Monday, January 23, 2012

Finnish Lessons

I recently read “Finnish Lessons - What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?” by Pasi Sahlberg. While reading the book, four primary themes emerged:
  1. Less is More
    1. Finnish Teachers spend less time teaching than their Canadian counterparts. Approximately 4 lessons per day (about 4 hours of teaching) which provides more time for Professional Development, collaboration, assessment and personalization of instruction. They have created a paradox of sorts in that they appear to be able to get MORE from LESS. Their student achievement scores have risen steadily over the past decade, yet they spend less time teaching than their North American counterparts.
    2. Finnish Teachers have more control in developing and implementing curriculum.
    3. Less standardized testing appear to promote increased levels of creativity, innovation and critical thinking.
  2. Collaboration vs Competition
    1. Teachers, schools and communities are encouraged to network, work together and to collaborate. There are “friendly rivalries” that exist between communities, but in general, the prevailing culture values “equity of opportunity & access” for all.
    2. Teachers are encouraged to be leaders and to collaborate.
    3. The bureaucracy of decision-making is simplified. Risk-taking is encouraged and mistakes are expected as a vehicle for learning.
  3. Flexibility
    1. Students are provided with increasing levels of choice in their learning as they progress.
    2. Students are able to cobble together their own learning paths from a menu of modular-designed courses. This also allows for students to progress at their own pace (some requiring additional time, others not as much).
    3. Students can choose between two primary “streams” of education once their primary years are completed; however, they still have opportunities to move between the “streams” should their goals change.
  4. Culture
    1. Finland’s current education system benefits from a long cultural and political history that promotes equity for all, pragmatism, trust in public institutions and a general belief that “everyone” needs to be included.
    2. Educational policy is interwoven with other public policies - i.e. welfare, tuition-free university, pre-school, etc. They have geared their society to support families and individuals to “be all that they can be” in order to better support a knowledge-based work force which in turn helps to support the social safety net for all.

It’s the last theme, culture, that has me most concerned about efforts to transplant the Finnish school system to North America. Please don’t misinterpret that last statement...I would be thrilled to see their system over here. Clearly, it works for them. 
Sahlberg goes into great detail about the 30 years of debate that led to the system that is currently in place in Finland. Before adopting aspects of the Finnish Education System, it is critical that observers understand its historical underpinnings.
The Finns appear to have a deep sense of “equity for all” embedded into their culture. This extends through various public services of which Education is one. Our history, especially that of our neighbours to the south, appears to place a greater level of importance on the “individual” as opposed to the “group”.  My concern is that most citizens in Canada would agree with statements like “no child left behind” or “achievement for all students” unless it meant less services for their child.
The Finns seem to have been able to bring together all the stakeholders in education in a way that builds capacity through collaboration and consensus. They are able to bring teachers, parents, administrators and politicians together in a way that puts student learning first and builds trust and respect
throughout the system. Teachers are highly respected in Finland and are often attracted to the job because of the high status the job comes with - not necessarily the salary. Currently, as we go through another BCTF Job Action, it is particularly difficult to imagine such a harmonious working relationship here in BC. Consider our history as depicted by Crawford Kilian in recent articles on The Tyee.
So where does Pasi Sahlberg see the Finnish School System going over the next few decades? Here are his thoughts:

      • Development of a personal road map for learning. It is important for each young person to acquire certain basic knowledge, such as reading, writing, and using mathematics. In the future, it will be important that students have alternative ways to learn these basic things. Children will learn more and more of what we used to learning school out of school, through media, the Internet, and from difference social networks to which they belong. This will lead to a situation in which an increasing number of students will find teaching in school irrelevant because they have already learned what is meaningful for them elsewhere.
      • Less classroom-based teaching. Rather than continue thinking of furure schooling in terms of subjects and time allocations to them, the time is right now to make a bold move and rethink the organization of time in schools.
      • Development of interpersonal skills and problem solving. In the future people will spend more time on and give more personal attention to media and communication technologies than they do today. It means two things from the educational point of view. First, people in general will spend less time together in a concrete social setting. Social interaction will be based on using social networking and other future tools that rely on digital technological solutions. Second, people will learn more about the world and other people through media and communication technologies. Schools need to rethink what their core task in educating people will be. What most people in the future will need that they are not likely to learn anywhere else is real problem-solving in cooperation with other people. This will become one of the basic functions of future schools: to teach cooperation and problem solving in small groups of diverse people.
      • Engagement and creativity as pointers of success. People will learn more of what they need through digital tools and media, and therefore it will become increasingly difficult to know what role schools have played in students’ learning (or not learning if you wish) of intended things. First, engaging all students in learning in school will be more important than ever. Second, students’ ability to create something valuable and new in school will be more important than ever – not just for some students, but for most of them. In other words, a successful school is able to take each individual – both students and teachers – further in their development than they could have gone by themselves.
I am encouraged by the launch of the BC Education Plan and its attempt to garner feedback from a diverse group of stakeholders and the general public. I'm very interested to see how it all unfolds over the next few months. A couple questions (of many) I leave you with:
  • How can we develop greater levels of communication, collaboration and networking amongst Principals, Teachers, and/or Parents?
  • What is the difference between “flexibility” and “choice” as noted in the BC Education Plan? What are the pros/cons of each?
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