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Finland, Preparing students for the future
Rae Villebrun
Preparing students for the future:
Bringing Finland to Minnesota

Rae Villebrun, principal and superintendent
Nett Lake Schools

As a new student in the Educational Leadership doctoral program at the University of North Dakota, one of my first classes was a curriculum class. Two of the five books for the class were The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner and Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg. The main topic of most of the conversations in class revolved around:  “How do we improve education in the United States?” and “Are we preparing our students for the future world?”
After reading the books and discussing them with other administrators in my class, I came to a new appreciation for what we do as leaders in education. However, I also came to the realization that we need to be doing a whole lot more. Maybe a whole lot more isn’t the phrase, because I don’t know how we could fit “more” into what we already do; a better phrase might be “we need to change what we do by working smarter.”
Imagine my excitement when I learned that the MN Department of Education (MDE) was hosting a meeting for district administrators. The topic for discussion was education in Minnesota and how it compares to education in Finland and would be led by Tony Wagner. The meeting was held on October 16, 2012.  Also in attendance were a panel of educators including:  three teachers who were educated in Finland and taught in Finland , but now work in the Minneapolis area; an employee from MDE who recently vacationed in Finland and had an opportunity to visit Finnish schools; and a teacher from the St. Paul district who went on an educational retreat in Finland.  Homework was given prior to the meeting to help develop background for good discussion and develop questions.
The discussion was wonderful and provided attendees with lots of information regarding how Minnesota compares with Finland, what we are doing right, and what needs to improve.  Some of the comments Mr. Wagner made throughout the meeting that stood out to me were that:  all students are able to succeed with 21st century skills; educators should be held accountable for what matters most; and children can get knowledge on their own, but they are not able to get the skills they need on their own. If Minnesota is going to truly improve education for all students, these ideas are going to need to be part of the improvement plan.
When looking at education in Minnesota and Finland, one difference is the amount of time that teachers have in collaborating with one another in Finland. This time allows teachers to learn from one another, talk about what works and what doesn’t, discuss lessons and projects that could be worked on collaboratively, and have discussion with other educators who are going through similar situations.
This leads back to a question that was posed by Mr. Wagner: “What kind of professional development is happening in our schools? “ Most schools have a tight budget and struggle with providing quality professional development that makes sense for what teachers need to be learning. The best professional development opportunities are available in every school if administrators find time for teachers to work together and learn from one another. The cost for this is minimal if you are creative. One thing that some schools have done is have an early release; one day a week, or even once a month, is better than nothing.  
At Nett Lake, we have early release each Wednesday. These 90 minutes are used to discuss our students, curriculum, and behavior. After the meeting at MDE, one change was made in how the teachers spend their time. One Wednesday a month, the teachers have time to collaborate on a project for their students. Tony Wagner said that one of the differences between Finland and our educational system is teachers have time to work together. We have the time at Nett Lake and the teachers are now able to work on an area that is important to them.  
The education system in Finland focuses on 21st century skills. As educators, we don’t know what the future looks like for our students and we don’t know what jobs will be created. To prepare students for the uncertainties in their future, they need to be proficient in 21st century skills.  These skills have students using what the students know to build and improve skills, rather than using what they know to pass a test. Students with these skills are able to solve problems through creative and innovative thinking, communicating and working collaboratively with their classmates.  
In our current system, students spend much of their time learning what and not how and why. I believe this is because the “what “ is what is tested. If students are going to be successful in the future, they need to learn the “how” and “why”. Teaching the “how” and “why” require teachers to teach differently than they typically might teach. Teachers need time to talk with one another and work with one another. They need time to figure things out, ask questions, and find answers. With all that goes on in the day, administrators need to find the time for teachers to collaborate.  
As a Minnesota educator, I am proud to be part of a state that is moving in the direction of improving learning for our students, and not just focusing on test scores. While there may be barriers to improving education, Minnesota has the passion, dedication, and creativity to work through the barriers. If we do our part by supporting our teachers in their efforts to change what happens in their classrooms, we will be on the road to success for all of our students.

(Published in the MESPA Advocate, November 2012)

“All students are able to succeed with 21st century skills; educators should be held accountable for what matters most; and children can get knowledge on their own, but they are not able to get the skills they need on their own.”