Observations from Scandinavia

I recently went on holiday to Scandinavia and the Baltic states. As a teacher, I would have loved to align my holiday with their school year so I could visit some of those rockstar Finnish schools. Sadly (for me, but maybe not for my husband  and my sister with whom I was travelling), we were there in summer so schools were closed. But spending a little over a week in Helsinki, Tallinn, Stockholm and Copenhagen meant I could make some observations. These places felt different, the society was significantly different enough from New Zealand that I had to pause to take note.


What were the differences (some of these observations were spotted by my husband and sister as well)

1. Education matters and is talked about.

All of our tour guides in each of these cities commented on the importance of education as part of their national psyche. The guided bus tour of Helsinki explained the financing of education in Finland – free and well-supported by the state (as they state on their website – “The welfare of Finnish society is built on education, culture and knowledge“). The commentary did point out that students may have to buy their own text books and stationery. Both my sister and I giggled at this one – as people who have both recently paid for another tertiary qualification (fees, texts and stationery) and studied while working full-time – it seemed silly to be apologetic for this minor cost. 32% of all Swedes hold a tertiary degree – placing it in the top 5 in the OECD (source). Our tour guide in Tallinn discussed their system and the pride that she exuded could not be denied. I wonder if a tour guide in Auckland or Levin would speak as highly of our education system?

2. Parents hugged their kids, not berated them for being ‘naughty’.

My dear sister for pointing this out. Once she had, I couldn’t not notice it. The number of times I’ve been in my local Westfield shopping centre and been distracted by the parents yelling (or in some cases smacking) their children. These kids were probably tired, bored, hungry, irritated = ready to go home. Please, don’t think that I’m on my high horse. When my son was younger I lost my temper out and about in public. However, we noticed that many parents, in more than one Scandinavian city, simply picked up these temper-tantrum filled kids and kissed and hugged them. There seemed to be a sense of empathy. Kids react the way they do because they don’t have the communication skills to express their ideas in any other way – they grow out of it (on the whole) when they can articulate their ideas. If this is an attitude that parents have, it cannot help but seep into the education system. I’m sure that there were ramifications for their tantrums – it could be that these kids were reasoned with, it could be that time was taken to hear their point of view (through breathy sobs), it could be that tired kids were taken home. I’m not sure. I can only say ‘Thank you” in Finnish, Swedish and Danish so had no idea what the adults said to the kids. But it looked different. Could this be a norm? Is this extended into managing kids and their emotions in schools?

3. There were A LOT of pregnant women and young families out and about.

As someone who can’t have anymore children I do tend to notice pregnant women. But in Finland, Estonia and Scandinavia there truly was something in the water. It seemed that almost every metro carriage, street, cafe, museum or public space was filled women who were about to pop, fathers with young families in their bike carriages, prams (very stylish ones, of course) and blonde children. Why did this jump out? With women in New Zealand leaving giving birth until much later than the generation before, it was jarring to see women my age and younger with so many children. But here are the facts – maternity and paternity is generous and highly valued. In Sweden, mothers are entitled to 480 days (16 months) (77.6% (80% of 97%) paid maternity leave up to a ceiling the first 390 days, 90 days at flat rate) – shared with father (dedicated 60 days) and fathers are entitled to the same, plus 10 days for the birth of the child. Men have 4 months paid off work (if the mother takes the bulk of the paid parental leave) where they can become “latte papas” – coffee drinking, designer front-pack wearing, hands on fathers. This is about 16 months. Norway and Estonia have similarly generous paid parental leave.

This contrasts with New Zealand – while we have had significant increases in paid maternity leave – yet 14 weeks is but a drop in the bucked in comparison. If the governments are encouraging the birth of children through generous conditions around paid parental leave and incentives to have children (including home support when your baby is born) by extension, it must support the education system.  Public and independent schools are treated equally and free lunch provided for all students (like Finland). In New Zealand, we have a number of students who are facing insurmountable odds before they even step foot in the door – poverty, poor housing, poor health… the list goes on. A socialist response could help us balance out the odds and focus on the welfare of the state (and take a leaf out of the Finn’s book in doing so).

New Zealand PISA results 2012

New Zealand PISA results 2012

Finnish PISA results 2012

Finnish PISA results 2012

Do I have anything concrete to pin my observations to? Not really, just some hunches, some of which can be verified by various stats and data. I would love to go back to Finland and Scandinavia during the school year and see if some of my hunches are valid. Likewise, I would be keen to see what observations a Finnish, Danish or Swedish visitor would make about Aotearoa.

Some interesting sites to follow up on…

Why are Finland’s schools successful – article from Smithsonian Magazine – http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/why-are-finlands-schools-successful-49859555/

Finnish Ministry of Education – http://www.minedu.fi/OPM/Koulutus/koulutusjaerjestelmae/?lang=en

Education in Finland (Wikipedia) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Finland

OECD Education stats – http://www.oecd.org/edu/highlights.pdf

2012 PISA data – http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results.htm


It was the night before results – an NCEA story

It was the night before Christmas NCEA results and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse Level 1 boy…

NCEA results come out tomorrow. After the mix up last year with results being released early, students have been locked out of the site since the 9th of January. This is my first year as an anxious mother. I’m not sure whether my son is so concerned. He has a good sense of how his year has gone in light of his internal assessment grades, felt confident with some papers he sat in the externals and has a realistic idea of how (badly) some of the other papers went.

Counting down for NCEA results

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is New Zealand’s secondary school qualification. It is a mix of internal and externally assessed standards. NCEA is a high stakes qualification.  Doing well in NCEA is important for students.  The NCEA achievement determines entry to the next year of schooling and/or entrance to university.  Prospective employers also consider students’ achievement in the NCEA qualification, with Level 2 NCEA regarded as a baseline qualification for employment (NZQA, 2013).

Therefore, it is a nerve wracking evening around many homes in NZ tonight. What I do like about the NCEA is that students learning and understanding is acknowledged – it isn’t what they cannot do or do not know, rather it celebrates the diversity of students’ interests, passions and areas of expertise. I love that my son, who is passionate about art and design, can have an equal acknowledgement of his achievements alongside his friends who are into environmental science and history.

The thing that is really important is what happens next – results come, there are feelings of excitement and trepidation (hopefully there will be lots of excitement around my house), then it is on to the mad shuffle at schools. If students haven’t met the standards at the levels they were expecting/predicted to achieve, their proposed timetable is affected. I dreaded the first day that seniors were back at school; desperate students came begging in order to be allowed to stay in their proposed course, teachers were cajoled to accept students who had not chosen the subject, in my case Classical Studies, but ‘had nowhere else to go’ (these students were often accompanied with a note from the year level dean) and dealing with students who wanted you to look over their papers to see if they should send them back for a reconsideration – either they were close to meeting the standard, just short of university entrance or a few credits short of a Merit or Excellence endorsement. Moving to a new school means that I won’t have to deal with that for some time.

For us here tonight, it is all about Mathematics. It is strange to think that Level 1 Mathematics results will have an impact on my son’s future. He just said – “I’m 800% sure that I’m going to have to take Level 1 Mathematics again”.  But that is ok. NCEA works as a multi-level assessment system. If he needs to repeat one subject, it is not a problem to do so. His ability to progress in the subjects where he has performed well (Art Design, English, Graphics etc.) is not hindered because he was not at the level required.

One of my hopes for the future will be students know where they are at before, during and after assessment. How? By inducting them into the ‘guild of assessors’ (Sadler, 1989).  Using exemplars, discussing and unpacking what quality work looks like against the criteria, and providing opportunities for students to assess each other. Whether exams are the appropriate mode for students’ understanding to be measured is still up for debate. Is it an accurate measurement of student understanding under test conditions, often months after they completed the relevant learning, without access to resources… A debate I’m not quite ready for today.

Fingers crossed for tomorrow.


New Zealand Qualifications Authority. (2013). Using NCEA after leaving school  Retrieved 04.06.13, from http://www.nzqa.govt.nz/qualifications-standards/qualifications/ncea/understanding-ncea/using-ncea-after-leaving-school/

Sadler, D. R. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science, 18(2), 119-144.

Break on through to the other side

Thinking about thinking is one thing. Thinking about how to acknowledge and foster students when thinking about thinking is another. This is the conundrum of the LTLs this last week.

We spent this week looking at the needs of Learning Coaches at HPSS – from the structures that they need to support and guide students in their learning to the more specific aspects of the digital support that they need. I spent the week gleaning as much information from Kristyn from HPPS about how she is using the whole brain profile (Hermman’s Brain) to develop the whole student. I was really inspired when I was fortunate enough to sit in on a student conference in the senior learning commons. Hearing how Kristyn and the student discussed her learning, how they used the primary school learner profile to acknowledge the different ways that students can develop their dispositions and really engage with their learning.

We spent some time as a team discussing the potential of our online tools for our learner profile – how to use Moodle, KAMAR, My Portfolio and the Google apps to support our learners. I felt really lucky to have experience with all of these tools and know how my old school used them in the past, what the potential could be.  I was tasked with delving into KAMAR but, as we are still awaiting the access info, found myself exploring the whole brain dominance model and how this could be used for our learner profile.

The SLLs shared their unpacked, hacked, reconstituted NZ Curriculum. It is a brilliant model and provides more guidance than any inquiry/ design thinking based model I have come across. Ka pai to them!

On Friday we worked effectively as a team to really crack what the learner profile is going to be.  A dispositional curriculum should not use a similar model as a teaching and learning model. We love that our model will sit alongside, support and be supported by the model devised by the SLLs.  We are planning on using a model based around our Hobsonville Habits.  We are now moving into refining and testing the model that we have devised. Exciting stuff at HPSS.