By Mabell, Dave on May 16, 2019.
Although they live in a northern land with winters much like Alberta, Finns have been described as the happiest people on Earth.
They’re also among the most highly educated.
So Lethbridge teachers at Winston Churchill High were eager to take part in a cross-Atlantic exchange, eager to learn what makes their school system so successful.
Last fall, principal Carey Rowntree and three staff members began a three-year study project by visiting the academic high school in Joensuun, a mid-sized city about 430 kilometres northeast of the capital, Helsinki. It’s close to the Russian border, with an economic focus on forestry.
But it’s comparable in many ways to Lethbridge, Rowntree found. Its population is close to 100,000, plus families who live in smaller communities nearby. While sports play an important role in the city’s life, there’s a strong emphasis on public education.
So Churchill staff were pleased to see teachers in Joensuun select Lethbridge for a three-year study exchange, continuing into 2021. Four Edmonton-area schools were their other options for the project, sponsored by the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
Rowntree points out students from Finland and Alberta score equally well on international tests, and the two school systems share similarities.
“But there are a lot of differences,” so there are plenty of learning opportunities for teachers and students who commit to the project.
In Finland, he found, about half of the students at the Joensuun high school were from out of town. At the age of 16 or 17, many were living on their own or with roommates, in a city apartment.
“They grow up to be independent and self-reliant.”
They also move on to college or university, he adds, because no tuition is charged for their first four years of post-secondary education.
Despite cold and snow, Rowntree says most get around by bicycle – and nobody locks their bike because theft is rare.
Not surprisingly, one of the first things Joensuun principal Risto Kilpelainen observed on his recent week in Lethbridge was the size of the vehicles. And most in the Churchill lot were driven by students!
Kilpelainen was also impressed by the school spirit, and the “sense of family” linking students and teachers.
Along with history teacher Mika Muukkonen, he was excited to visit the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump en route to Lethbridge, citing its value in teaching visitors how Blackfoot families thrived in the foothills area for countless generations.
Aboriginal Saami families live in the Arctic areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, Muukkonen pointed out.
As a minority, they may have been treated no better than Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
“They face many of the same problems.”
A handful of Churchill students will accompany several teachers to Finland next October, when they’ll be billeted with Joensuun students their age. They should have no difficulty with language, Rowntree expects, because children there begin learning English in elementary school.
Finnish students already know two official languages – Swedish and Finnish – before they start school, he adds. And many go on to learn a fourth or fifth language in their higher grades.
For Joensuun students visiting Lethbridge recently, events included visits to the college and university, to Waterton Lakes National Park and the Remington Carriage Centre – and a look at their first rugby game.
In the fall, they’ll likely be showing Lethbridge students sports equally unknown here.
The objective of the exchange, Rowntree says, is to make good schools even better.
“We’re not looking to shake things up, but to learn.”
The fundamental question, he says, is “What makes a great school?”
By sharing their insights, educators from two northern nations may find some answers.
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