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PSC Professor Visits Finland as Part of International Exchange Program

PSC Professor Visits Finland as Part of International Exchange Program [09/11/2015]

PSC Professor Elise Spencer at Olavinlinna Castle in Savonlinna

Prairie State College (PSC) Professor Elise Spencer recently combined her love of travel with her interest in educational systems during a professional exchange program sponsored by the Illinois Consortium for International Studies and Programs. She blogged her adventure to Finland, “Learning in the Land of the Midnight Sun,” and took a moment to reflect on her experiences when she returned to campus for the fall semester.

Spencer was selected to participate in the three-week program during the end of the spring semester. Her Finnish faculty exchange partner, Junnu Hukkala, had stayed with Spencer and her husband in their Indiana home in October 2014, and made presentations at PSC during his stay. Spencer stayed in Hukkula’s Joensuu home with his wife and three children during the duration of her visit to Finland.

“My host family was gracious, wonderful and fun,” she said.

She said Finland was her first choice of countries to visit because of their reputation for strong educational programs.

“They take a lot of pride in their educational system,” she said.

For one thing, there are a lot of educational options to Finnish education, she said. As she diagrammed in a blog entry, all students begin in elementary school from first to sixth grades. Then, they attend middle school through ninth grade. At age 16, they can decide whether to attend a vocational school, where they can go to college and start working, or pursue general secondary studies with plans to attend a university in the future.

Spencer toured all levels of education during her trip, and made several observations in her blog.

For instance, the school where Hukkula teaches, PKKY, is a polytechnic school that offers vocational training. Students in programs there do classroom training as well as job training and internships that prepare them for a career right after they finish school. She said the programs offered there were similar to some of the certificate and career training programs offered at PSC.

But, she added in one blog post, “these vocational programs are not narrowly-focused certificate programs, but rather highly-skilled trades requiring years of (free) education,” Students who are interested in later pursuing their bachelor’s or master’s degrees can use their vocational degrees in that pursuit.

“There are no dead ends in Finnish education,” she said.

In her blog, she noted that there were several other differences that she observed between the Finnish schools she visited and U.S. schools.

“In Finland, at all levels of education, making school an enjoyable place to be is a priority,” she wrote, noting that schools were very well lit with brightly colored walls and furniture and many fun things to do when not in class. She also noted that the faculty and students are encouraged to eat together and take breaks together, creating a sense of community.

“This incorporation of different kinds of activities create a sense of play and curiosity at school. Learning is an enjoyable process of discovery rather than a rote exercise of memorizing rules and regurgitating facts,” she wrote.

“The trip really made me examine our norms and what works well and what doesn’t,” she said. “I want students to see their education as a way to help them to discover their own best selves, and I get much more of a sense of that in Finland....”

Spencer and the other exchange program faculty toured several schools together, and she said that she also was able to take in some of the local culture during her visit. She noted that the laid-back culture in the Finnish school system was reflected in day to day life in Finnish society.

“Life in Finland seemed a lot more humane with lots of downtime and break time. People were very easy going,” she said. “I definitely plan to visit again.”

To read more about Spencer’s travels and observations about Finnish education, visit learninginthelandofthemidnightsun.blogspot.com.