Reclaimed – “Special Education Site Visits”

August 22, 2012 Off By JR

Today I went to Toivola special school in Helsinki. I’ll point out right now that Finland differs from Saskatchewan in how special education is offered. Both places have part-time special education that takes place in the regular classroom, as well as part-time and more full-time assistance in resources rooms. Where they differ is that Finland still has separate special education schools that only enroll students with special support needs. Saskatchewan has mostly moved away from that (St. Peter’s alternate highschool, near Humboldt, closed its doors last year). I was met by a friendly veteran of the school who took me from class to class and talked about his experiences as a teacher in Finland. I also happened to be the only attendant of this tour so I had quite a rich experience. I also met with the principal briefly in the morning. I think what stuck out from that conversation the most was that to be a substitute teacher in Finland you are NOT required to have a teaching degree. This came as a complete shock to me, as I am currently a substitute teacher, but I am required to have a valid teaching certificate (which requires a B.Ed). From what I understand teachers in Finland do not require a degree as long as they are not hired for longterm contracts, so a few months would be fine. However, the trust in these teachers is still high, as the principal themselves must bring them in, often a professional they know quite well. 

This school had grades 1-9, and just over one-hundred students. Each class only had a maximum of 10 students, this is legally the maximum one teacher in these schools can have at one time. Some of the classes are combined, for example gym, so 20 students would attend, but there are still only 10 students per teacher present. Also teacher’s aids are in every class. One of the first classes I was able to observe was a grade 7 physics lesson. The teacher stood at the front with an interactive white board and the teacher’s aid moved from student to student helping where she could. This was not simply a lecture style presentation. Based on my limited language skills and explanations by my guide this was very much a faciliated discussion between the teacher and students. Similar to what we learn in SK to ask open questions, using the right amount of wait time, moving up and down Bloom’s taxonomy in questioning, etc. Not too revolutionary from my perspective, but good to see.

I was able to see the crafts facilities; woods, metals, home economics, textiles, and art/graphic art (non-digital). I am so impressed by the value Finnish education places on these skills, but I will speak to that more in the following posts. Students in this school are required from grade three to nine a minimum of three hours a week of crafts. The higher grades have more choice in what subject and how much time in that subject they have. This school has a pretty typicaly gym, but also has a pool, and a sauna. I thought he was joking at first, but those things are there, and not in every school. 

I was also observed a grade 5 geography lesson. In this lesson the teacher had a booklet shown on the screen using a document camera, and each student had their book open to the same page. They were labelling the maps with land formations and water. This was pretty closely guided, perhaps more ‘ traditional’ than I was hoping for. 

Thinking back on my experience I think there is value in these schools. The teaching methods are very similar to home, which means they are facing some of the same changes we are. 

Tonight I went to the Arabia Museum, which is a small one room museum at the Arabia factory. Arabia is a ceramic manufacturer, under the same umbrella as Finlayson, Iittala, Fiskars, etc. Each of the brands specializes in one craft area. I suspect the age of these companies is both reflective of the Finnish interest and value in crafts, as well as the driving force behind an emphasis in crafts education.