There ’s no questioning Rick Huizinga’s commitment to international education. After four years comfortably ensconced as an “English as a Second Language (ESL)” director and AP U.S. history instructor at a Christian academy in Redlands, Calif., he and his Korean wife, Mihyun, decided to embark with their daughters on another adventure. They sold their Southern California residence, all of their possessions, and moved to Finland for two years.
Mr. and Mrs. Huizinga had faced cross-cultural experiences before. She had lived in Scotland, and he met her while living in Korea, first as an English instructor at a language school in Seoul and later as a program developer for the Korean branch of a Minnesota university and finally to direct the social studies program at a school in the Korean countryside.
But the opportunity to gain a master’s of arts degree from the University of Jvyaskyla in Finland where he could both learn and teach in a country renowned for the success of its educational system was so compelling that they decided it was worth starting their lives all over again with a clean slate.
“We went just to learn,” he told the attendees of the Finnish American Chamber of Commerce of the Southeast Inc.’s dinner Dec. 6 celebrating the 99th anniversary of Finland’s independence at the Cherokee Town Club in Buckhead.
Coincidentally, the PISA scores had been released the same day. PISA is the acronym for the “Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA),” which the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducts each year surveying the performance of the educational systems of 73 countries that span the globe.
Finland became especially famous among educators because its PISA results did astoundingly well, generally placing close to the top among the participating countries in both reading and math rankings for 15 year olds.
Its rankings astounded educators who have flocked there to study its instructional methods only to find that Finnish students spend their evenings skateboarding, playing video games or hanging out with friends and yet perform almost as high as their counterparts from Singapore or Korea who often go to a second school until 10:00 p.m. and then have four hours of homework to complete.
As an American with his interest in international education, Mr. Huizinga couldn’t help but notice that in the latest rankings (those for 2015) U.S. high school students ranked 40th in math literacy, 25th in science literacy and 24th in reading literacy.
Unlike many educators who have studied the Finnish educational system to discover its secrets for success, he focused on his core mission which was “to learn,” and not so much to judge.
He recalled “the darkness,” “the slush,” “the solemn attitudes,” and the “awkward silent moments” to underscore that he and his wife weren’t just looking for another “honeymoon moment.” Since Finland is located at the Latitude and Longitude of 61°15’N and 28°15’E, some of this could be expected, and he confessed that “the worst punishment was getting his kids dressed to go out and play during the winter.”
So what did he learn? First was that his family had gotten out of their ‘comfort zone,’ even though they were professional cross-cultural educators. Riding the bus proved “to be eerily quiet and different.”
He then noticed that he was telling his daughters that “they were always too loud.”
“I quickly learned that if someone came up to you and began talking that the person was probably not Finnish,” he added. “Small talk I learned was either unnecessary or superficial.”
He also couldn’t help noticing that school practices were different.
“Presenters took their time,” he said. “There was a lot of break time, no tests, classes seemed ordinary and math lessons were one on on.”
“Don’t you have to have some sort of competition?”, he mused.
“I must say that for the first time I was thoroughly unimpressed,” he added. “I had been looking for a ‘Wow,’ some sort of pizzaz.”
He was forced to ask himself, “How was it that Finland had attained such positive educational results?”
Perhaps even more importantly, he wrestled with his own educational experiences and cultural viewpoints gradually learning to sit down in a cafeteria “and not say a word.”
In time, he took comfort in the metaphor of the peaches and coconuts. “With other people, Americans are like peaches. We like chitchat, we’re bubbly and sweet, but inside there is a nut that is hard to crack or change.”
On the other hand, Finns are more like coconuts, he said. “It’s hard to know what’s underneath but once cracked there’s life giving nourishment.”
Slowly he came to understand that the Finnish educational system takes “a steady and logical approach” and is serious about the ability to learn through play, games and people. “The emphasis is on childhood development instead of academic learning.”
“Learning was the focus of everything and this allowed teachers to be flexible,” he said. It also emphasized a commitment to each and every student. The emphasis, he said, was not on cultivating a few exceptional, standouts but the collective group in the class.
Donning his academic cap toward the end of his comments, he added he felt that exporting educational models provides numerous challenges especially including a keen awareness of one’s own culture and practices.
Yet his experience, he added, reinforced his conviction of the importance of teachers to experience different practices, not only to be inspired, but to better understand their own.
An education exchange for Finnish teachers to the U.S., however, would be far from a setback despite the test scores, he said, for they would benefit from the “deep knowledge of diversity” that American teachers hold.
Before returning to the United States, he learned of an opening at Emory University for a program coordinator for international students, a job that he sought and now holds.
For the view of another American teaching in Finland, click here. To learn more about the Finnish Chamber of Commerce of the Southeast, click here. Mr. Huizinga may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org