“Checkmate.”

Exportability! has become a favorite Fulbright Finland teacher game. Game rules are deceptively simple- choose one Finnish educational practice to implement successfully in the US- what would it be? Web crawlers have ensured that everyone can connect Finnish education with trust, sisu, personal responsibility, free lunch, free college, respected professionals, minimal assessment and long recesses. But in this strategy game, these easy moves are doomed by risky economic, social and cultural factors. Staring at the board for months, a player feels in “check.”

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But there is a saving play- I believe that Finnish vocational education is a viable, exportable move. In fact, there have been timid movements in the US toward workplace education for a while.

In Finland, once a student has finished his compulsory education at age 15, he can choose to continue on a college-prep track or a vocational track. About half choose to attend vocational training schools. These students focus on either technology or textile specialties and may earn qualifications to enter the workforce as welders, mechanics, machinists, builders, chefs, IT technicians, seamstresses, beauticians, health care specialists. Vocational schools offer different programs depending on their location and IMG_1413the current demands of industry. Ilkka Kallio, a technology instructor at Winnova, explains that most of his students will seek employment in the local marine industry and his workplace contacts keep him up to date on how many electricians, welders, machinists, etc. are in demand at the shipyards. After new technology students are exposed to the available strands for study, Kallio uses his market knowledge to counsel students about specializations.

One of the great beauties of Finnish education is flexibility; vocational education is wonderfully elastic. Workplace training classes are also popular among adult students- unemployed workers or those interested in switching careers or acquiring additional job training. Employers may even require that workers take vocational courses for personal development. Kallio believes that his metalworking classes enrolling both teens and middle-aged workers are optimal. “The old dogs share their wisdom and experience and the younger ones help out with the technology know-how.” Another element of flexibility characterizing Finnish vocational training is that these students can choose to take the IMG_1414matriculation exams and continue at college. Kalle Virta, a university professor who trains technology teachers at the Rauma campus, observes that it is not uncommon for university engineering students to have a vocational education background. In fact, Virta believes these students become some of the strongest, most capable engineers.

Students prepare to make the choice of college or vocational path early. Finland has a long tradition of craft education, something that is only recently gaining attention in the US under the rebranding of the “Maker Movement.” While preparing to excel on math and reading assessments, students at the compulsory level also learn to sew, use power tools, build, metalwork, knit, make jewelry, design costumes, cook and do laundry. Finns agree that it is important that everyone is competent in these practical skills. Satu Gronman, a textiles professor, explains that this training contributes to independence and environmental respect. For example, in one class students remake an old outfit; practicing the “reuse” and “renew” components of the three R’s. The respect that Finland has for craft education and vocational training springs from a culture where personal responsibility and a concern for the environment are important. These attractive side effects may help reset our often irresponsible, wasteful mindset.

Bringing the Finnish vocational education model to the US is a winning Exportability! move. Authentic student choice, independence skills and practice, reduced unemployment, job development, community connections, collaboration, professional growth, and environmental respect – “Checkmate.”

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This blog is not an official Fulbright Program blog and the views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.

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