them decide if we will have two, three, or four tests, or if they want to do a project and what why they want to do the project," says Tamm.
Kohi says the organizing and planning together is how they empower one another.
“I feel that I’m kind of an entrepreneur working alone together with many colleagues. So in a way this is how I see a teacher’s job in Finland. We are entrepreneurs working together with a whole bunch of people,” says Kohi.
Kohi and Tamm say teachers and students are allowed to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.
"Nobody tells me what I should do and shouldn't do. It's up to me to try things out. If I feel it was a success I try to improve it a bit, I re-introduce it. And if it fails, I modify it. So it's like developing all the time and that's how it empowers us, everyone," says Kohi.
Finnish schools are now trying something different and untying the laces to the traditional learning environment. This classroom is now being used as a test run. Desks and hard plastic chairs are replaced with giant pillows, exercise balls, bean bags, blankets, couches and stand-up desks.
Students are allowed to take notes on laptops and even cellphones, and also listen to music while they take a test or write an essay.
"Let the students feel they have the power to learn and the will to learn. I think it's very important they feel the learning is for them and not for me," says Tamm.
"I think there are so many different types of learners in the classroom so you have to give a little bit of everything to everyone," says Kohi.
But for everyone in Upper Secondary school, one task does loom.
"This is essentially the testing zone. If you can see behind me this is in red read's silence. That's because students beyond these doors are taking what we refer to as an act or sat. It's matriculation exam. Serves as two purposes. For them to get into the university but also that's how the school is evaluated," say Kohi.
Technically this is the nation's only mandated test. It lasts several hours for several days. Students say they will study four to five months for this tests. Many argue the Matriculation Exam is not really a mandated test because only half the students take it. It is similar to our ACT or SAT and mainly used to qualify students for college.
The other half of 16- to 18-year-old students in Finland go to what's called Vocational School. The idea is that if after the ninth grade, a student knows that he or she wants to have a career in a particular trade skill, this is the route they take.
“They get to study right away and not wait for three years in upper secondary school like biology when they want to be a plumber. So, I think it would be a little strange if everybody when to upper secondary school. I think it's a very good thing to have these vocational schools too," says Sadikova.
Vocational areas of study range from the wrench and pipes of a plumber to the sewing machine and fabric of a fashion designer. Media, catering and hair design are also offered in the vast list of studies in vocational school.
About 75 percent of the coursework for each student is a student's field of choice. The remaining 25 percent of coursework is in the core curriculum subjects like those in upper secondary school.
There are very few, if any, pen and paper tests.
In addition to this real world experience recreated in the school, all vocational students have an extensive apprenticeship program where they regularly go out into the field and work alongside an employer who has partnered with the school.
Marko Aantonhn is the head of sector, most similar to a principal, for this vocational school in Helsinki.
"They go out of the college and go to work in the companies, they say it's really nice and has really opened my eyes towards education now i understand why i was studying this in college," says Aantonhn.
Inside the student store, everything is made by students and operated by students. Learning how to open and operate their own business is a major piece of their curriculum.
One common argument Marko hears from international school officials is, how can a 16-year-old be ready to make such an important decision to go to vocational school, when that one decision will likely have a lasting impact?
“For some of them they are not ready. I think more than half is ready. If they are not ready, they can change their field and they also have the counselors and so on," says Aantonhn.
Any student can alter their course at any time. If a student wants to attend the university after vocational school all they'll need to do is pass the matriculation exam.
But most vocational students head straight into the workforce, using the skills they've acquired throughout high school.
The vocational route may just be the highlight of the Finnish for Hugo, Oklahoma high school teacher Heather Samis.
"These kids are asked to make resumes; they’re asked to fill out job applications. Our kids have problems with those things. How about doing that in the classroom. How about doing some more authentic teaching in the classroom," says Samis.
“I think we need to give kids other options. I don't feel every kid is college bound. You don't have to go to college to be successful. And that's our problem. We're not telling kids that."
Samis isn't alone in the state. Duncan high school Math teacher Sam Holthe used to be a software developer but left that field 11 years ago to become a teacher.
"My feeling, to be honest, is that if we're going to have true reform in our education system not just in Oklahoma but nationwide, we're going to have to change at the philosophy level. We have this idea that is you have this high school diploma, which means you've accomplished these credits, then you're ready for college or ready for the world. And we're finding that we have very good students making it to college and sometimes bailing out in the first year or two and from local companies that they're having a hard time finding workers that actually want to work so that tells me that the high school diploma may not me a valuable thing in the sense that they're prepared for life. So my sense is we need to change from having those credits to actually preparing them for something that they are good at," says Holthe.
He wanted to make an impact, but realized the limit of his impact when visiting with a student after class one day.
"He said Mr. Holthe, I don’t know why I’m in this class I just want to be a carpenter. And I got it. He was doing upper level math, something we would not use in carpentry and he had to break out from his day to be in my class because he had to have that credit. And i felt badly for him, worked with him, got it through the class and as soon as he got free he was building houses. I would like to say let’s teach you more about carpentry, Vo-Tech does that, but we can also say let's show you how to operate a budget. Let's show you how to run a small business with your carpentry. Just those things that are required for life."
For Petteri Elo, during his visit to schools in Virginia, one moment in particular stands out. When he discovered how low the perception is for teachers in America.
Many Finnish teachers are highly respected, compared to lawyers and doctors. And the respect is not based on pay. Finnish teachers get paid 3,500 euros a month, which is about $38,700 a year. While that is still an amount an Oklahoma teacher with a doctorate will not get until his or her tenth year, it is not much in Finland compared to the lawyers and doctors they mirror in respect.
So the respect comes from that backbone of the Finnish education system.
“I talk to them about it and say why do you say just a teacher? And what I found out from some people. It all comes down to the trust. The idea you have to prove yourself all the time to your superiors. I don't have to show proof, they trust,” says Elo.
“We need to de-control the school systems and have the school systems de-control the classrooms we also need to help honor the teachers in a million different ways and especially honor excellence and that will add to the trust,” says Price.
But, can anything in Finland translate and work in Oklahoma?
"You can't copy the Finnish system. You can't do that. Because it's the cultural and historical backgrounds. I think what you can actually do is try to make the schools as a working place more relaxed, the way I see. Not for testing, for life," says Pitkala.
Finland’s culture and economy do play significant roles in its education system which is why we didn't come here to make a conclusion, but maybe, just maybe we can start a conversation.