What Homeschoolers Can Learn-From the Finns

Note: It's one of those years! A year with a high school senior in our family. Which means I'm up to my ears in college admissions paperwork for the next month. Since my writing time is taken up with other less fun documents, I'm going to run some different material here. This is an article I did for Practical Homeschooling magazine a bit over a year ago.

The genesis of this article was a conversation I had with someone at my great-aunt's funeral. This woman happened to be a newly retired judge and was there as friend of my cousin, also a judge.  Learning that I had homeschooled my children for over two decades, the judge, who had been an elementary teacher before attending law school, began grilling me about our educational methods and results. It was one of the liveliest, most challenging conversations I have ever had about homeschooling. At the end she thanked me "for allowing me to cross-examine, er, I mean discuss this with you." Deeply interested in alternative educational models, the judge at one point brought up the Finns, which led to my later researching how they do what they do.



What Homeschoolers Can Learn From the Finns

Does this sound familiar? Children attend class in their stocking feet in a homey setting. The highly motivated teacher has a great deal of freedom, choosing her own books and instructional methods. With a classroom day of around four hours, the children study language arts, math, science, music, art, sports, and some practical skills. Little ones learn primarily through play. Older ones have a minimal amount of homework, and tests are rare with only one standardized test at the end of nine years. The teacher takes very seriously her responsibility to not only teach but to also nurture the young people under her care, and she knows her students intimately as she teaches them from first to sixth grades. Oh, yes. By the time they are 15 years old, students who have attended this type of school whoop up on their peers in reading, science, and math.

Though much of that description may hold true for many homeschools, it is actually a portrait of a typical Finnish school. In the past decade or so, Finnish schools have become the darling of many in the education world because of their unique philosophy and stunning results. Since 2000, the first year the study was performed, Finland has appeared in the top echelon of the prestigious PISA (Programme For International Student Assessment), a test given to 15 year olds around the world every three years. Just last year Pearson Education named Finland and South Korea as “education superpowers.” The unassuming Finns have found this attention a bit disconcerting. After all, they had simply set out to provide a quality education for every student, not set the world on fire.

Finnish schools have not always been at the head of the worldwide class. Back in the early 1970s when they were behind most countries, they determined to revamp their entire system. Now compulsory schooling begins at age 7 and continues through 16. Having an egalitarian society, one of Finland's goals is to educate all children equally well, so they do not separate out gifted students or slow learners. They do provide extra help for any who need it, something like 30% of younger children, but that help comes in the regular classroom. Bright children aid their friends, and from several measurements, remarkably it appears the Finns have been able to raise the bar for everyone, rather than allow the slower students to drag down the others. After primary school, students can either move to a college prep secondary school or a vocational high school. From there they may attend college or a polytechnic institute or head out to work. So far that doesn't sound too radical. Just wait.

According to Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons and Director General of Finland's Ministry of Education and Culture, “Less is more” in Finnish education. Finnish children attend school for fewer hours, spend far less time on homework, and take fewer tests than American children. By law, Finnish children are not even allowed to be given grades before 5th grade, according to Sahlberg.

Finnish teachers also have less top-down control than many others, including ours. While Finland does have a national “curriculum”, it acts as a guideline and not a taskmaster. The math section, for example, consists of ten pages for the first nine year. The math section of the Common Core, by contrast, has seven pages for fourth grade alone. Official school inspectors were done away with in the 1990s, and teachers and principals work diligently because of internal responsibility rather than some form of external accountability. Speaking at Vanderbilt University, Sahlberg said that there is no word for accountability in Finnish. Instead, "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility is subtracted."

What Finns do have in abundance are passionate, intelligent teachers. Pasi Sahlberg says only the best and brightest high school students, about 10%, make it through the competitive selection process for the 650-700 spots available at the five-year teaching colleges. Prospective teachers must excel in all academic areas, most particularly math and science. On top of that, they need to sing and dance or be musical and should have some sports experience. Finnish teachers appreciate the autonomy they are given to creatively teach, and even though they are not paid as well as their counterparts in the U.S., they are repaid with a high amount of prestige.

As intriguing as the Finnish model is, even if I lived in that country, I would still want to homeschool my children. (Happily, according to the HSLDA, homeschooling is on the rise in that country and is protected by the Finnish constitution.) And while for a host of reasons the model likely wouldn't translate well into school systems at large in the U.S., the greater flexibility of homeschoolers puts us in a position to be able to glean some valuable strategies from the clever Finns while discarding other elements. Here are some take-away lessons that might be useful to homeschooling parents:

  • Build time in your schedule for “professional development.” Finnish teachers have about two hours each week. The time we spend reading about educational ideas, attending support groups, or listening to live or web-based seminars can all help sharpen our skills and refresh us when we are weary. Reading Practical Homeschooling is one great way to to this, too! Read widely. Keeping your mind active and piquing your curiosity will make you a better teacher.

  • Play is important! The Finns have proven that you don't need to rush academics with preschoolers for them to be very successful in the long run. Let your little ones learn primarily through indoor and outdoor play, art experiences, and listening to good books.

  • As your children grow, keep your school rich in play, arts, and hands-on activities. Handcrafts and music are integral parts of a Finnish child's day, along with learning two foreign languages. Teachers often employ creative instruction such as outdoor math where the children use sticks, pine cones, and other natural materials as manipulatives. Finnish children play outside and have about an hour or more of recess each day.

  • Teach your children how to learn and don't focus on test-taking. If your children become self-learners who love to discover new things, they will do just fine on any tests that come their way.
  • Do you have a gifted child? One who has special needs? Give each one what he or she needs, including extra tutoring or more advanced challenges. But don't make a big fuss about your child's abilities, either which way. Let the advanced child help the struggling one and both will gain. Maybe if we do this, our kids will have some of the Finnish humility as well.

If you want to spend some of your “professional development” time learning more about how the Finns educate their children, you might check out some of the resources listed below. Anne Wegener



Resources:

Hancock, LynNell. "Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?." Smithsonian. Sept. 2011. Web. 21 Jun.
      2013. 
 
"Homeschooling Gains Attention in Finland." HSLDA. 24 Sept. 2010. Web. 25 Jun 2013.

Kouta, Maria. On Top of the World: How the Finns Educate Their Children. 2013. eBook.

Levine, Joshua. "Finnishing School." Time Magazine. 11 Apr 2011. Web. 21 Jun. 2013.

"Pearson Launches The Learning Curve." Pearson. 27 Nov. 2012. Web. 25 Jun 2013.


Sahlberg, Pasi. Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in
       Finland?. Youtube, 2011. Web. 22 Jun 2013.


©2013 Home Life, Inc. Originally published in Practical Homeschooling magazine. Used by permission.

Dum Spiro Spero



Until the gate of hell is shut upon a man, we must not cease to pray for him. And if we see him hugging the very doorposts of damnation, we must go to the mercy seat and beseech the arms of grace to pluck him from his dangerous position. While there is life, there is hope, and although the soul is almost smothered with despair, we must not despair for it, but rather arouse ourselves to awaken the Almighty arm. 

- From a sermon on Mary Magdalene by Charles Spurgeon

Online Learning Sites

Faith prepares for her pre-calc class. Textbook? Headset? Graphics tablet to input math work? Knitting?




Busy mamas look for all sorts of ways to multiply themselves as they try to teach a houseful. (Here's a previous post on this topic: "Multiply (Yourself) and Divide Your Work.")

In the olden days we used audio tapes and occasional videos. Technology continues to give us more and more options for teaching subjects that are not our forte or for making it possible to have lots of simultaneous subjects going on at once. And, yes, of course you don't want to park any child in front of a computer or other screen for vast quantities of time! And, yes again, most, but not all of these tools are aimed at older students. Nonetheless, used judiciously, and in age-appropriate ways, these resources can be a help for stretched teachers.

Here are some of the sites we've been using which have been a significant help in our homeschool. They're not just for your kids, either! Nothing helps keep your teaching fresh like continuing to learn alongside your young scholars!


1. The Potter's School
We've partnered with TPS for around 14 years to provide high quality LIVE internet classes for our older children. Starting in junior high, our kids take 1-3 classes each year in subjects from British Literature and Chemistry to Calculus and Electronics. I can't imagine teaching high school without the super TPS teachers and classes.

If you're interested in TPS classes, check them out in the late winter. Registration takes place in March and April.


2. The Khan Academy
Most everyone knows about Khan, which offers free classes in math, business, programming, and  more, but if it has been a while since you checked them out, you may find new content. Recently they've added Spanish and French among other courses. One of my high schoolers is learning computer coding with Khan tutorials. Most of the classes are for older kids, but they do have math tutorials for young students.


3. Mango Languages
While trying to figure out a better language learning situation for one of my high schoolers, I ran across Mango Languages this summer. Mango offers some 52+ courses including Croatian (my 80 year old dad is currently touring that country!) Vietnamese, Biblical Hebrew, and more common ones such as French and Spanish. Faith is taking German and Amanda is dappling in Koine Greek. My girls have several years of Rosetta Stone under their belts, and they say Mango easily surpasses Rosetta.

OK, now here's the amazing part. Mango has partnered with many public libraries to offer their programs for free! Yes - if your library (like ours) subscribes to Mango, you can access these brilliant courses for absolutely nothing! (You can also purchase a single course or access to unlimited courses for a month or a year if your library is not a subscriber. The prices still beat Rosetta.)

For reviews that explain more about Mango try this one or this.

4. Headventure Land
The creative folks at Classical Academic Press have outdone themselves with their fun review site, Headventure Land. Here your kids can play games and take quizzes to review their vocabulary, grammar, and comprehension of Latin, Spanish, and Greek. Lessons are correlated with CAP's courses for children of all ages. My youngest boys use Flash Dance, a game with virtual flashcards, to help them review their Latin vocabulary.

In the past couple of weeks an upgraded version of Headventure Land for Latin For Children, Book A, has come out which requiresa $20  membership fee to unlock all of the games. Many games, including Flash Dance are still free, but the "Full Zone" includes additional content.  Ben has found the site so useful that I have had him go back and work through previously completed chapters to solidify his knowledge or beginning Latin. 


5. Memrise
This one is new to me, and so far I'm the only one in our family testing it out. Memrise is basically a flashcard site which offers tons of community created courses in everything from geography (capitals of African countries, for example) to art history.These flashcards can be built with graphics, sound, and mneumonics, so, depending on the particular program you are working with, it can be quite fun. I'm currently dabbling in Art History and reviewing some German vocabulary.

Memrise introduces each new nugget of information, then quizzes you until you have put that info into longer term memory. It uses garden terminology and talks of "planting" and then "watering" as you nurture your new knowledge. A little bit each day is the key. (And, yes, it has been probably a week since I watered my factoids. They will probably wither and die before I get back to them.)       

Memrise can be used on various devices besides regular computers as it is also available as an iOS and Goggle app. If you want to understand more about the theory behind the site, check out this Wiki article.



6. Future Learn
I'm super excited about the Future Learn class I'm signed up for:  Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier.  Set to begin next week, this class will be taught by a professor from Newcastle University. I'm a bit of an Anglophil, and I have a secret desire to someday ride my bike from coast-to-coast along Hadrian's Cycleway, so this class promises to be interesting.   


FutureLearn is a source of MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses) owned by The Open University. Future Learn's courses mostly come from UK universities and the program is in the beta stage.

The jury is still out on the impact MOOC classes are going to have on learning around the globe. There seems to be enormous potential, but some of the application has been disappointing. For example, the completion rate is pretty low overall for MOOC courses. Anyway, I'm looking forward to giving my Hadrian's Wall class a whirl, and seeing what all the fuss is about these type of free courses!

There you have it! Six technological helpers we are currently either using or investigating!

Book Club: The Hobbit


The Hobbit, our second and very popular summer book club selection, was a winner with the children! We'd let the kids pick (via a Doodle poll) the summer titles from a collection of seven, and The Hobbit received nine out of ten possible votes.

(During this book club I was helping with the younger kids who were having fun with Marcia Brown's retelling of Stone Soup, so much of my information comes from my children.)

Can you imagine a Book Club about The Hobbit without enjoying Hobbit food? Of course not! So we met for lunch, which also worked perfectly for the Stone Soup crowd!

Scads of websites exist filled with ideas for Lord of the Rings recipes. We found these particularly helpful:


Food in Tolkien's Hobbit


English Victorian Scones

Seed Cake

Middle Earth Recipes

Music played as the children entered the "dining hall."  The luncheon consisted of Melton Mowbray Pork Pie, cold roast chicken, seed cake, another cake, hard boiled eggs, scones and jam all served with apple cider. Interesting. Very interesting!



While they ate, the students discussed the book and tried their skill at telling and guessing riddles. But after sitting for nearly an hour and a half, it was time for some action, so we moved to the gym.

First the students were divided into two teams for a game of tag between fleeing dwarfs/Hobbit/Gandolf and pursuing goblins. The dwarf company had two swords with glo-sticks taped to them to represent the elfish blades which glowed blue when goblins were nearby. If a dwarf was holding one of the swords, he couldn't be tagged, but if he had no sword he could be tagged. If the goblins  tagged all of the dwarves, then the goblins won. Meanwhile, the dwarfs had to run around, tagging certain objects. Those who managed to tag all of them were declared winners. Once all the goblins won, and another time some of the dwarfs claimed victory.

Next the kids took turns entering the "Goblin Cave" (large storage closet) to try to find the all-important ring. The ring had been immersed in a vat filled with water beads which become very slimy when hydrated.  (Try a Dollar store for these fun things!) But before they could get their hands into the vat filled with "goblin blood", they had to find it, not an easy task in the dark! About half of the students succeeded.

The younger ones enjoyed the web, too



An obstacle course modeled after the spiders in Mirkwood comprised the third activity. The kid set up paint bucket "trees" and then wound rope and kite string through to form a web. They had to try to get through the tangled web without touching either trees or web. If they did touch either, they had to restart.












Shooting Smaug (a beautiful dragon on cardboard) with arrows served as our finale.




Fun was had by all. We're all  ready for another great year of monthly book club meetings, too!

Zambia Trip Highlights

Sunset near Petauke, Zambia


Tim, Kristen, and Andrew arrived home Monday morning, travel weary, but so thankful for their time in Zambia with Tim's brother, David, and sister-in-law, Terri. What a wonderful time they had together, experiencing several different parts of this beautiful country, and seeing some of the work going on to build God's kingdom there!

Tim and Kristen have both posted pictures on Facebook, so this feels a bit redundant. But I love looking at them, so here goes anyway.

Along the Great East Road
After arriving almost a day later than expected, the group made their way to Covenant College located near Petauke in the Eastern Province.  
They took the Great East Road which was a bit rough at times. That plus all the weight of the extra passengers, ahem, put a bit too much stress on the shocks of David and Terri's mini-van. Happily, the car held out until they were back in Lusaka where it quickly went to the shop.








At Covenant College, Terri taught on Ruth at a women's conference and Kristen gave a simple lesson on darning. (Had she ever darned before? No, but that didn't stop her. In truth, she is a skilled weaver, and there is some overlap.)  David taught a number of church history classes to the students, pastors from rural areas, while Tim and Andrew wired a building on the property. A sweet missionary family serving at the College provided warm hospitality throughout their visit.

House for visiting teachers at Covenant College





Mama and baby monkey at the bus station
Traveling back to Lusaka for a day, the group prepared to head to Livingstone to see Victoria Falls. Since it was the maiden voyage of the bus they rode, all passengers received t-shirts from the bus owner who gave a speech in the middle of the trip. When the Chinese vehicle broke down during his speech, he made sure it was fixed promptly!

 








The falls are absolutely stunning!






David and Kristen playing in the Zambeezi River above the falls

While in Livingstone, they also visited a game park where they saw

zebras,
 giraffes,
an elephant, hippos, impalas, and bushbucks.
Back in Lusaka, Kristen was able to spend a couple of days shadowing an American doctor as she taught young physicians (equivalent to residents here) and visited the hospital. Kristen got to teach that favorite skill of nurses- giving injections.







Tim and Andrew worked on podiums for African Christian University, the new college that David is helping establish. David is heading up the seminary.


Andrew and a friend work on picture frames




Later there was a trip to a reptile farm near Lusaka.

Lots of crocs (which they'd also seen along the Zambeezi),

David and Andrew got up-close and personal with a python.



It was a jam-packed couple of weeks. I'm so thankful for David and Terri opening their home and lives to these three. We're so glad for the time and for being better to understand their lives and work in Zambia. Life at home was fine, though I find it more difficult to be separated from Tim the longer we've been married. But it does make the reunion very sweet!

Too Busy to Pray? (Prayer - Part II)


Stream at IU's Arboretum

Maybe you've heard that famous line of Martin Luther's about having so much to do that he couldn't get on without first spending three hours in prayer. "But he wasn't a mother with little ones to tend!" I've sometimes thought.

True. Martin Luther had an ultra-capable wife who not only took excellent care of their six children and four foster children, but who also managed their farm, operated a brewery, and sometimes ran a hospital! She worked hard so he was free to attend to spiritual matters. Yet the older I get, the more I understand the truth in his words. The greater our responsibilities, the greater the urgency to pray.

Feeling guilty about my lack of  prayer (or quality or consistency or whatever), though, never helped me all that much. Instead, what drove me to get serious about spending time with the Father both now and at previous times has been the recognition of my inability to do anything on my own.

Paul Miller in A Praying Life says, "If you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need in life. You'll always be a little too tired, a little too busy."

Ouch!

Sometimes we think of prayer as a spiritual discipline. And that's correct in some sense. But truly it is our poverty, not our riches, our need to be with the Savior rather than go it on our own, that brings us to our knees.

Weariness should not keep us from Jesus, but draw us to Him. Remember that Jesus invited all who were weary and heavy-laden to come to Him, and He would give rest (Matt. 11:28). Mr. Miller says, "The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy."


Phew!

Prayer requires abiding in Christ, and nothing causes us to run to Him better than trials. Charles Spurgeon said: "Brother, if you are to have power in prayer you must take care that you abide in Christ when the sharp knife is cutting everything away. Endure trial and never dream of giving up your faith because of it. Say, 'Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.'"


Moms, especially when there are many young children, are busy people. Sometimes we are overwhelmed. Weary. Heavy-laden. In every season of life, trials come, often at an increasing pace with years. Making time to come to Jesus daily is not only possible, it is vital. I'll try to give some practical tips for doing that in the next posts.


Schultüte - Take 2

Schultüte filled with post-it notes, pencils, planners, art supplies, candy, and the like.


I guess it's never too late to start a new tradition. Last year, for the first time, I made Schultute for each of the kids for the first day of school. Schultüte are basically a German “Back to School” version of Christmas stockings in which school supplies and candies are stuffed into a colorful cone instead of a sock. They were so well received that I decided to do it again, this time even including the college sophomore who was just about ready to move out of the house.

Were they offended with this childish custom, I wondered. So I asked. Not at all. My 19, 17, 16, 13, and 10 year olds all think Schultüte are a charming tradition. (OK. Maybe it was a stupid question Who wouldn't enjoy fun, fresh office supplies and a bit of chocolate?)

As I did last year, there was one component for everyone's cone which required the most thought: Bible verses written on nice cards. I puzzled over which passage would be just right for each young person, passages relevant for now and ones that I can use as I pray for each individual through the coming year. (I longed to talk with Tim about these selections, but his connectivity in Zambia has been very spotty.)

Here are the verses I choose:

Hebrews 12: 1, 2 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.


Romans 12: 1,2 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.


Colossians 2: 6,7 Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.

Jude 1: 20, 21 But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit,  keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life.

Psalm 17:8 
Keep me as the apple of Your eye;
Hide me under the shadow of Your wings 

Happy Back to School!