Monday, January 03, 2011

Finlandization of Education?

I noted yesterday (and even earlier) that Chinese students in Shanghai performed very well last year on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). They did not, however, do significantly better than Finland, as I've known for some time but perhaps haven't yet mentioned. Indeed, Finland has consistently placed well on the PISA.

To my surprise, though, Finland was below average in math and science only 25 years ago, according to Pasi Sahlberg, "Learning from Finland," The Hechinger Report (December 27, 2010), but managed to transform itself:
As recently as 25 years ago, Finnish students were below the international average in mathematics and science. There also were large learning differences between schools, with urban or affluent students typically outperforming their rural or low-income peers. Today, as the most recent PISA study proves, Finland is one of the few nations that have accomplished both a high quality of learning and equity in learning at the same time. The best school systems are the most equitable -- students do well regardless of their socioeconomic background. Finally, Finland should interest US educators because Finns have employed very distinct ideas and policies in reforming education, many the exact opposite of what's being tried in the United States.

Finland has a different approach to student testing and how test data can or should not be used. Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to one another. Teachers, students and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers, or students do what they are supposed to do. Politicians and administrators are informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based learning tests that place no pressure on schools, and by research targeted to understand better how schools work. Parents and politicians think that teachers who work closely together with parents are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.

Another difference is that Finland has created an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work. All teachers are required to have higher academic degrees that guarantee both high-level pedagogical skills and subject knowledge. Parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. The fact that teachers in Finland work as autonomous professionals and play a key role in curriculum planning and assessing student learning attracts some of the most able and talented young Finns into teaching careers.
Americans generally don't trust teachers and schools, nor would teachers, students, and parents likely work together to assess how a school is doing. But still, how does the Finnish system work in the classroom? Sahlberg doesn't precisely say, though he alludes to this in remarking that "the Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation -- not choice and competition -- can lead to an education system where all children learn well." That doesn't tell me much about what's meant by "equity and cooperation," nor does it even hint at what's deficient about "choice and competition."

A couple of my students, however, have previously written research papers on Finnish education and have emphasized that it is discussion-based education in which students can openly question teachers and in which better students assist those students who lag behind. I think that we can see through this how cooperation is stressed more than competition, but I don't recall anything in my students' research that reveals how "choice" and "equity" are at odds. Also of interest -- if I rightly recall my students' papers -- is that Finns consistently score high on PISA's measure of creativity, and this fine showing, as well as fine Finnish showings overall, is achieved by students who attend fewer hours of school than the student average in most highly developed countries.

Maybe the Finnish education system has something to teach us all . . .

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At 7:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think that we can see through this how cooperation is stressed more than competition, but I don't recall anything in my students' research that reveals how "choice" and "equity" are at odds. "

I wondered the exact same thing. American schools adopted Kagan's cooperative learning a long time ago.

I also wonder what Finland's student body demographics look like. I don't believe Finland has a large immigrant population like most other Western nations. About 10% of our school district's students have limited English proficiency. Don't know what national statistics look like. I wonder, too, what poverty in Finland looks like. A fair number of our underperforming children live in unstable homes where at least one adult has a substance abuse problem and is a neglectful caregiver. Some parents in poverty may bear and raise many children, compounding the problem.

Even if Finland's demographics aren't as challenging as ours, we can still learn from their successful model though our PISA scores may never crack the top five.


At 8:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I suspect that Finland has far fewer problems with violence and drugs than the US. However, immigration is changing the populations of European countries, resulting in ethnic communities in many places. Some of these suffer more problems of violence and drugs, e.g., Muslim communities. Finland might find education more difficult in a multiethnic, multicultural society.

Jeffery Hodges

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