Elizabeth Radday 2015-16: Choice and Responsibility

In the fall of 2015 when I decided to apply for a Fulbright Distinguished Award in teaching it was easy to choose my first choice country.  Finland had been making the headlines in the education news for a few years because of its outstanding PISA scores. This tiny country that most Americans knew little about besides its reputation for being cold had suddenly become very interesting to educators around the world.  Baby boxes, extra recess, teaching as a highly respected and difficult to enter profession and a rigorous national curriculum were noted as some reasons for the outstanding test scores.  Digging little deeper cynics said that Finland was too small, too homogeneous, too economically different from the United States for us to learn anything from them.  I had to see it all for myself.  There had to be things I could learn from a system that educates so well even if it is different from the United States in many ways.  I was interested in a particular part of the population that I know exists throughout the world and wanted to see how Finland educates these students: upper secondary (high school students) with learning disabilities. I was thrilled to be placed at the Niilo Mäki Institute (NMI), a multidisciplinary research institution that focuses on learning disabilities.  The researchers and my mentor at NMI have helped me find schools and sites to visit to learn about the many ways students with learning disabilities are educated and everyone there has been so generous in sharing their current research on various topics in special needs education.

I have been able to visit over a dozen different programs while I have been in Finland.  I thought I was coming to Finland to learn about how students with special education needs choose between a general upper secondary education and a vocational education.  What I have found is that there are more choices than just those two paths and there is support for special education students in many different programs and in many different ways.  The two words I would use to sum up my entire experience and that I want to remember when I return to the United States are choice and responsibility.  These two words are echoed over and over at every school I visit and from teachers, parents and students.  Students get to make a lot of choices about where they study and what they study and feel that they truly made the choice, not their parents or teachers.  Additionally, students feel it is their responsibility to learn. They feel accountable for what they know and can do at the end of a course and understand that learning the material is what is best for them because it will be necessary in their next course, job or life.  

I am so thankful that my family was also able to travel to Finland with me. I was able to see Finnish pre-primary education from the point of view of a parent as both of my daughters, ages 5 and 7, went to pre-school daily.  Seeing a new country through a child’s eyes has been so much fun and we’ve made so many memories husky sledding, sleeping in an ice hotel and exploring castles, churches and fortresses.  Kiitos, Fulbright!  Kiitos, Finland!

 

Elizabeth Radday

Ed.D, U.S. Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching 2015-16, Niilo Mäki Institute