As part of a symposium focused on educational innovation around the world at the annual conference of the American Educational Assocation in Chicago next week, we are sharing commentary papers from the participants. Today’s contribution is from Jari Lavonen, Tiina Korhonen & Kalle Juuti, Department of Teacher Education, University of Helsinki, Finland.
This post introduces an Innovative School Model (ISM) currently being implemented at a Finnish elementary school and shares reflections on the model by several of the school’s teachers. Building on the work of Michael Fullan and Everett Rogers, the ISM is designed to create conditions in Finnish schools that will enable teachers, pupils, the school principal, parents and other collaborators from the neighbourhood to work together to generate and implement innovative structures and practices.
Among the innovations developed at the school are a project in which teachers and pupils created an approach to personalized science learning using smartphones. The pupils used phones mostly within a water-themed science project for making notes, revision and information gathering. This innovative approach was then adopted by the other teachers in the school. The second innovation was a new model for School-Community Collaboration (SCC) emphasizing the use of ICT. This collaborative model was developed and researched in an iterative way as teachers and students worked with researchers and other collaborators from outside the school in real science learning and collaboration situations. The SCC helped students learning creative problem-solving and inquiry strategies and to develop skills in collaboration.
The Innovative School Model (ISM)
Students’ learning and learning environments. The Finnish national and school level curriculum emphasize meaningful learning (and the learning of 21st century competences in versatile learning environments. Especially, students should learn to think critically and creatively, to use a wide range of tools, to interact in heterogeneous groups as well as to act autonomously and to take responsibility for managing their own lives. Due to the inclusion of most special need students in the regular classrooms in Finland, it is important to utilize a variety of teaching methods to engage students in learning of 21st century competences. A learning environment refers to the diverse physical locations, contexts and cultures in which students learn). A learning environment does not need to be a physical place, it can also be virtual, online, or remote. In the ISM, goal orientation and interaction are supported through the ICT tools available in the learning environment, including basic writing and drawing applications, social media environments as well as various types of mobile devices and other tools that facilitate flexible, remote and mobile learning. High-quality learning materials, including digital learning materials such as learning games and other interactive learning content are also essential parts of the learning environment.
Teachers’ professionalism. Professional teachers are at the heart of the ISM. Professional teachers are seen as academic professionals who are committed to their work and are able to plan, implement, and assess their own teaching and their students’ learning. They formatively monitor students’ progress, particularly those with special needs, and they try to support all students’ learning.
This model of a professional teacher, however, is different from the model of the effective teacher reflected in policies in the US. In those policies, an effective teacher is defined as one who is able to support students’ learning and achievement as measured by tests. The view of teacher in the ISM context is closer to that described in the “teacher leadership” movement. These teachers are goal oriented and have a clear vision for school development. Moreover, these teachers are able to work collaboratively and in interaction with other teachers towards their shared goals. They are considered to be able to use research productively, and they have a deep understanding of teaching and learning that allows them to act as curriculum specialists.
Leadership. The professional culture in a school is a key element in supporting teachers’ collaboration, in classroom operations, and in the development and adoption of innovations. In turn, the school principal and their approach to leadership plays a key role in establishing the school’s professional culture. Teachers are positively influenced when school leaders encourage collaboration among teachers, students, families, and other school personnel. Therefore, school principals in the ISM have an important role in facilitating a school culture and creating a school schedule that supports teachers’ collaboration. In practice, this collaboration manifests itself in various school teams and networks, such as grade level teams and multi-professional teams.
Networks & partnerships. Parents are the most important partners in education. A fruitful partnership with parents facilitates the sharing of responsibility for students’ weekly activities.
Family events and personal meetings with teachers are particularly important in establishing that partnership. ICT offers a multitude of opportunities for enhancing home and school collaboration (HSC), and it can be applied to enable continuous interaction between the school and families. The aim of HSC is for parents and teachers to develop shared educational values and goals, with the important consequence that mutual trust is established in each other’s ability to work towards supporting the child’s growth and education. In addition to HSC, partnerships with a wide range of other members of the local community are also important including collaborations with school support personnel, day-care providers, public librarians and senior homes as well as actors in national and international networks. Respect for the thoughts, opinions and wishes of all stakeholders serves as an essential part of all partnerships. Through long-term collaborative development, more families, teachers and community members learn to work with each other as parts of a community for the benefit of all children.
Key aspects of the ISM from the teachers’ perspective
Students’ learning and learning environments. The teachers see their school building as rather traditional, including standard classrooms and a couple of special classrooms found in many Finnish schools like a workshop for the teaching of handcrafts (such as knitting and woodworking), a minor science and technology lab and a music class. The teachers feel that the structure of the physical environment does not support flexible grouping of pupils. Nonetheless, the teachers and pupils have used their creativity and created learning spaces all over the school building. They have, for example, used curtains and pillows for creating learning spaces in the corridors and other areas of the schoolMoreover, the students learn in out-of-school locations such as a library and outdoor environments such as parks where they use mobile ICT tools like smart-phones for learning.
In their reflections the teachers also identified several aspects of their physical and virtual environments as crucial for supporting learning. Beyond the nature of the environments themselves, the teachers emphasized the need for strategic and collaborative planning on how to use those environments. However, the teachers agreed that there are enough basic ICT tools, like computers and data projectors at the school. From the point of view of personalisation of learning there are not enough basic laptops or mobile devices. Further the Internet connection and wireless network is undeveloped. The city is not able to offer these services. In addition, the city is not able to offer enough technical support to the teachers, and the web-based learning environments do not support the use of mobile devices and, therefore, different cloud services, like SkyOneDrive are used.
Teachers’ professionalism. In their reflections, the teachers suggested that school staff including teachers and classroom assistants have high levels of competence that support planning, organising and evaluating learning and learning outcomes. They also reported that the teachers are skilled in using versatile learning environments and ICT tools as well as in networking. Teachers have a strong orientation to life-long-learning and were eager to learn from one another and to adopt educational innovations developed by their peers. Their learning and collaboration is supported through weekly meetings that are designed specifically for teachers to information with one another in “pedagogical coffees” and other formal and informal meetings. Teachers are especially eager to learn new technology and use of this technology in education:
Leadership. The teachers also emphasized the importance of strategic planning and goal orientation; interaction; and an open decision-making process. There should be versatile interaction forums for leadership in schools using the ISM. For example, teachers at the school meet once a month in official teacher meetings and once a week in informal “noon”-meetings. Moreover, there are team meetings of the teachers working at the same grade. Furthermore, the official development discussions and unofficial daily personal discussions are important for teachers. Because of the versatile use of ICT in leadership, there are opportunities for interaction that are both face-to and virtual.
Principals and vice principals also need to be able to share/distribute leadership and to be aware of the division of labour. For example, teachers and classroom assistants belong to grade-level teams responsible for co-planning and evaluation. ICT is used in a versatile way in administration. The principals, teachers and classroom assistants work together to develop ways to use ICT in administration and collaboration. The use of ICT in school operations support the teachers to acquire ICT skills the teachers can utilize in their teaching as well. It is important that the school follows technology developments on the principal, teacher and classroom level.
The role of a principal is important in supporting both teachers’ designing and adopting educational innovations. In particular, principals need to be able to support teachers by starting where they are and by helping them to integrate all kind of learners in the same classroom.
Partnerships. In their reflections, teachers recognised five different levels of networks and partnership, and in all levels, ICT is used. Inside the school there are several networks, like grade-level networks/teams and school-level networks, like the multiprofessional team (consisting of school nurse, social worker, special need teacher and principal) that supports the welfare of pupils. At the city level, the teachers of the school belongs to several networks, including a local curriculum development team and an in-service training team). The school is also involved in networks with other schools in Finland, among them networks to foster the use of ICT in education and collaboration.
Networks with families and community organizations function more as partnerships than networks. In particular, the school is in partnership with several organisations including the library, kindergarten and senior house located near the school. This partnership allows pupils opportunities for learning and collaboration in those organisations. In addition, these organisations also benefit from the partnerships. The pupils have, for example, introduced the use of mobile devices to the senior citizens at the senior house and to the young kids at the kindergarten. All teachers also emphasised that collaboration with parents is an important type of networking for the school.
Challenges for the future
The teachers emphasised that one of the biggest challenges for the future is to continue the partnerships and networks with all important parties. In particular, updates to the ICT tools require continuous learning on the part of all those involved. Another challenge in the use of ICT is the variation in the competence of the parties, particularly the variability in parents’ ICT competence and their access to ICT tools. The third challenge is the resources needed in coordinating the networks. As one teacher put it, “there are too many networks and we do not utilise them enough.” The teachers also felt that networking with some companies was not fruitful as only the companies benefited from the collaboration.