Written by Janet English

6. Teaching is Like “Sailing”

6. Teaching is Like “Sailing” by Janet English

“I think that teaching is like sailing. You have a target where you want to go but when you go to a classroom you don’t know which way the wind is going to go.”


Chapter 6



The railway system in Finland is dependable, clean, and many cars have WiFi and power outlets for computers.  Train travel is comfortable, safe, and quiet.  Tickets are available on smart phones and there’s an APP that allows you to follow your progress between provincial towns, which I use quite frequently. (This is especially helpful when you don’t understand the language or the names of the towns as they’re announced on the train.) Out the window are kilometer after kilometer of natural and cultivated forests, rolling hills, sporadic farms, and frozen lakes. Every so often the train slows and stops at a rural train station, which are oftentimes buildings of  old wooden architecture and painted in a medium yellow.  DSC00073Every station looks desolate because they’re so far apart and very few people wait outside in the cold.  LumberCarsMany train stations have long rows of flat bed cars with lumber ready for transport, a vital Finnish export.

Today I’m going to Mikkeli, a city of a little less than 50,000 people in southeastern Finland. Mikko Korhonen is waiting for me. Mikko teaches physics at the local high school and he used to live in the United States as a Fulbright teacher researcher. He and his wife have invited me to stay with his family while I’m in town visiting Mikko and his school.

Finns are typically quiet and reserved in the winter and they’re the first ones to tell you that they tend to “hibernate” in winter like the animals.   They talk very little, they oftentimes stay inside during evenings and weekends, and there’s relatively little socialization – at least that’s what I observed in Joensuu.

DSC00915 copyBut in Mikko’s physics classroom, students arrive with wide eyes, great expectations, and raised voices. When Mikko comes in he enters like a conductor of a great “orchestra” – leading the group but not doing the work for them.  He surveys the behavior of the students, sizes up their questions, and formulates his delivery – he is a craftsman in making their minds do calisthenics – asking questions, teasing them, prodding them, confusing them.  He may be teaching physics but he’s practiced in the art of developing minds.  He puts them through jumps and challenges that confuse, disorient, and ultimately, improve their ability to solve problems. He calls his physics tools, “toys,” but really, they’re discrepant events that make their minds stumble and fail.  And fail, again, and again, until they are victorious and their minds release chemicals that make them feel good - they laugh, they celebrate, and they find joy in the workings of their own minds.

Mikko introduces me to Einari Junter, a talented and respected senior who will participate in the International Physics Olympiad this summer. He offers me a chance to observe some physics “toys”  and explain the phenomenon. I know he’s trying to trick me and even so, I get tricked.   It’s as though the “toys” have a double layer of trickery.

Einari and I laugh together at the joy of thinking you know something, and then finding out you don’t know it at all, and then figuring out the answer.

 Mikko and I sit down to talk about his teaching methods and how he designs lessons.

“First, there is the topic I need to teach, then I try to make the process interesting. First I want to make the students think somehow. There are several ways, there are tricks, or there can be measurements … and from there they have to come to conclusions and then finally get to the idea I want or get the phenomenon or try to figure something out that there is a problem. You know, solve the problem – that is the case. So how I plan my lessons I don’t really plan that carefully. Of course if there are measurements I have to take I make take it before hand but I have tried a lot of things you kind of come with the wind. If the measurements are needed I have everything close by in the classroom then we will do that and if there is no time we will do something else. There always is a target that we travel with the kids and the more fun it is to me the more the fun for the students too.”
“I think that teaching is like sailing. You have a target where you want to go but when you go to a classroom you don’t know which way the wind is going to go. Students ask different questions. Sometimes it can be the wind that goes straight one place to another but one day it can be one very good question which is close to the topic that we are dealing (with) but it’s a question with a lot of thinking then of course we go in that direction and from there we going to go to the target that we have. So it’s about planning the lesson. I don’t want to plan my lessons too accurate because it may change and I think that ‘s the fun part. If you have equipment and toys that you can use in lessons that’s fast that doesn’t take time to make the measurement or doesn’t take time to show something, it’s easy to answer to many kinds of questions.”
How can you tell if your students are learning?
“How I test it? No I don’t test it.”
“Well, they stop asking.”
They’re quiet. They no longer need to know the answers.
“Yeah. They get it.”
Do you think Finland is going in the right directions for education?
“Right now? I hope so. In many schools I see bad science and I think we are now at the limits of the border we can go downhill and many schools are following the rankings of the high school rankings and teachers are worried about the matriculation test and how well the students did on that test and if we follow that path then it will be bad. But I think it’s in our hands now the next 2-3 years when we change our big test and curriculum I think there’s a good choice to make things even better but yes I’m a little bit worried.”
Because the focus is becoming on the test?
“Yes, because the focus is on the test and the focus is on how good your school is.”
What was the focus before?
“I think learning. It still is learning, but I see bad signs…. So, for example, parents’ comments or even teachers they start to believe those rankings which makes no sense. If you have really, really good students … of course the results are good and bad students all the results are not that good but it doesn’t tell about the school, only the level of the students.”
“What happens next is the parents believe in that ranking then they said they want to send their kids to good schools and the level of the students get higher and higher and higher and you only have straight A students in one school. And that’s not good because… I think so… if you’re clever and if you’re good in one topic then it’s always good to be recognized for that, like, it’s good to be good. It makes yourself more proud and more proud that you know these things better and you are talented…but when there’s only good students and you are not that good …your self confidence is weaker even if you’re a good student. If you don’t have bad – well, not that good students – in that same class it’s kind of elite thinking and I think if you have both – not so good students and very good students – that’s beneficial for all. So the middle students they learn better because the good students are around…and the good students because they teach the … not so good students. They learn more. I think it’s more rich if you have all kinds of students in the same class.”

Do you think it’s better for students to memorize facts or practice problem solving skills?

“The problem solving is better …and memorization, of course, some of that is needed, when you start to learn… a language – you need to memorize things. If you want to solve the problem or you want to create something new or you are in an area where no one has been before then the only skill that is needed there is how you solve the problem that no one has solved before. If you memorize things then it’s low-level work. I think so….. I’m afraid that many teachers are teaching to memorize things by heart… in normal life you can check that in two seconds on the computer. “

“I go to Mikkeli upper secondary school in Mikkeli.”
Tell me why you like science.
“I like science because it’s problem solving. That’s actually why I like it and you learn new things about things around you and you can use them to understand what’s happening. If life, maybe sometimes before …it was like people were admired if they knew many things but nowadays, even in working life, you don’t have to know everything. It’s better if you’re good in what you are doing and… well, if the tests are some big list of things you don’t actually need those things …because you may remember them for the test time and then you forget them. You haven’t learned anything. You just remember and forget and when you try to solve the things you get a good feeling from the success and maybe the bad feeling from not succeeding and then the right answer. You get deeper memory from that and learn the thing better.”

For more information on Mikko Korhonen’s work, see his recent book about using “toys” to inspire learning and problem solving skills:

Using Physics Gadgets and Gizmos, Grades 9-12: Phenomenon-Based Learning By: Matthew Bobrowsky, Mikko Korhonen, and Jukka Kohtamäki


 When the string is pulled back, which way will the tricycle go?