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Elizabeth Crawford, Assistant Professor and Elementary Education Graduate Program Coordinator, at the Watson College of Education at UNC-Wilmington, won a Global Scholar Curriculum Development grant from UNC’s Center for European Studies to travel to Finland in May and to infuse newly acquired materials and European content into her courses. This grant was funded by the US Department of Education.


What I Learned as a Global Scholar in Finland



Visiting the University of Jyväskylä on May 9th (with my daughter, Kate) prior to my presentation on humane education in teacher preparation.


Like many U.S. educators, I have long admired Finland’s international academic ranking and focus on play-based learning. Recent headlines such as “The Joyful Illiterate Kindergarteners of Finland” (1) intrigue me as a parent of a toddler, a former kindergarten and 5th grade teacher, and a current teacher educator at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. How did Finland rise to the top as a global leader in education while supporting child-led learning? I sought answers to these questions and more as a Global Scholar in Finland.

At UNCW, I specialize in social studies and global education. Prior experiences as a curriculum designer for the Peace Corps World Wise Schools and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF focus my current work preparing teachers to infuse global, solution-focused learning in their elementary classrooms. More specifically, I aim to foster my students’ awareness, deep understanding, and ability to address global issues while meeting content area standards. The newly enacted UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a framework for my courses as they afford integrated teaching and learning experiences around interrelated concepts and topics commonly taught during the elementary grades: human rights and responsibilities; clean water and sanitation; biodiversity and endangered species; environmental preservation and sustainability; local and global food systems; and more.


Reflective of Finnish culture and the value placed on families and children, trains include a family compartment complete with areas for play and a library of children’s books. Here, my two-year-old plays with Finnish children, no language required.


When I read about Finland’s education reform efforts with emphasis on phenomenon-based learning (an interdisciplinary approach that engages students in investigating, alongside their teachers, real world phenomena or issues and proposing solutions to address them), I chose Finland as my country of focus for my Global Scholars grant application in September 2015. Through this grant, I sought to learn about Finnish education policy and practices focused on integrated, global learning through collaboration with Finnish scholars and classroom teachers. Targeted outcomes of these efforts included the revision of my methods courses, as well as collaborative research and writing on the globalization of teacher preparation in the U.S. and Finland.

During the academic year 2015-2016, I contacted Finnish faculty members and teachers by way of a simple Internet search. Dozens of emails and a few Skype calls later, I established regular contact with a Senior Researcher at the University of Jyväskylä whose current project includes the “Internationalisation of Higher Education,” as well as a 3rd grade teacher in Helsinki who teaches her students about global issues. Foreshadowing the generosity and collaborative nature of Finns that I would soon witness in person, both individuals helped to establish the itinerary for my visit May 6-14, 2016, which included university and school tours, presentations, and observations. Thanks to my new Finnish colleagues, I enjoyed a full, rich discovery of Central and Southern Finland: I presented my research on global, humane education at the University of Jyväskylä to faculty and Master’s students, met with graduate students preparing their theses proposals on global issues, such as women’s literacy programs in Nepal, taught lessons on plastic pollution and water consumption through food production to 8th and 9th graders at two schools that recently won Finland’s global education awards, enjoyed two hours observing 3rd graders play and learn about water pollution, and toured the University of Helsinki Department of Teacher Education where they have recently renovated their learning spaces to encourage more peer interaction.


All students are served a free, nutritious lunch in Finnish schools. Shown here is the Vaajakumpu School (Jyväskylä) cafeteria where waste is meticulously sorted for composting.


The lessons I learned in Finland are too numerous, of course, to recount in one blog post; however, several take-aways are immediate. First, this experience prompts me to be more mindful of how I live and how I teach. I embrace Finland’s “less is more” philosophy, applied equally to my consumer habits, as well as my practices as a teacher educator. Finland’s efforts in sustainability are truly commendable. For example, witnessing the Finns’ careful attention to sorting waste in public buildings, including school cafeterias, draws attention to every item consumed and disposed. Children are involved in measuring their schools’ food waste and work together to reduce it, reinforcing shared goals and collaboration. Leftover lunches are sold for 1.50 Euro to locals, further reducing waste while helping those in need.

Additionally, I admire the Finns’ trust in teachers as professionals and their commitment to providing equal opportunities to a high quality education. Just as the Finns’ adoption of phenomenon-based learning is new and evolving, I, too, will experiment with innovative approaches to teaching my students about the world and their roles in it. I aim to collaborate with Finnish secondary teachers next year as we both explore these approaches to integrated, global education in our courses.


The faculty lounge at Vaajakumpu School (Jyväskylä) where teachers join for coffee and conversation. Such beautiful spaces invite collaboration.


My work as a Global Scholar is only beginning. I plan to return to the University of Jyväskylä in October 2016 when an international seminar on the SDGs will be held. Meeting these global goals requires collaboration at all levels, locally and globally. Finland offers an extraordinary example for U.S. teacher educators to examine as every school district will implement phenomenon-based learning per the revised National Curriculum Framework beginning in 2016-2017. I invite others to partner on the shared belief that our children can “become the generation that changed the world” (2). 

Elizabeth O. Crawford, Ph.D.

The University of North Carolina-Wilmington


1. Walker, T. (2015, October 1). The joyful illiterate Kindergarteners of Finland. Retrieved from

2. TES. (n.d.). The World’s Largest Lesson. Retrieved from

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