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Finland excursion inspires educators

Thirty four Christian educators who embarked on an Educational Finland Exploration with Ontario Christian School Administrators Association (OCSAA) Sept. 23-29 are now unpacking ideas and possibilities for their own schools.

“Beyond Our Vision” was OCSAA’s mission for the trip, as experiencing something beyond current practices inspires leaders to move their operations to another level, explains executive director Ren Siebenga. Finland’s school system changed about 20 years ago from mediocre to one that topped global charts with its student assessment test scores.

“Now, wherever you go people talk about Finnish education,” Siebenga says. “We’ve done a number of these trips with our leaders and they have inspired the classroom practice; this has taken it to new levels across the province and we realised how powerful those experiences are.”  

The Finland journey was heightened through a connection with world-class educator and author Pasi Sahlberg. Nathan Siebenga, principal at Hamilton District Christian High, read Sahlberg’s book Finnish Lessons and reached out to him while dreaming about a Finland trip.

Sahlberg connected the OCSAA group with Mikko Salonen, a leader in Finnish schools, who created an itinerary with many places the educators otherwise wouldn’t have been able to access. Salonen joined the educators and Sahlberg also spent time with them sharing his perspective on the education system, learning and Finnish hockey.

Some of the differences educators noted were cultural, such as access to free education in Finland, including post-secondary. As participants reflected on their takeaways many mentioned the focus on teacher training, student resources and well-being, and .structures that result in less class time and more creative activity.

Teachers: Trusted and highly trained
Teaching is one of the most highly regarded professions in the country and often cited as the reason for Finnish educational success. There is an inherent level of trust in their teachers, who compete for spots in teacher training programs and who all earn their master’s degrees. Once in the field, teachers continue to research and find best practices for learning throughout their careers.

  Joyce Koornneeff, Principal at Covenant Christian School in Smithville, takes part in a tour a workshop on Finnish education at a school in the Helsinki suburbs.

The OCSAA group witnessed an inspiring teacher training system at Helsinki University. The university runs a school in the building for primary school and upper secondary students providing a real-life “lab” for student teachers to learn and develop under the mentorship of teacher associates. Student teaching is done in pairs, promoting greater collaboration.

Paul Marcus, principal at Knox Christian School in Bowmanville, Ont., says before leaving he expected to see revolutionary things but discovered that wasn’t the value of the journey. “The value was learning about the underlying foundation to make what they did happen – things like the way they train teachers and their philosophy about student learning.”

Marcus related his experiences about the trip at a recent regional principals meeting – a group of eight schools that meet five times a year. He shared what he is dreaming about, and from that an idea took root of a teacher mentorship and group training, and this was added to the agenda for the group’s next meeting.

While there are master teachers locally in Ontario, they are not utilized well in terms of creating formal procedures and processes to mentor new teachers, he notes. There is a desire to discuss how to collectively finance and provide access for new teachers to learn from these master teachers.

“If you can partner together with regional schools and find some new way of doing things that make Christian education more possible and better for a greater number of people then you have accomplished a great feat,” he says.

Student well-being
Gwyneth Zylstra is one of four staff members from Heritage Community Christian School (HCCS) in New Dublin, Ont., who went on the trip. Hearing how decisions are made through the lens of student well-being and a presentation on their special education are among her takeaways.  

Administrators and teachers make decisions with the best interest of the student top of mind. Students are given responsibility for their learning. Teachers deeply care how students are doing overall; reflections by students are built into the curriculum.  Social workers and nurses are in the school system.

With a perspective that all students have special needs, 50 percent of students receive some remedial help before leaving primary classes. There are three levels of special education support, with resource teachers assigned to classroom teachers. Students only have direct contact with a special education resource teacher as a last step.

“The thoughtful care, challenge and integration of the most vulnerable students in the education system is inspiring,” George Petrusma, principal at John Knox Christian School in Oakville, Ont., notes.

Each student has a digital folder that educators access from a central database to track how a student is doing in real-time and what supports were given.

ess is more
In Finland, elementary school starts at age seven. There are different freedoms, such as young students being permitted to leave and go home when the day is done.

It is mandated that for every 45 minutes of instruction, students have a 15 minute break for physical activity. Spending time outside is considered important for children and is built into the breaks. Other differences noted were that students do not receive homework and formal grading starts at Grade 5.  

Finland schools have a staggered schedule and younger students attend fewer hours per week, gradually moving from 20 hours in Grade 1 to 30 hours in Grades 7-9.

For example, a nine-year-old in Finland would spend 22 hours per week in school, whereas the same age students in Canada attends school 35 hours each week. Finnish schools may start anywhere from 8 to 10 a.m. and end from noon to 3 p.m., to give children time to process what they learned and to interact with others.

Bringing Finnish lessons home
Some educators returned with a long list of items they are excited to implement at their school. Marcus says he realised that this type of trip can plant ideas that take longer to come to fruition.

“The big things are going to begin to be worked out by groups of people, by regional principal cohorts, by those in leadership positions throughout the province that are going to trickle down and start to form a foundation of change that we will see the benefits of in 10, 20 and 30 years,” he tells Christian Courier. “It’s not even about our immediate schools, it’s about the future generations of our schools.”

Marcus says the Bowmanville school community has been discussing the topic of what it means to be a world-class school, and whether that is something they can strive for and attain. The Finland trip was an opportunity to further that effort, he says.

“I see a real change happening where we are not content in the province looking at our own schools, we are only content in looking around us and saying, ‘how can we be better?’” he says. “We become better by looking outward, wherever those best practices are – whether they are in Finland or whether they are right next door we need to be looking at those world-class schools that can help us to become world-class schools.”

In addition to visiting Finnish schools and taking in presentations, participants had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the local culture and engage in activities such as taking in a hockey game, music concert, cycling and saunas; some even swam in 13-degree Celsius Baltic sea water. The time spent connecting with other Christian educators to learn and discuss with one another was also a highlight for many.

“It was the trip of a lifetime,” Marcus says.  



  • Jennifer is CC's advertising and social media manager. She lives in Cobourg, Ont. with her husband and three children. Jennifer holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University.

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