An Erasmus+ grant enabled us to connect in Helsinki, the White City of the North, which refers to the city’s many buildings in white granite. Yet, visits to several vocational schools painted a more flamboyant picture, as special needs educators walk around in colorful clothing and sip strong coffee from mugs in all the colors of the rainbow.
Veerle: No wonder Finnish people are amongst the happiest in the world. Color and creativity seem to be embedded in the Finnish genes. I am curious, do children and youth with special needs experience the same high level of quality of life as their peers?
Sini: Good question. I guess there is still room for improvement there, both in Finland and in Norway. A significant similarity is the way our curriculum for teacher training continues to emphasize the various kinds of reasons and individual challenges for needing special support. I think there is still some terrain to be covered before we may speak of truly inclusive schools, starting with our vocational special needs teacher education.
Veerle: Indeed. Probably the best way towards inclusion is not through special education. We abnormalise people when we use words such as special, atypical, normal, etc., while we should be embracing diversity and celebrate our uniqueness. Presenting our Norwegian program plan for special needs teacher education to you made me realize how much we still rely on a deficiency perspective. As such, this visit has already proven its value. Sometimes you must get some distance to be able to see things more clearly.
Sini: It appears to me that, at the core, our ways of supporting students with special needs in practice in vocational collages and of keeping the special needs teacher education hands-on and close to real-life practices are remarkably similar.
Veerle: Being a special needs educator is a very a practical profession, and that should be reflected in the teacher education. I was impressed to hear that you take time to visit your students in their workplaces and observe their practice several times per year. Observation with formative feedback seems such an excellent way of quality-ensuring what happens in the classroom, and it must be a fantastic way of bridging the gap between research and practice. This is something that I would like to take back home with me to Norway.
Sini: What surprises me a lot is the fact that you do not serve a free school lunch. We take so many things for granted. The way to nourish somebody’s will to learn goes through the stomach, so in some schools even morning porridge is served to make students more eager to learn.
Veerle: Even in a privileged country as Norway, 115,000 children are living in poor families. Financial uncertainty in a family may cause a lot of stress in both parents and children, which may affect the children’s brain development in a negative way. Providing free meals during the school day would be a cost-effective measure to reduce inequality. And then there is the social aspect of sharing a meal together as well. In many countries, there is a proverb that says that love goes through the stomach. Maybe we need to love our children more in Norway?
Sini: It is interesting how, within your program of special needs teacher education at Oslo Metropolitan University, there are a lot of more targeted assignments for the students but still they very often get to choose from many alternatives. I think we could add some of this quality and more structured approaches into our renewed implementation plan.
Veerle: We develop and experiment with new assignments for our students every year. It is a way of being creative and showing students diverse ways of assessing and evaluating their work. This way, I hope that we can function as role models to our students, so that they too will think creatively about assessing their own pupils.
The conversation goes on and on. A plan is made between the two special needs teacher educators to keep sharing and learning from each other, as neither the world of inclusion nor teacher education will ever seize to intrigue. Our quest for further improvement of inclusive education in both Finland and Norway will continue.