Written by Janet English

3. Moonlight in the Finnish Forest

“I always give (students) problems to solve.”

Chapter 3

IMG_3052Across the hall is a bulletin board with sketches of polar bears walking across the snow. Alongside it, pictures of the Finnish forest are painted in the moonlight, with most shadows placed correctly but some as if there is a second or third moon in the nighttime sky. I feel like I’m standing in the middle of a forest on a brutally cold winter night.

This is Marja Kukkonen’s classroom and she teaches third graders as well as student teachers from the university. I introduce myself, saying that I’m also a teacher and that I’m learning how Finnish teachers teach problem solving skills.

I ask how she approaches problem solving with students.

“(Teachers) always have to keep in mind the starting point … to make the child’s own brain work and …it can be done only in that way that we give them a problem. And that concerns every subject and everything we do. For example, I am quite an experienced teacher already. I have been teaching for twenty-five years at least and when I arrange my teaching…I don’t really think about that anymore but I just arrange everything naturally…because it’s so stuck in me – this kind of philosophy about how learning is done and … and how it happens…. I always give them problems to solve. It has to be done that way. That is what I believe about learning.”

I have to ask, “Did you include problem solving in the painting lesson about the Finnish forest?”

“In art we did … a kind of landscape thing where there were a lot of trees and a lot of different shades of brown were needed. I didn’t give them instructions how to make brown. I gave them a pallet of watercolors with yellow and blue and red and then they had to find out how to make brown. And we had learned before how to make green and orange and purple and now it was a new thing they had to find out that, ‘Okay! I need all three colors!’ and then … they starting making the trunks of trees.”

“What I’m learning in my classroom visits,” I say, “is that almost every Finnish lesson challenges students to improve their problem solving skills.  Am I correct or am I mistaken?”

She smiles, looks toward the board and then down.   When she looks back she speaks with the wisdom and insight of a teacher who has spent many years developing her craft. “I don’t think we even think about it,” she says. “It’s just the way we do things.”