On Lab Schools and Education of Immigrants in Finland

The journey of learning continues! I feel so lucky. In this entry, I will discuss two areas that I’ve learned a lot about during my visit here: how teachers are trained and how K-12 schools educate immigrant children.

All preservice teachers in Finland practice teaching in lab schools, which they here call “normal schools.” These are K-12 schools associated with universities, where teaching staff serve as clinical faculty for the university. Many of the teachers have PhDs in Education. Did you know that the first lab school was led by John Dewey at the University of Chicago? Their pedagogical approach is based on experiential education. I know in the States lab schools are seen as old-fashioned. I would love to hear from some of my fellow teacher education professionals back home in the States as to why they were abandoned there.

I can see some drawbacks to lab schools. For example, the carefully monitored, well-resourced and supported environment might not give the new teacher a very realistic view of teaching. Also, the students in a lab/“normal school” at least in Finland are not your typical kids – they’re often the children of faculty associated with the neighboring university, so often a highly selected group of kids (however, a lab/"normal school" that I visited had 63% of Finnish as a second language speakers). And, there’s an issue related to equity too as often student teachers can give a school building a boost of energy and teach the practicing teachers new pedagogical approaches and serve as an extra set of hands, which schools that are less resourced (and not associated with a university) could benefit from.

As an ESL professional, I really wanted to learn more about how immigrants are taught in Finland. One thing I have noticed is that there definitely are more immigrants in Finland. Refugees and immigrants are still a sore subject to many here and open discrimination against foreign-born individuals is pretty common. I witnessed this first-hand several times yesterday on the bus and on the streets – subtle looks, unfriendly under the breath comments by passersby, etc.. I learned today that the first larger immigration wave came to Finland in the 1990s when a lot of Russians came over to Finland after the borders opened (after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russian economy crashed). There weren’t any accommodations for these immigrant children in school; however, they assimilated very quickly, learned the language and succeeded academically. The experts I spoke with today said that this was due to factors such as the similarity of cultures of the two places, similar races/ethnicities, and strong academic background of the students. The goal of immigrant education in Finland seems to be assimilation (rather than acculturation, which focuses on purposefully maintaining the immigrant's home culture and values) and interestingly seems to be purely an academic construct. The school officials consider assimilation to be successful if the students learn to speak Finnish and succeed academically.

In the last ten years, there has been an influx of refugees coming to Finland (from Somalia and Albania for example). In fact, most immigrant students in the elementary school I visited yesterday were second-generation immigrants, i.e., they were born in Finland. Based on my conversations across many contexts here, it is clear that while there are more and more structures for education of immigrant children, the Finnish schools do struggle with it. I was told that second language Finnish speakers trail somewhat behind native-speakers in PISA exams, for example. One of the most interesting practices related to the topic was that once a student is identified as a second language Finnish speaker, they will remain on this status for the rest of their K-12 education. I asked what this means and it means that a teacher, who already has all students in the same classroom (special ed, all ability levels) differentiates instruction for second language Finnish speakers. The second language speakers have one year (that’s it!!) of foundational Finnish instruction and after that they’re integrated into regular grade-level classrooms. The second language status also allows the teacher to assign alternative homework and adjust assessments and grading. The teachers of the foundational Finnish instruction are elementary-ed teachers with special, additional training.

It was very eye-opening to hear that immigrant children, even though born in Finland and after attending Finnish day care/pre schools since they were just babies (all Finnish babies go to governmental day care centers starting at 1-2 years old), they lag behind in Finnish compared to their non-immigrant Finnish counterparts all the way through P-12. They are socially fluent, but don’t have the academic Finnish to succeed (sound like BICS and CALP anyone?). We talked about many factors associated with this, many of which are similar to those in the States. They shared about issues like many of the caretakers (mothers) are illiterate (we know from research that a mother’s level of education is the strongest predictor of a child’s ultimate level of education). Also, play and toys are not as common in some of the refugee households and Finns are huge proponents of play supporting emerging academic skills in kids.

As a student advocate always first, I offered some other aspects as potential factors affecting these students’ level of Finnish proficiency. One of the big factors that I see is also that the immigrant children are still figuring out their identities. For example, I learned that while born and raised in Finland, they still talk about “going home” when visiting say Albania, their parents’ home country during the summer where they have never lived. So they clearly don’t have clear affinity to their new country and culture. We know from research that if an individual doesn’t associate with a certain target culture, they will not be able to fully learn the language.

The journey of learning has been amazing! I was able to teach another 5th grade class. It was a bilingual classroom, where subjects are taught using both English and Finnish (taking turns). The students were fluent in English (native-speakers of Finnish except for one student) and had a very globally-oriented mindset. Very inspiring.