Tervesiä Suomesta! Greetings from Finland. The past 3 days I've been in Helsinki working with a dear friend, and educational researcher, Dr. Kristiina Kumpulainen. As part of her new post as chaired professor at the University of Helsink (and my understanding is that all new professors must do this), is to give a 20-minute "debut talk" to the university community on her program of research and scholarly goals. Kristiina and I have known each other since 2004 when we first met at UC Santa Barbara where she was visiting as a visiting professor, and, where I completed my Ph.D. while teaching 3rd grade at La Patera School. I was honored to be invited as her guest at the University of Helsinki, and, glad to return to my favorite Nordic city!
Since my arrival here days ago, we've been catching up on the details of our lives the past 6 years, and funnily we begin to immediately identify the places for collaboration. Also, we have this uncanny sense to conclude each conversation with a shared sense "so what, now what?" for our educational work, or really, our 'raison d'etre.' This sense of focus and doing relevant, satisfying and meaningful work, that impassions us, has set the tone for our reconnection. While driving to Stockmann (Finland's largest boutique department store...think Norstrom), and descending hundreds of meters into pure mountainous rock below the building (a testamment to Finnish engineering) to the new underground parking structure, Kristiina talked aloud the focus of her 20-minute talk. I learned a great deal.
Unlike present U.S. education policy, Finnish teachers are highly automous and there are no yearly high-stakes test, nor public shaming of low-performing schools. Like the U.S., however, ironically, many Finnish parents and their children find their schooling experiences as having little or nothing to do with their own interests out of school. Interestingly, what Kristiina and I share is a great interest in how to think about schools (or rather rethink them) as locations that can support youngsters’ out-of-school passions and authentic, self-directed learning endeavors.
“Sisu, Sauna ja Sibelius,” she determined will be the tenor of her talk. Those 3 S’s many Finns say are central to their national identity, arising early in the 20th century from 600 years of Swedish rule only to plop under Russian rule. The mindset of having guts, communal connections in Sauna and having a musical prodigy like Sibelius to rhapsodize and galvanize a people are three critical aspects ingrained in the 20th century. Yet today, many Finns wonder how these ways of being will guide them through this 21st century. How will they remain relevant?
In her talk, Kristiina will particularly unpack what has counted as “sisu” (having the guts and resilience to persevere) and what might count as a modern sisu within our current educational landscape in order to rethink what might constitute 21st century ways of navigating an ever complex tangle of digital technologies, changing political structures, and, the rapid development of new knowledges. We began to wonder how to bring youngsters’ lives, in central ways, to how schooling enterprises think about their modern purpose. We realized that perhaps the challenge really is not particular to youngsters making connections to their lives in school, but rather the schools are ill-equipped to make themselves relevant to students’ lives. So, what would this modern ‘sisu’ look like?
Together, in our Saturday morning of lunching and shopping, our conversations began to circle around questions on what we really wanted to spend our time doing in the next decade of our professional lives. We got closer to creating a shared space that we both felt comfortable, yet just within our reach.
Against the backdrop of Sisu, Sauna ja Sibelius, I began to think about in what ways might we as a National Writing Project, and the CoLab, begin exploring with our Finnish colleagues ways to think about in-school and out-of-school places, rethinking them as extraordinary spaces for new literacies learning? How might this idea of “sisu" play out in our American context, loosely defined as the willingness to stick with something, learn from the experience, and then draw out principles from it to apply to future learning experiences?
In particular, an American-Finnish research collaboration might focus on how the collective-of-individuals and individual-within-the-collective as a conceptual construct serves to help us make sense of teacher-education and school-based contexts, and, the diverse networked contexts of connected learning.
Stay tuned. More to come!