Written by Janet English

15. Every Child Has “Special Needs”

“They don’t have learning disabilities, that’s true. They all comes to this that they have this behavior disorder one way or another. They are not being active (in the) classes, they are being rude to the teachers, maybe they go attack some of their peers here at the school, stuff like that. So there has to be another way of studying for them.”

Chapter 15

“Finnish students don’t fail.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.  How can some students not fail?

“We teach so that they learn.  If they don’t learn, we change the way we teach.”

“We do, too,” I thought.

Finland has a three-tiered system for education. Level 1 is the traditional classroom where general target goals are set for students and the teachers help students reach their target. (Keep in mind that teachers don’t consider a multiple choice test a common measurement for success so there are many ways to reach that target objective.)  Level 2 is for students who aren’t successful in this traditional classroom and they receive modified assignments and instructions in a relatively new program in Finland called, “Flexible Learning,” or, “Jopo.” Level 3 is for students who have trouble succeeding in Level 1 or Level 2.

In the Finnish system, any child who is not successfully learning is considered to have “special needs.”  If a student is struggling in school due to behavior issues, they are “special needs.” If a student is struggling in school due to health issues, they are “special needs.” If a student is struggling in school because their mother is sick or a father is out of work, they are “special needs.” I talked with two Flexible Learning teachers – one at the upper secondary level (high school) and one at the lower secondary school (middle school).  Here is my interview with Jari Kurttila, the Flexible learning teacher at Pielisjoki Lower Secondary School.  This is one of my longer interviews so I’ve divided it into sections to make it easier to watch.  I think you’ll find all sections worthy of your time.

“My addition to this community is this status of being a special educator so I have the possibility to teach kind of different way for these youngsters that I have. I have a smaller group of ten people, ten pupils, so I can do with them basically whatever I want to achieve a goal that is that they are learning and they get this diploma from this basic education.”

“Give me a goal and give me a problem they have and why they come to you.”

“A good example is if a student goes to this school in 8th grade so he or she is 14 and gets grades of 5 or 6 that are not good grades so he or she has some other problems like not staying active at class, doing mobile phones and not listening and have some kind of problems outside school so he or she cannot concentrate to school so we have this option that she or he can be moved to this my class, which is called Jopo, like ‘Flexible Basic Education.’”

“So can you give me some examples of some of the problems a student might have outside of school that even though it’s not a learning disability…?”

“They don’t have learning disabilities, that’s true. They all comes to this that they have this behavior disorder one way or another. They are not being active (in the) classes, they are being rude to the teachers, maybe they go attack some of their peers here at the school, stuff like that. So there has to be another way of studying for them.”

“But these behavior issues could be caused by other things?

“Yeah, you meant that.  Many things in the background. Maybe one of parents has died, or some illness, or some poverty in the family or unemployment or something wrong with friend issues – many things. Many things.”

“Do you think poverty is affecting your children’s ability to learn?”

“I think there is a very, very, very strong sign of that because I have done this thing for fifteen years … and when I started I had these young boys that had only one parent, they were like single mothers that looked after their boys and these they boys needed some kind of role model from a man so I was a kind of substitute father for many of those guys at that time and their disabilities were much, much, much harder than nowadays.  Today those problems are kind of hidden they’re so kind of psychological issues that they’re kind of hard to recognize – those problems.” 

“Give me an example of a student and they’re having trouble in their class for whatever reason. How do they go from there to you?”
“We have this group of teachers and student counselors and we gather once a week and there we discuss about these students that have some kind of problems. Usually they’re solved by they have this own teachers that …they have this class if you’re, for example, an English teacher you have this class for three years and you’re their class instructor even though you’re not teaching them anything. So we have this kind of teachers come to our meetings and then we discuss about some students and usually it goes away like that but there’s these names that come along in a year in this Wednesday meeting and then we’re going to start thinking about maybe we should move this one person to this Jopo  class, to my class. And then he or she comes there and then it’s I am the one who is responsible for this youngster so all the teachers that have issues or something to do with this student so they come to me as well as the parents so I can govern this one student’s background and things that they do here in school.”
“It sounds like a great program.”
“Yeah, it is, but it’s kind of hard if you have 10 students they all have their own curriculums and you have to serve within these curriculums to make sure if he or she is not in my class so the youngster should be in some another class and I have to check it out if she or she goes there and stays there and does all the things she is supposed to do there.”
“Do they usually do what they’re supposed to do?”
“Yes, they do, because they know that someone is watching their backs all the time.”

“What kind of things have these students told you about being in a Flexible class?”
“Well, they like that because we do the tasks of the day differently. We have very many independent works so they these exercises and they have books and they can do things in their own way, in their own pace – so the goal is that every day all the exercises of that day have to be done before you leave school.”
“So they still do the same exercises of that normal class?”
“Yes, very same exercises!”
“But for example in math we can do those exercises a bit slower so I can check out that he or she knows that thing before we go to the next exercise.  So they learn easier in that way. If they just sit there with twenty-five other students and the teacher teaches them that x goes here and y goes there and she or he doesn’t understand anything so the whole lesson goes – he or she is just sitting there doing nothing so it’s a waste of time.”
“How does this fit into the new 3-tiered approach?”
“Now they are in the second step when they come to my class.”
“So the first step is a traditional classroom.”
“And the second step is your class.”
“How about if they’re not successful in flexible learning?”
“That’s very unusual because every youngster that comes there they like the atmosphere of studying even though it is a bit harder you have to do more work than you have to do in a normal class because there is always somebody watching that you are doing all your exercises and then I’m going to check their exercises and mark if it’s correct or if it’s not so then they do it again.”
“Do they ever want to leave?”
“Yes. Sometimes they do but if I have… these 9th graders and I have them all the time except for gymnastics, and wood works and household. I have them all the other lessons – so 25 hours/week.  I kind of have a certain grip for these students so they are well behaving, they are doing their work, they are doing their exercises, they are getting good grades, the tests are no problem.”
“They just needed a small environment and someone to care.”
“Yes. Usually when we do our exercises they can talk, they can chat, they can ask questions, ask me anything and then we discuss about this thing.  I usually lead this conversation to some of our subjects and ask them, “How would you do in this situation?”  It’s like they’re learning from these conversations and they do like to participate in these conversations. I don’t know why but I don’t think it’s such regular teaching that you can discuss things in a group.  But of course we do have this, when we do our English and Swedish, so we translate the paragraph there and mathematics, I have to teach them it’s not like you get an impression that they are very freely there, in some of the subjects they do and some of the things in the day they do in their own pace but I do have to teach them so that’s part of the day goes like that.”
“So it sounds to me that most of these children just need more attention.”
“Yeah, that’s the reason. It’s enough that if they have this bit of a problem and they want to talk about it, so I’ll listen. It’s not rocket science.”
“So maybe what you offer is a strong base. Come in. relax.  Let’s get to work.”
“Most of them, I like this that they are doing things. They start their exercises and they are doing hard workers so when they go the next level to vocational school they’re not this kind that are standing who are hanging their arms because they know they do this and we can act. We’ll take the book and we do the exercises.”
“So they’re used to having a work habit with you rather then getting in the habit of not working.”
“They come to you and they get in the habit OF working.”
“And we have when you have done your work you can relax, at the end of the day you can go and make coffee or to the computer or play some board game with your friend that has also done all the work for that day.”

I ask Jari what he thinks would happen if there were no Flexible Learning (Jopo) classrooms.

“I think most of these youngsters would drop out in one way or another.”
“How successful is Flexible Learning in helping young people become productive citizens?” I ask.
“I think if I have ten students in one year, I think three of those don’t act this way so they kind of drop out this wheel of society at some time.”
“But if you’re taking 70% and you’re helping them be productive citizens that’s 70% of the people that would have normally have dropped out and now society has productive people rather than not.”
“Yeah.  That’s true.”
“I think this kind of Flexible Education is kind of new in Finland and they are just now doing researches of this and they are having these good results. They are showing at the research that showing that students who have been at this Jopo class they are doing fine and they are now working…  for example, one of my old students is now working as a car salesman and the first thing when I went to the shop and I knew he was there I went to say hi to him and the first thing he said …, ‘I made more money than you.’”
“That must have made you feel so good.”
“Yeah. I noticed that that was very important for him.”
“He used to be this …when he was 14 he used to stole cars.  Now he’s selling them.”

Note:  The flexible learning teacher at the Joensuu Lyseo, Hannu Koskela, told me that much of the original work on special education programs such as this were done in the U.S. in the 1960′s and 1970′s. He quoted the names of Tom Skrtic, Gerald Coles, and Thomas F. Green (Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System, 1980).