GROMINDS: Diving deeper into the SAVI


I arrived Sunday night March 9, 2014, in Helsinki. The sun was still shining and there was no snow on the ground. I was told that this had been the warmest winter in years. The train to take me to Jyväskylä had just left so I decided to take a bus directly from the airport. After 30 hours of traveling across the Atlantic Ocean and across the European mainland, I arrived at the Hotel Alba next to the Agora Center at the University of Jyväskylä (JYU) at 9 p.m. The hotel host appeared to recognize me from my visit the year before and after signing in, she just warned me that the kitchen was already closed so no food for the night.  Luckily the power bars I had purchased in DC the day before, saved the day.


On Monday morning, I met with the Graphogame team at 9 a.m. (9:15 exactly. I was told that the Finns sometimes tend to start meetings usually 15 minutes later than the set time just to make sure everybody who is late is able to come and settle down before the meeting starts.  I learned this trick quickly and arrived fashionably late to my meeting on Wednesday, just to learn that the rule doesn’t always work (the researchers I was going to meet on that day were already there at 9 a.m.). Anyway, at the meeting on Monday, we discussed the Graphogame study I conducted in the USA. Next, Jarkko Hautala, a researcher at the Agora Center, reminded us that it was lunch time and we needed to go before the lines at the JYU cafeteria were too long (My Finnish partners tended to respect their lunch time which is something those of us, who have lunch at our desks, should learn to also respect…).


In the afternoon Ulla Richardson, Jarkko, and I discussed future research collaborations. Ulla is currently heading the GG project along with Heikki Lyytinen. Several ideas were presented that we hope to follow-up on.  On Day 2, it was the Finns’ turn to present their SAVI study. Jarkko described the MSBooks study in Finland and his preliminary findings (for details about the two studies, Graphogame in the USA, and MSBooks in Finland, see the webinar we presented on 3/20 at In the afternoon of Day 2, Jarkko had organized a colloquium for me to present my research on bilingual reading instruction. The colloquium was casual and attended by people in the community, doctoral students and researchers in psychology and linguistics.


The next two days I met with other researchers at JYU among them Dr. Paavo Leppänen, a researcher in neuroscience and Dr. Jouni Viiri, professor in the School of Education. Dr. Viiri gave an introduction to his national and international research on STEM. One topic we discussed at length was his research investigating the best ways middle school students and high school students learn science, and the fact that contrary to many other countries, Finland does not appear to have a shortage of physics teachers. Young people want to study physics and teach it!


One of the highlights of my trip to Jväskylä, however, was my visit to the school where Jarkko is conducting his pilot study of the MindStars books. I observed first graders read the MSbooks in Finnish, answer multiple choice questions and then immediately receive a survey related to their experience reading the book.  The technology appeared to work smoothly and children did not have any trouble hearing and answering the multiple-choice questions. After this observation, I met with the first grade teachers and the English teacher, Ms. Mari Kalaja, at the school over coffee and pulla. In my conversation with the teachers, I learned that in Finland: (1) all teachers have studied at least 5 years to become teachers and they all have masters degrees (i.e., alternative certificates are not offered); (2) the teacher education programs are competitive and in general approximately 10% of those who apply are accepted; (3) all teachers follow the national curriculum but they have the flexibility to use it in any way they want; (4) teachers prepare their own assessments, there are no national assessments; (5) special education teachers and classroom teachers communicate frequently about the progress students with disabilities are making, and (6) although teacher salaries might be lower compared to the salaries in other professions, in general the difference is smaller compared to other countries. In addition, the school day is only 4-5 hours long, and teachers can prepare their lessons at home so their day at school also ends after students are dismissed.


For me, however, I found that perhaps the largest difference between teachers in the USA and in Finland is how they are perceived by school administrators, parents, and the community in general. In Finland, teachers are trusted that they will carry out their job with professionalism. In the USA, teachers are held accountable for their instruction and, in general, they are observed and evaluated by school administrators on a regular basis. Dr. Jari Lavonen from the EAGER group and I discussed this issue at length at our meeting in Helsinki. Dr. Lavonen has been conducting comparative studies using the PISA data. This trust in teachers does not appear to be a European phenomenon but a Finnish phenomenon. I wonder if this trust also comes from the trust in the current teacher preparation programs? For example, according to Dr. Mirjamaija Mikkila-Erdmann at the University of Turku (UT) and researcher in the eTEXTBOOK SAVI project, future teachers are trained from Year 1 to think and act as researchers. They learn how to conduct interviews, how to be objective observers of student behaviors, and how to adapt their lessons and develop assessments based on the data they collect. They are also encouraged to collaborate with each other, and are given, in general, the necessary tools to foster that collaboration. For example, in Turku, I visited the International School, a public school that served as a training and research site for the School of Education at UT.  This school had the most appealing, spacious, and inviting teacher lounge I have seen in any school. The lounge has computers, comfortable chairs and tables, several couches that are conducive to meetings, and a few round tables that invite teachers to talk to each other.  The teacher lounge rooms I have seen in the schools in the USA tend to be small and are used by teachers to have their lunch quickly between classes.


During Week 2, I also met with Dr. Veera Kallunki and post-doctoral students Johanna Ojalainen and Johanna Penttilä who are working on the VIP project. At the meeting I learned the intricacies of this project designed to engage students in science learning by having them create videos of the science they are learning (students can record the teacher conducting an experiment, or they can record themselves conducting an experiment). In this project students can also share their videos with USA high school students who provide them with feedback. It is too early to know what the results of this study will be, but it was exciting to imagine how technology can encourage the collaboration among students within a classroom and also across the ocean.


The PDE group lead by Marja Vauras and Erno Lehtinen is also fascinating. In this  project, teachers are using virtual labs to teach science and the scientific method to high school students and preservice teachers. The ebooks were created by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. They include content knowledge with imbedded graphs from real data, as well as videos that students can watch to gain a deeper understanding of the science taught. The beauty of these books, however, is the follow-up activities after students have learned the content. To increase their engagement and to gain a deeper knowledge of the science, students have to develop their own experimental study from scratch. In other words, they have to become “real scientists” and apply what they have learned to solve a real problem. Students generate a hypothesis that is evaluated by the teacher. If approved, students then develop a research plan and apply for funding. If funding is granted, they carry on their experiment, collect and analyze data and write a final report. A fundamental component of the PDE project is that preservice teachers are also using these ebooks exactly like students so they can provide feedback to researchers and gain experience using technology effectively in the classroom.


A common theme among the PDE, the VIP, and our GROMINDS project is that in all of them English (a language with an opaque orthography), and Finnish or Spanish is used (two languages with transparent orthographies). For example, the virtual labs in the PDE project were developed in English to target a wider audience, in VIP, Finnish students converse with USA students, and in our project, GROMINDS, we are using the MSBooks to teach Spanish-speaking students science as well as potentially teach Finnish students English through meaningful content. In other words, these three projects have challenges related to students mastering content and at the same time a second or perhaps sometimes a third or fourth language (the official second language in Finland is Swedish, then comes English). Although in my observations and visits to schools in these last two weeks many students appeared to be quite fluent in English, there was also a large variability in their English skills.


How to overcome the language barrier when teaching content is a topic that is universal to all teachers of second language learners across the globe. Two examples that I observed in a 4th and a 6th grade classroom at the International School in Turku can provide insights on how language acquisition can be effectively taught. In both classrooms the teachers engaged students actively in conversations in English about the topics they were learning by encouraging them to (a) explain in English their responses, (b) describe their illustrations of the science topic discussed, and (c) collaborate in the creation of a follow-up project that requires extensive meaningful interactions in small groups. In 4th grade students discussed force, in 6th grade students were assigned to create a game around the travels of Alexander the Great.


My conversations with researchers and my visits to schools indicated that although Finland is a small country of 5,414,000 people, with a relatively homogenous society, it is also changing and becoming more linguistically and culturally diverse. Diversity is common in USA schools and this is the reason why a project such as SAVI can be mutually beneficial. It fosters not only a more global understanding of how to educate future generations of students, but also an opportunity to work together on how to overcome the challenges we face in education as our student population and technological advances change the educational environment. As a researcher and professor of preservice bilingual teachers in the USA, I reflect on how we can improve our teacher education programs and increase our trust in teachers. I also think about how technology in both countries can support the science knowledge of an increasingly diverse population of students. The strong foundation of the Finnish educational system will allow Finland to see the new educational challenges as opportunities for growth and more global understanding. I wonder if we, in the USA, with all our diversity and a population that is almost 60 times larger than the Finnish population can also make changes to our perception of teachers and potentially build an equally strong educational infrastructure that is built on trust? The global collaboration in the SAVI could be a first step in dealing with this challenge.


As I walk through the streets of Helsinki on my last day, I entered the Helsinki cathedral just to find a group of boys rehearsing Bach’s St John’s Passion for their concert on Sunday. The boys were all ages and they all seemed to know exactly what they had to do.  They were also talking with each other in a quiet voice and some were checking their cell phones when they were not singing.  This was to me, a clear illustration of how the Finnish education system works. Students are expected to always give their best performance, but at the same time they are given the freedom to still be children. What an ending to an unforgettable trip!


Doris Luft de Baker






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