Monday, January 02, 2012

What Finland's schools can teach us about making political points

Let me ask you something, if you discovered that another country was being hugely successful in educating their students, and doing so without either the endless classroom hours and brain busting homework loads of the Asian model, or the relentless testing and assessing barrages of the American model, wouldn’t you want to know what it was they were doing in their classrooms? If you were going to write an article to inform your nation of this great success story in Education – wouldn’t you discuss what it was they were doing?

I just read, what I’d hoped would be an interesting article on how successful Finland’s school system has been, called “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success”, but having read it, I find that it might have been better entitled “What American journalists can score political points with while Ignoring what’s made Finland's Schools Successful”.

What I found most interesting, is that the author of the article, and the Finn contact, relentlessly present the 'secret' of Finland’s success in Education, as having to do with issues which have nothing whatsoever to do with how they actually go about Educating their children.

Why would an article on educational success... not discuss what makes their system of education so successful? Interesting, isn't it?

The contact, Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility, apparently taught mathematics and physics in a junior high school in Helsinki; but do we get to learn how he went about teaching those ‘notoriously difficult’ subjects to his students? Nyah. Apparently that’s just not pertinent to an article on another system of education.

What they did find to be pertinent, was going on and on about how there are no private schools in all of Finland,
“There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.”,
Practically? I wonder what that means? Keep wondering, because they ain't gonna tell ya. And,
“None is allowed to charge tuition fees. ” and “In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.” And “More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.”
All the options are all the same… say that sounds great, doesn’t it? And more ‘equity’ too! Btw, ‘equity’ in this context, probably means even more of that ‘spreading the wealth around’ that we Americans have found so swell lately, but why would a journalist who is interested in communicating truth and understanding bother with making sure that their readers understand what is truly going on?

Why do you suppose an article on education, would be so concerned about issues of politics?

Apparently this fine journalist, Anu Partanen, who btw is writing a book about "what America can learn from Nordic societies", along with her editors at Atlantic Monthly, could find no reason to point out that if no tuition fees are allowed to be charged, and all classes teach the very same thing throughout the nation, then that must mean that the Finnish government has apparently dictated that no one will be permitted, by law, to teach what they might see as being important for their children to learn… nope… no issue there, fuhgeddabout dat 'liberty' stuff, we've got 'equity' for you, nothing to see here dear reader, just move along. Now.

Instead, they find it much more useful to point out that their schools aren’t in competition with each other – hey would a journalist find it interesting to point out who it that set up the system of American schools and specifically sought to foster competition and rivalry between them, especially in high school? Oops, sorry, that could be dicey stuff for a leftie rag like the Atlantic to delve into. Instead, the article describes how the political delivery system of education is organized and publicly funded, and it also mentions, repeatedly, the lofty ideals that led them to that ‘equality for all’.

And that is nice and all, but strangely, for an article on a new and exciting educational system, it tells us very nearly nothing about what happens inside their classrooms… which is after all the ‘product’ being delivered.

Why do you suppose they neglected that? Hey, you don't suppose that one of the things that Anu thinks that we Americans can learn from Nordic societies, is socialism, do ya? Ya think?

When they do get around to mentioning issues which do have a direct relation to how the Finnish‘deliver’ Education in the classrooms, they are only mentioned because the Finnish Do Not engage in them: endless testing, assessments, teacher accountability, and they are mentioned almost in passing, humorously even, as a way to chide their American counterparts. Sahlberg says,
"Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students' performance if you don't test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?"
The article doesn't bother to mention that those very features; testing, assessment, homework, production line like delivery and competition for grades, etc, were the signature innovations brought to our modern American 'system' of education by our founding proregressive leftists, such as John Dewey & Co. Nope, nothing useful in learning that, I suppose.

Amazingly the article gives barely a few sentences to what the Finnish actually do, do in their classrooms. One sentence tells us that,
" Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play. "
Which is intriguing to me, how is it, do you suppose, that they so successfully engage their students, and in creative play at that? I for one would really like to know. But… apparently it’s just enough for us to know that they do, not how they do. And for what is probably the most significant issue of all, that the Teacher is the one who personally design's a test for each one of their individual students, they go all out and give us two sentences,
“Instead, the public school system's teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.”
THAT seems to indicate that the Teacher is in charge of teaching their own classes, rather than following a top down, turn by turn, compendium of policy instructions on exactly what to teach and how to teach it – which is an utter and absolute refutation of the entire formulation of the modern American educational model in general, and Obama & Arne Duncan’s model in particular!

I would love to know what sorts of materials they use in the classrooms to teach from, do they use textbooks? What type of content do they contain? How do the teachers utilize them? What sorts of ‘creative play’ do they engage in? How do the teachers go about putting together their lessons? Do they have particular academic goals for the semester? For the year? Do they even have semesters?

But alas, those questions were apparently not of any interest to the author of this article on the successes of the Finnish educational system. It really is a shame that this article on ‘education’ tells us so little about how the Finn’s actually go about educating their students… but, I guess when you’ve gotta choose between making a political statement, and stating the subject of your story, the choice is obvious – go with the political statement.

That certainly seems to be one of the lessons that journalists do manage to learn in their schools.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh, but the movement is here already. Follow this poppy-cock link, http://www.racetonowhere.com/, and read all about it. Love the part about homework-less holidays and weekends. Poor stressed out darlings.

Van said...

Money quote from the end of the trailer: "What does it take to produce, a happy, motivated, creative, human being."

Proregressivism in a nutshall.

The answer to it of course, is the same answer that the early French businessmen answered the King's minister, who asked what the crown could do to help fix their markets:

"Leave us alone!"

julie said...

Yes, I would love to hear more about their methodology as well. Especially since it apparently works in spite of the socialistic system, and not because of it.

John Lien said...

I'm curious as well. I'm going to guess that specifics that really worked didn't fit the authors' progressive world view. (I can think that since they apparently don't tell you).

"the Teacher is the one who personally designs a test for each one of their individual students"

That has a home schooling flavor to it.

Education CAN be good and cheap, especially with the internet, but public education really isn't about educating the public.

Van said...

Julie & John, yes I've been annoyed with the same thought - if the reporting is true (always a dicey proposition), they seem to have found out how to get back to a semblance of actual teaching, which works despite the system.

I have no reason to doubt that it would have to work here as well, if ever tried... but that's a big, big IF, which I suspect is what they so deliberately stepped around letting slip. The fact that a particular teacher, is not only allowed, but expected, to craft their tests to each individual student, flies in the face of every conceivable aspect of American educational policy, especially that being crammed down our throats by Arne Duncan & Obamao right now.

I read the article, and the articles linked to in the article, and the Amazon blurbs & comments on Suhlberg’s book – nothing at all about how they are conducting their teaching and what they are teaching with.

I do hope to find something more later... a friend alerted me to this article last night, so this was a bit hurried... I’d pretty much planned to skip posting this week entirely... another resolution bites the dust.

julie said...

The story reminds me of when I was a kid. We were military, and lucky enough to be stationed in England for a few years in the early 80s. My mom was smart enough to send us to local British schools, which were still pretty decent at the time. No homework, and no grading system to speak of; they dealt with each child as they came, and the teaching style was generally a combination of rote where necessary (times tables, for instance) and improvisation. School plays were written by the students, for instance. As far as I could tell, the teachers were quite flexible in how they ran their classes. When my parents asked how they'd know how we were doing, the principal told them they'd be called if there was a problem. Which did happen, once my brother was in school (he had issues).

Coming back to American schools for 5th grade was a massive culture shock - not just with the kids, but with the whole class structure. Like being sent to indoctrination camp.

Anonymous said...

School is no longer a political issue in Finland, as every political party from left to right recognizes that the system that had a leftist reputation in the 1970's is functioning well. They follow what the Americans say: if it works, don't fix it.

I think it would be very difficult to describe what happens in the classroom, as each class is different. What I know is that techers choose the textbooks they like to use and they use them very freely, pick the chapters that they feel are important and compose their lessons as they please. The article describes mainly he differences compared to the US system, and that is not a political agenda. It just happens to be that way - even the universities in Finland are state funded and have been so from the very beginning in he 1600's. Ever since that time no Finnish student has paid tuition - that cannot be leftist, that was the Royal Swedish system ordered by the king.

You know what? I think this blogger has an American education that makes people ignorant and pissed off, and to see socialism everywhere.

Van said...

anonymous said "You know what? I think this blogger has an American education that makes people ignorant and pissed off, and to see socialism everywhere."

You know what? I think you didn't read the post, or you read it only to see what you wanted to see. Take another stab at it. I'll hold on.

( ♫ ♪ ♬ [whistling while I wait] ♬ ♪ ♫)

Back? Ok, good. This time you probably noticed that I wasn't questioning Finlands methods - in fact I was ticked off that it mentioned almost nothing about them - what I was questioning, was why in an article screaming about a educational method that works, that instead of talking about those methods, it instead to focus entirely on the funding method, which while it may be a non-issue in Finland, is a massive issue here... and as I said, has nothing to do with how they are educating their students.

As I said, based upon the three sentences in the article that sort of mentioned how education is approached in Finland's classrooms, what struck me most, was that it seemed as if the Teacher had the freedom to devise their own tests, based upon their own best judgment, that tested what was important to each individual student - that is something that, today, is revolutionary, and which I would very much like to hear more about.

I read the article, I read the articles it linked to, I tried to find details on the book that Stahlberg wrote, but no luck so far.

"What I know is that techers choose the textbooks they like to use and they use them very freely, pick the chapters that they feel are important and compose their lessons as they please."

This is not only extremely interesting to me, but is closer to how I believe a classroom must be run, by the teacher, teaching what and how, they feel best meets the needs of their students. If you have more detailed information, or know where I can find reliable information about it online, I would be extremely interested, and appreciative, in seeing that.

"The article describes mainly he differences compared to the US system, and that is not a political agenda."

Now I don't need to have you read their article again... do I? It may not be a political agenda in Finland, but it is one here, the author knows it, and the interviewee knows it, and that is what they are emphasising in their article. What they also know very well, is that their methods are the absolute antithesis to American educational system - not the mostly irrelevant funding method - but the centralized, dictatorial, rigidly defined, tested, cross tested and assessed 'quality control' system suitable only to highly linear production line assembly methods, and totally, IMHO, unsuited to any decent system of Education.

I'd also very much appreciate any information on what their textbooks consist of. I suspect they aren't the compendiums of dry as dirt, purposefully unimaginative, essays, written by 3rd & 4th authors... do you have any information on that?

As far as my education (see the blurbs below the comment section), I tossed that nearly thirty years ago, went back to Gilgamesh & Homer, and began working my way forward through history, lit and philosophy. Education, in particular, is a subject extremely important to me, and FWIW, I do not see 'competition' as imparting any special or useful ingredient to the process of Education. To the general systems, if there are to be any, there may be some benefits it can bring, if the actual purpose of Education is kept in mind, but if our current mania of Charter schools is put up as the hallmark for that process, I think it is doomed to failure.

As far as 'socialism', can you define for me the key feature of it? That is, can you tell me what it actually means and requires, as opposed to the dictionary definition?

So... if you've got something worthwhile to say, I'd like to see it, if not... carry on.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I actually read it through again and it was mostly the style I did not like. My experience is limited to the fact that I have spent 12 years in Finnish classrooms and one year in an American school, my father was a teacher and an executive director of schools and my sister is a principal. Also my daughter and sister have spent a year in the US as foreign exchange students. The main difference between the US and Finland systmes is that in Finland the pupils at 16 have reached the level where Americans finish High School, and in addition to that the pupils can speak one or more foreign languages.

This is not so much about what happens in the classroom but the sytem itself. The national curriculum in Finland describes in broad lines what should be learned each school year. The teaching is very systematic - you start English on grade 3 and Swedish on grade 4 (there is some variation in the languages you can choose) and you continue every year from the point where you got the previous year. There is not very much you can choose from, some extra music or arts or cooking maybe, but you cannot leave any of the compulsory classes out, like math, science, languages, history etc.

The textbooks are often written by teachers; the teacher of our daughter has been a co-writer of the book that she uses in the classroom, so she pretty well knows the subject. My sister has written textbooks as well. The books are published by private publishers and sold for profit, but from grade 1 to 9 they are paid by the school. High school studens buy their books from bookstores and older friends. The competition between the handfull of larger Finnish publishers is fierce, as textbooks sell well. The books follow the national curriculum, which gives rather much freedom. Teachers choose the books and competition has made the quality pretty good, every publisher is trying to find the best writers and illustrators. American books looked rather dull when I used them years ago, and in some classes there were no textbooks.

There is not much homework in Finland and in most cases the youngest do it at school after the classes. In some High Schools they even have a system that no homework is compulsory, you only do it if you feel that you need extra practise.

About the work inside the classroom one cannot tell much, as every teacher has his or her own ways of teaching. Some teahers take the kids to field trips, museums etc. a lot, some prefer to stay in the class. Parents are very well informed of how their kid is doing at school as each pupil has an internet page where teachers leave messages and where all test results and school reports can be seen online. There is also quite a lot of cooperation and meetings between teachers and parents. If the kid has problems the teachers are very well trained to notice what is wrong and there is a lot of help available.

It is obvious that Finnish teachers are well trained professionals and it is pretty much left for the individual teacher to decide how to teach and which books to use if any. the amount of tests is up to the teacher, and it is the duty of the teacher to write the test qustions and evaluate the answers. It is very common that the first years at work the teachers are busy as they have to create their method of teaching, plan the lessons and write the tests, but later they can just build on what they have done during previous years and foun good. The teachers also set their own goals and as they come from the top 10-20% of the university students, they most often set the level very high for their own teaching and the performance of their students as well. I think this is important - the teacher in the class must be way over average to be respected by the smartest students and to have the capacity to help those who struggle.

Anonymous said...

A few words of socialism. I know there may be different ideas of the true definition, and I have no idea what the definition might be in an American dictionary. In Finland socialism was pretty easy to define back in the 1980's: you cross the Russian border and everything you see around you is socialism. We had none of that in Finland.

By Finnish definition, socialism refers to a society where everything that is needed for whatever type of production of goods or services is owned by the government; factories, machines, agricultural land etc. and therefore private enterprise is made impossible and forbidden.

Public funding is not socialism; the Finnish public funding has its origins in the Swedish kingdom - the king ordered public funding for the army, the university, the academy of arts, building towns and chanals, etc. We call none of the Swedish kings socialists, allthough they ordered tax money to be spent on such things as education.

I understand the idea of the US as being free of such rulers as the king or nobility, but in the north of Europe progress took another direction: the parliament took more and more of the king's power, but the idea of using tax money for whatever was needed in the country remained the same. There is no socilist background to this, there is the royal background. Private enterprise is fully valued and has always been, public funding is used for purposes where private enterprise gives poor results, such as basic education.

Van said...

Anonymous said "Ok, I actually read it through again and it was mostly the style I did not like."

Heh, sorry about that. This post came out at rant speed due to my frustration with the complete lack of useful information in the article and those it linked to... it was like offering empty canteens to someone wandering in out of the desert.

I appreciate your info on the Finnish schools, very much. I'm a bit pleased also, in that it gibes well with what I've come to expect as requirements for effective education; in everything from the completion of 'high school' by 16 (I think that can be pushed back even earlier, but it's better than 18), to the teacher selecting (or even writing) their textbooks, materials and methods, and teaching their class as their own judgment directs them to.

"This is not so much about what happens in the classroom but the sytem itself. The national curriculum in Finland describes in broad lines what should be learned each school year."

I'm going to agree while disagreeing with that, or rather, I agree with the meaning of that, but quibble with the framing of it. Having a system which sets broad outlines for curriculum (and I assume expectations), but leaving it to the teacher to judge how to accomplish those goals, would mean that the classrooms would be free to operate in the most suitable fashion, as determined by the teacher (and I assume in communication with the parents? Ah, "Parents are very well informed of how their kid is doing at school as each pupil has an internet page where teachers leave messages and where all test results and school reports can be seen online." yep.). Meaning that that system enables the classroom to become what drives the educational process, and the system is there to support them - which is about as far from our system as it is possible to get.

Do they include quality literature, history, etc, as well? Personally, I think that it is difficult for proper education to occur without engaging the imagination (and I mean that less in the flighty manner, than the poetic), and so quality writing, stories, and of course an effective teacher, are necessary to that. On that track alone, the modern American notions of schooling are doomed to failure - you are not going to find more than a rare teacher here and there, that can manage to overcome the grey pulp of our textbooks, and the minute to minute regulated classroom behavior, actions, materials... in order to help their students to become educated.

(Comment size break)

Van said...

(cont)
Another question, do they have the 'ring a bell, change classroom and teacher' format there, 6+ times a day? I suspect not, but if so, that'd gives even more emphasis to the importance of the teacher being free to teach from what they see as suitable materials.

"There is not very much you can choose from, some extra music or arts or cooking maybe, but you cannot leave any of the compulsory classes out, like math, science, languages, history etc."

No argument there, I think the 'elective classes' fad is best represented by the plummeting quality of education they helped to usher in.

"The textbooks are often written by teachers; the teacher of our daughter has been a co-writer of the book that she uses in the classroom, so she pretty well knows the subject. My sister has written textbooks as well. The books are published by private publishers and sold for profit, but from grade 1 to 9 they are paid by the school. High school studens buy their books from bookstores and older friends. The competition between the handfull of larger Finnish publishers is fierce, as textbooks sell well. The books follow the national curriculum, which gives rather much freedom. Teachers choose the books and competition has made the quality pretty good, every publisher is trying to find the best writers and illustrators. American books looked rather dull when I used them years ago, and in some classes there were no textbooks."

It seems too common sense for words. I'm envious.

" American books looked rather dull when I used them years ago..."

There's an understatement for you!

"It is obvious that Finnish teachers are well trained professionals"

Sorry to pester you, but do you have any more info on what their education consists of? I'm assuming it's not only more, but different, from what our Teachers Colleges consider 'top notch'.

Are there any links that you know of, in English, to more details on Finland's system?

"I think this is important - the teacher in the class must be way over average to be respected by the smartest students and to have the capacity to help those who struggle."

We might find some room to quibble there in the sense of what they need to be over average in, but I do believe they need a certain unquestionable mentally competence and creativity.

Thanks again for the information, it is much appreciated - and needed here (I'll see what I can do about that) - any more you can send my way, please do, either here or at blogodidact@gmail.com

Van said...

Anonymous said "Public funding is not socialism;"

Anonymous, you're restoring my faith in my anonymous fellows!

Yes, socialism, with the definition that matters, is the denial of the principle of property rights. It differs from it's brethren in Marxism, Communism, Fascism, only in the degree and particulars of how it puts that anti-principle into practice, and how brazenly they apply it.

And double correct, public funding is absolutely not the equivalent of socialism.

While public funding can stray into the socialistic realm when it effectively denies the rights and property of its people, but that is usually through legislative negligence, rather than purposeful intent (well, that used to be the case, many legislators have been purposefully doing that and then expressing shock when called on it, but that's another story).

Anonymous said...

Van, for further reading you maybe should google "The Finnish Natioanal Board of Education". Among other things there is the entire national curriculum in English there. It describes pretty well the guidelines that a teacher must follow and might answer some of your questions.

In each school there is also a shorter, local version describing how the school will apply the national curriculum; this "Opetussuunnitelma" (teaching plan) is written and introduced by the principal and approved by the governing body of the school (the principal, members of the staff, and parents elected for the task). Dispite the name, opetussuunnitelma does not give any instructions of how the teacher should plan or run the lessons. There might be better sites about teachers, their every day work and their education, I'll try to find them for you.

Van said...

Anonymous, it looks like that's what I found last night, and I hope to get to look through them and the overall site tonight.

There are obviously a lot of points that can be thrown up in argument against comparing the two systems (Finland's and America's) - comparison of tests, more homogeneous population, and on and on, as well as all the 'common core' guidelines and public expense model, the all-purpose inner city poverty excuses, but I suspect (on far too little info so far, true) that those will prove to be mere incidentals, the actual functioning portion, my guess, is that what comes from above are general goals which leave the teachers free to teach, with the close involvement of the parents, and a focus on comprehension rather that bubble test assessment scores.

I'm looking forward to digging into this, thanks for your help.



http://www.oph.fi/download/124284_Education_system_of_Finland.pdf

http://www.oph.fi/english/education/overview_of_the_education_system