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In our discussion, Brad and I discuss:
The New Nordic School is an innovative school being built in Finland. Our guest, Brad Kremer, serves as director and informs us about the fantastic opportunities Finnish education provides and what New Nordic School aims to build further upon.
Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to Season 3 Episode 5 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast of the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school educator at a public school by day, and by night I operate the Human Restoration Project. Unlike our Season 3 episodes thus far, this is just a standard one-on-one interview. Our guests didn't really fit into some of the podcasts that we're brewing up, so rather than holding onto this for a few months, we just went ahead and released it. I think it's an awesome conversation, and I hope that you enjoy. Of course, a special thank you to our Patreon supporters, a few of whom are Matt Wafflin, Nick Covington, and Viktoria Rybergdanya. Today we are joined by Brad Kremer, who is the director of a new school initiative in Finland.
Brad Kremer: I'm the director of education at New Nordic School, based in Espoo, Finland. I've been teaching internationally for almost 15 years in the U.S., Africa, and now Europe. I was a science teacher by training before I went into school leadership. I have an undergraduate degree in resource conservation and etology. My educational journey really started when I was doing sustainable agriculture and forestry work as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, then I was overseeing some environmental education projects for another year as a Peace Corps leader, and then that's when I went back to the U.S., earned my master's degree, and actually started teaching formally in schools, and then went back to the continent for about a decade before coming to Europe.
CM: First off, can we talk a little about what exactly the New Nordic School is? Give me just a rundown of what it all looks like.
BK: New Nordic School, our mission is to transform current systems of education by empowering kids to shape their own future. To realize that dream, we've created the Nordic Baccalaureate. The Nordic Baccalaureate is a multilayered curriculum comprised of 21st century core competencies, the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, and content, knowledge, and skills from your traditional school subjects. Our units of learning, which we call quests, challenge young people to synthesize those competencies with content knowledge across multiple fields in a way that allows them to create innovative solutions that address those U.N. Sustainable Development Goals in personally meaningful ways. It's an interdisciplinary approach that we believe brings those core competencies to life. It gives purpose to students' learning by linking it to what's happening beyond the classroom walls, and it provides agency and voice for students to shape their own educational journey, both in school and once they actually graduate. By challenging students to apply what they learn in class, to engage with societal issues from a young age, New Nordic School builds the confidence of those students to be tomorrow's leaders and improve the world for all of us. I think so many kids become disengaged with school at some point during their educational experience because they fail to see its connection to what they perceive happening in the quote unquote real world. And school is real life, and so it should reflect what children are experiencing outside the walls of the classroom.
CM: And before we dive into what this looks like in an actual classroom, could you share who or what your inspirations were when it came to developing this curriculum and its surrounding pedagogy?
BK: My first experience with it was the kind of classic Ken Robinson discussions around Google's 20 time, and then I dove into doing some Genius Hour projects in a previous school where I was working. And the more I experimented with giving kids the freedom and the agency to really shape the direction of their learning and really draw on their personal interests and their aptitudes, the more I wanted that to actually encompass the entire learning experience in my classroom. So then that's kind of the direction of some of the research that I took on. We did some professional development that was around feedback, around providing effective feedback, and where I went with that was we kind of learned that students, that written feedback or the verbal feedback that students are getting from teachers is much more meaningful and much more significant to shaping their learning than any letter grade that they get. And that actually, if you pair the feedback with a grade, they kind of ignore the feedback and only pay attention to the grade. And what we really wanted was students to be paying attention to the feedback because that influences one of their next steps in their learning journey. And so tying that in with the Genius Hour really kind of pushed it forward. And then I came to Finland, I actually followed my wife here for her work. And by chance, I met one of the founders of New Nordic School. In our discussion, she simply asked me, what would be my dream job in a school? And I said, I'd like to develop a curriculum that is fully interdisciplinary and really gets kids to think about some big issues and in a way that kind of unleashes creativity and innovation. And it turns out that's what New Nordic School was all about. So we've then gone down that pathway pretty deeply. I've been going back, I follow TeachThought and MindShift on Twitter quite a bit. I love Cult of Pedagogy. And so Twitter is honestly, Twitter is probably my single biggest source of professional growth and development right now because it is a genuinely global resource. And the amount of sharing and enthusiasm that I experience on Twitter has just been a godsend. It's fantastic to know that there are so many educators out there who are as passionate about what they're doing as we are at New Nordic School. And there are so many people that are actually pursuing similar dreams to us and have conducted research and have come up with some really creative and effective and innovative ways of achieving those goals that living here in Helsinki, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to interact with them if I hadn't kind of stumbled across them through that Twitter verse in the education world.
CM: Right. That's exactly how I feel. I'm always fascinated by how progressive education will change as a result of social media spreading this message, specifically on Twitter as just Twitter is so prominent with so many different educators in general. I have a question sort of about the background to all of this. Forgive my ignorance, but my understanding of the Finnish education system is that although it does really well on the PISA exam, and as a result, it really has a justifiably, almost mystic quality to it for educators around the world, the actual in-class time is still largely traditional, both in instruction and in content. Is that portrayal accurate?
BK: Your perception that what is happening in Finland is still relatively quote unquote traditional isn't too far off from my experience here. The Finnish National Corporation still incorporates instructional objectives and assessment targets in traditional school subjects, but there are, I think, about three significant factors that really contribute to Finland's international reputation. The first is autonomy. Teachers and individual schools have a tremendous amount of autonomy in the Finnish system. The government trusts educators to apply their professional expertise to ensure that students hit those objectives and assessment targets. There is not an element of micromanagement at all. I attended a speech by Olympeka Hädernan, who's in charge of the Finnish National Agency for Education here, and he said that the entire system here is built on trust. I think that element of trust is really important because it provides teachers with that autonomy to use their professional judgment and meet kids in the classroom where those kids are to move the kids forward along their educational pathway. I would say the second element is the element of play. It's an essential part of the day here. For every 45 minutes of instructional time, 15 minutes are allocated to unstructured outdoor play. I have a three-year-old who goes to school here, and it's fantastic. Not only does getting kids outside routinely get their blood flowing and encourage an active lifestyle, it's also where students get to practice those social and emotional skills that seem to be lacking in many American school systems. My experience when I was teaching in the U.S. was that any time children weren't quote unquote working in a classroom was frequently perceived as a wasted opportunity. And the deeper I dig, the more I find that there's a really rapidly growing body of research that shows that frequent breaks from classwork actually benefits young brains and fosters the development of all those neural connections that are linked to long-term memory and deep learning. So I think that element of play, not only does it make school fun, because play is fun, it also provides the opportunities for those social, emotional growth. And it provides kind of that break, that rest time that our brains need, just like you would take a day off from doing workouts because you don't want muscle fatigue. Your brain is like a big muscle. You've got to rest it to maximize its effectiveness and its efficiency. And I think that the Finns have done a great job of making sure that that element of play keeps school fun and gives kids the opportunities to have those really important breaks. And I would say the third element is testing, that constant presence of standardized testing that we see in the American schools that's absent here, tied in with that autonomy, kind of that first element that I mentioned. That means teachers have more freedom to be creative and customize learning experiences based on the children that they have. That increases student creativity, increases their engagement with what they're learning in school. It reduces everybody's stress levels because teachers aren't solely focused on teaching to the test and students aren't just learning something just because it's on the test. And so I think those three elements, the teacher autonomy, the playfulness and the testing are really kind of those three elements that make Finnish education as effective as it has been.
CM: Yeah, it's very interesting. It's fascinating what happens when teachers are given more respect within the profession and research studies are listened to, even when the actual curriculum really isn't that much different than the United States. So then that begs the question, what exactly is the new Nordic school doing differently?
BK: So the Finnish core curriculum introduced these seven core competencies that I'll call the 21st century core competencies. They are present in the Finnish curriculum, but there's not really anything in the curriculum about how to weave them into the teaching and learning in schools. And that's really what new Nordic school has done is we've placed those 21st century competencies at the center of our curriculum. And it's actually where we begin to build the school culture across all the grade levels so that all of the students in a school are actually engaged in learning experiences in the classroom around the same core competencies at the same time of year. And that fosters those kind of spontaneous hallway conversations among students and teachers. It makes it easier to plan whole school activities or activities across grade levels that will then build those skills. And because those competencies are essentially scheduled at the same time of year, as a child comes back in subsequent grades, they keep revisiting those competencies. They take them deeper and deeper and demonstrate more and more complex behaviors that move them towards mastering those competencies. So our curriculum is really built on a lot of metacognition, so learning to learn. We focus on multi-literacy and communication skills because those are applicable regardless of the subject matter, regardless of the age level, regardless of wherever a child is along their learning path. And then we also have some contextual competencies that really begin to frame how learning can be used. So we talk a lot about managing daily life, using time and task management to maintain physical and emotional health. Talk about cultural competence and collaborating with people who have different backgrounds or maybe have different values and perspectives from yourself. We look at work and entrepreneurship because the economy moving forward is going to depend more and more on individual actions rather than the kind of traditional method of going out and working for a big corporation or a big manufacturing company. And a lot of that is learning to collaborate with people in a team setting towards achieving some type of project goal. And then the last competency, which may be the most significant, is about building a sustainable future. And building a sustainable future, it's not just ecological sustainability, although that's a big part of it. It's about personal sustainability and social sustainability. It's incorporating mindfulness and those positive habits that create good mental health and good physical health, and also creating social cohesion through the recognition of human rights and tying in some of those elements of cultural competence and learning to participate in democratic society to meet the needs of the greatest number of people possible. So what we've done at New Nordic School is taken those seven competencies from the Finnish curriculum and we really bring them to life by weaving them actively through all of the learning activities that are happening in our school.
CM: Right. This makes a lot of sense. We're still talking pretty philosophical in nature. Could you go through what this actually looks like in practice?
BK: Any given day is going to be a blend of both interdisciplinary quests and seminars focused on single subjects. Those seminars are really similar to what you and I think of as traditional lessons in school, learning activities driven by content, knowledge, and skills. You'll see a combination of direct instruction and guided independent practice during those seminars. One of the differences will be that the kind of opening warm up and closing activities in seminars will actually link that content with either the sustainable development goals and or those core competencies. Right. In other words, we'll direct the students thinking to the interdependence of those elements of our curriculum. Let's say the first period of the day is like a 90 minute math block. You have an opening 10 minutes where prior knowledge is activated. You direct students to think about what they're learning in the big picture context of the quest. Then there will be some direct instruction followed by some guided practice where the teacher is really circulating through the classroom showing students how to apply the content and clarifying misconceptions. Then about half the seminar is dedicated to independent practice where students are working on their personal quest objectives and the teacher is visiting each student armed with questions and place the onus on the student to show how his or her work can be used to solve the problem at the heart of that quest. The learning experience is kind of keeping drawing back into these bigger pictures. We keep focusing on the why. Why is what you're doing in the classroom significant? Why is what you're doing in the classroom important to your future? Why is what you're doing in the classroom important to these big societal issues? Then there's a closure or an exit activity in the lesson that's really about setting the stage for the next steps in each student's educational journey. What's been mastered? What needs further practice? What's the next step in your actual quest cycle? When you kind of wrap things up, your student is ready for whatever comes next. Then we have about a 30 minute break after a 90 minute block so that students and teachers can grab a bite to eat. They can play, relax, socialize, do some of those things that I mentioned earlier. And then students would come back in and their next block might be a questing block. And a quest is a communal challenge in which each student plays a role based on his or her personal interests and aptitudes. Teachers will use a series of Socratic style questioning to guide students through a six phase cycle in which the kids synthesize knowledge across fields to create these innovative solutions to the big UN sustainable development goal. So in a quest block, you've still got like a 10 minute opening where students address the prompts about applying given core competency to achieve their quest goals. Then you can move into a guided discussion, which is really kind of like a Socratic seminar where the teacher is leading whole class or small group conversations that expand on those prompts from that opening component of the quest. And then the bulk of that block, in a 90 minute block, it would be about an hour, is dedicated to independent questing where students are working individually or in small groups on the next steps in their quest. And the teacher is conferencing with each child one on one. So the teacher role really moves from asking questions to the class and receiving answers back that the teacher is migrating around the room and prompting kids with some guiding questions, right? How does this subject rely on other subjects that you're studying right now? Or how does what I'm studying right now feed into those other subjects that I'm studying? So how could maybe you apply your science learning in your math class or vice versa? The teacher would prompt the student, how are you going to apply the statistics that you learned in math class yesterday to your scientific investigation that you developed in yesterday's science lesson to this bigger environmental sustainable development goal quest? And then again, you wrap up with closure about kind of setting the next steps. You have another break and you kind of repeat the cycle. So students will basically weave in and out of subject focused seminars and these interdisciplinary quests where the teacher is much more, it's much more about the teacher prompting and questioning students and kind of prodding the students to think about what comes next rather than what I would call a more traditional model of regurgitating knowledge or factoids that's been gleaned from a textbook.
CM: So this all builds into a big question I've been wondering about ever since I saw your website and recently just thinking about Finnish schools in general. Your goal is to both develop your school as well as to develop curriculum that you'll export internationally. However, is the success of Finnish schools more so predicated on Finland's societal structure or is it really the curriculum as in, in Finland there's virtually no homelessness, healthcare is affordable, college is free, I mean public schools, which are really almost the only schools are incredibly well funded. It seems like people in general are really well taken care of. As we push this model, let's say into Spain or India or the United States, more unequal societies. I mean, students come into my classes hungry or without clean clothes to wear. Is it really possible to scale this model to be equitable for every classroom?
BK: Well, I absolutely believe that the new Nordic school model can scale to an equitable system I think the foundation that we're built on, that Finnish curriculum is partly successful because of the social system that exists here in Finland. When you incorporate all of the elements of the Nordic Baccalaureates, the written curriculum around those sustainable development goals with the teacher training that we provide and the quality assurance that we provide, that's an ongoing service to schools. I think that really pushes us to a long-term success in the locations that we're targeting. You know, if I think about Delhi or Bangalore where we've got some projects in the works and we can go into these schools and when we're challenging students to address these sustainable development goals, it's not something that's happened distantly overseas that they only see on the news or on YouTube. It's what's happening literally outside the doors of the school, it's what's happening on their walk to or from home, it's what's happening where they live. And so we challenge kids, these quests aren't just academic exercises, they're real world engagement with what's actually happening and it's teaching kids that they can take control and make a difference in their immediate world. So we look at things like providing quality education and issues of gender equality and economic inequalities and you're challenging kids to think about ways that they can address them and maybe it's first just how do you address it at home or how do you as a student address this particular issue in your neighborhood or how do we collectively as a class address it in our school and then as students develop those skills at a younger age and they feel more confident in their ability to actually bring about change, they feel empowered to really shape what's happening from a broader perspective or a larger scale. So they start looking at what can we do not just at school but in our local community or here within our state or our district and then they keep kind of scaling it up so that the idea is that as kids get older, their engagement with these competencies builds their confidence and their skills, they feel increasingly empowered to shape what's happening in their world. And as they become more and more connected to what's going on in a broader and broader world then it makes it real for them. And so it connects school so meaningfully to their lives that they actually live in every day that I think that's really what makes it successful and that when you've got kids who understand that they have the power to make those changes then they will drive the success of the school because they will want it to succeed because it's in their own self-interest.
CM: I love what you're saying here regarding empowering student voice. It seems like we talk about this concept a lot but we don't necessarily relate what this means to the world outside of school and how that could change society.
BK: Yeah, it's about taking action. When we talk about active learning, there's no more active learning than being able to go out and participate meaningfully in determining the kind of the fate or the direction of the people in your community in the world where you live.
CM: Exactly, and the lack of active learning that hones in on a child's interest just leads to so much unhappiness and senseless apathetic learning and just an overall misunderstanding of what a child's purpose is. It scares me to think about how many students just don't know what to do next because they were not exposed to enough opportunities within a traditional model.
BK: It's funny that you mentioned the not really knowing what to do with your lives. I remember that was very early in our conversations as we were developing our concept at New Nordic School was ultimately, what are we trying to get students to do when they reach the end of that secondary educational journey? What do we want that final result to be? It was really about, I want children when they leave the Nordic Baccalaureate to have a really solid grounding about who they are, what's important to them, and how they can draw on their passions and their interests and their aptitudes to shape their future and the future of their place in the world. Whether that means a career choice or further education at university or technical training or some other pathway, but to have that grounding and that knowledge is really what I want for kids when they finish the Nordic Baccalaureate.
CM: Awesome. I wish you a lot of success in this endeavor because it seems like your heart's in the right place to actually giving students power over their educations and making important connections in education. Now I know that your school is really only a couple of years old. Where are you at currently in development and what's on the horizon?
BK: In Finland, it's much easier to start privately with preschool. So we have a fully functional preschool curriculum set and ready to go that's in the process of being rolled out this coming fall in a couple of different countries. And we're probably 75% with the basic education curriculum from grades one to nine across all the different subjects. We've got the big picture framework already set, that six-phase questing cycle is ready. We're now solidifying some of the details of the actual process of learning. We've aligned all of our objectives with curriculum from Singapore and Australia and the United States and Canada and England so that we can help schools identify where we meet their local needs. And we've got a tech platform, like a digital ecosystem under development that'll tie it all together. And then in our high school, at the high school level, we're a little bit less developed. We've got the concept, we will continue to focus on the SDGs because it's meant to be one continuous journey from the early childhood exploration stage through high school graduation. High school is a little bit more complex because of the presence of all the electives and the focus on getting kids ready to actually meet some of those unfortunately kind of standardized experiences for getting into universities. So making sure that we have the tools in place to guarantee or assure college admissions officers that kids who come out of our system are completely prepared for the challenges that they'll face in college. So yeah, like you said, we're relatively new. We've only been around for a year and a half or so. We've started with the younger ages and we're probably 75%, grades one through nine and probably 25% for high school. And I anticipate we'll have that high school curriculum finished within the next year and a half, probably by ready to roll out for the fall semester of 2021 at the latest, hopefully 2020.
CM: And that just about does it. I sincerely appreciate you listening in and hope that this conversation was engaging and relevant. If you enjoyed and or have any feedback to share, I'd love your comments. Leave us a review on iTunes or your podcast player of choice and shout us out on Twitter maybe at HumeResPro, the first three letters of the Human Restoration Project. Be sure to visit our website for a plethora of progressive education research, as well as some free tools to help equip you on your journey toward restoring humanity. Find out more at humanrestorationproject.org Again, thank you for listening and listen again soon.