Erin Dowding 2015-16: The Changing Present: Language and Assessment in Finnish Schools

I come to Finland from New York City where I work at a small, project-based public high school for recent immigrants. Working as an English as a Second Language and Humanities teacher to students who not only need to learn a language but also to graduate and succeed in a new country, I seek out opportunities to grow as an educator and equip my students with tools to learn how to learn, gain self-confidence and the authentic skills to prepare for life outside of the classroom. It was this, as well as the chance to expand on my teaching practice, that led me to apply for the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teacher grant to gain the chance to look at the work of multicultural education, language learning, and assessment practices from a new perspective while observing classrooms and teacher training programs in Finland. Wanting to find and create new and more vibrant and viable opportunities for my students inspired me to come to Finland to examine best practices, conduct research on mother tongue and second language instruction, and effective formative and self-assessment methods so that I can work with my students to be motivated independent agents of learning.

So much of what creates an effective learning environment can initially appear invisible. A skilled educator can make the hard work teaching look effortless. This combined with the initial cultural differences between the United States and Finland meant that it took a while for me to focus on all that I was seeing. Throwing myself completely into this unique opportunity meant that I have seized every invitation, eagerly eaten up every conversation and have stockpiled notes and thoughts and musings.

My research work in Finland has been based at the University of Jyväskylä’s Department of Teacher Education while I’ve traveled to Helsinki and smaller towns to visit schools in order to gain exposure to the education system in action. I have been both observing practices and discourses at the university and in teacher lounges, asking endless questions over coffees and student lunches, reflecting on the work I do at home through a new lens. I have been visiting classes, talking to teachers, professors, researchers, social workers, students, refugees, migrants and those affiliated with assessment practices in an attempt to further understand the landscape here in multilayered dimensions with a look at the past, an eye on the present, and growing questions about the future.

The role of language and the culture and history it carries for a people and nation carries a weight in Finland and with the influx of migrants this past year, a look at what it means to be a Finnish speaker and the work involved in this area feels vital and immediate. At the heart of what brought me to Finland is a curiosity about the value and respect placed on learning on all levels and the role of language and growing multiculturalism. Here I have been investigating how to meet the needs of the recent influx of asylum seekers and migrants and how these needs are being addressed while keeping the fundamentals of Finnish education in place. As a teacher, I keep this mind as I dig deeper into the work being done on all levels in Finland and how I can integrate what I’ve learned into my classroom and educational practices in the United States.

Erin Dowding, Fulbright U.S. Distinguished Awards in Teaching 2015-16 at University of Jyväskylä, department of Teacher Education