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What’s the Opposite of Success?

May 16, 2013

I want to explore two very important questions: How? and Why?

These questions tend are at the heart of the talk over how to “reform” America’s schools. Everyone from Sir Ken Robinson and Dan Carlin to Sal Khan and President Obama has an ideas. Some I agree with (the first two), some I’m not completely sold on (the last two). Either way, they all agree on this: something’s wrong and we need to fix it.

How do we go about fixing things? Bush’s No Child Left Behind, with it’s younger brother Race to the Top has something of a logical plan for creating success. Except that is isn’t really working very well. When it doesn’t work, then you have to move past the why-it-should-work-explanations and move toward a new set of discoveries.

What if there was a place where education is working well and we could explore HOW the system works. We can deal with WHY later. We have theorists and researchers who love to publish papers. They can work on the WHY. I am a practitioner. I am entertained and engaged by the WHY question, but find the answer to the HOW question more fulfilling.

One place has found success by doing the following things:

  • Narrative grades only until Grade 5
  • After that, teachers stress grade “as little as possible”
  • Not comparing schools or students by standardized testing
  • Teacher training programs resulting in each teacher having a master’s degree with the expectation that they will be “experts of their own work.”
  • Allow high levels of teacher autonomy by not mandating curriculum from the top down
  • Highly emphasizing “soft skills” like analysis, creativity, collaboration, and communication.

By doing this, they’ve created a national school system that is among the very best in the world.

That place: Finland.

Now, before I get labeled a “Finn-o-phile,” I want to state up front that I have no particular affinity for the Finnish culture (although, full-disclosure, I am partially of Finnish descent). I am focusing on Finland’s system because it is working better than ours.

To explain, I am going to let two articles most of the heavy lifting on this one. One from the Globe and Mail out of Toronto and the other from The Huffington Post.

I want to isolate some quotes from these articles:

The First from the Globe and Mail:

One of the ways the Finnish education system accomplishes [its success] is by giving individual teachers greater autonomy in teaching to the needs of their classes, rather than a top-down, test-based system.

America is currently moving away from this model. You can think good things or bad things about the content of Common Core, but the message is clear: Across the country, we want everyone doing the same thing. The Finnish system does have a National Core Curriculum which are defined  as “the legal norm for educational institutions” (sincere thanks to Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) for fact-checking me on that) although discussions of assessment are much different than those of NCLB(which mandate statewide testing) and instead focus on assements “guiding and motivating” students as well as developing “their abilities in self-assessment.” (Quotes from the Finnish National Board of Education)

Also from the Globe and Mail:

The reality in Canada, which is unfortunate in Dr. Sahlberg’s view, is that students are rewarded for competing against their peers, teachers are held accountable by their class’s performance on exams, and schools are compared through widely published standardized test results. Finland takes an alternative approach.

The story is the same below the Canadian border as well. Standardized testing is THE evaluation tool for most schools and teachers. Real estate agents love it because it is so ingrained in our culture that parents will move into communities with good test scores because we’ve been conditioned to think that those are measures that tell the whole story. The Finnish system does the opposite.

Also from the Globe and Mail:

In addition to emphasizing collaborative work, Finnish schools have a different conception of knowledge than the traditional one. Teachers don’t think of knowledge as a cumulative store of objective information. “It is not primarily what individuals know or do not know, but more what are their skills in acquiring, utilizing, diffusing and creating knowledge that are important for economic progress and social change.”

Perhaps exposing a bit why standardized testing is avoided in Finland, these “soft” skills that are difficult to assess off a bubble sheet. According to Finnish National Board of Education, the National Core Curriculum includes options for on-the-job training with flexible assessments in which student can earn credits through “set of work assignments, a written paper, report, project assignment, product or equivalent” completed “performed individually, in a group or as a more extensive project.” American policy-makers are starting to appreciate these skills. Indeed, have you read about the Smarter Balanced Assessment? Leave it to us Americans to try to find a way to create such a standardized test.

From the Huffington Post (quoting Finland’s Minister of Education, Ms. Henna Virkkunen)

Our students spend less time in class than students in other OECD countries. We don’t think it helps students learn if they spend seven hours per day at school because they also need time for hobbies…

We seem to think that if students are struggling, they need more time in school. The Finnish system does the opposite.

So, let’s recap: Less time in school. Less testing. Less competition. More success. Could you imagine an American Politician standing on that platform?

The Finns have produced a system based on trust. They trust the teachers, they trust the local districts, they trust the students. The American system is based on a lack of trust. We call it accountability. We mandate curriculum because we don’t trust local districts. We over-rely on standardized tests because we don’t trust the teachers. We want longer school days because we don’t trust the students.

There is a nation that is excelling at education. They are, in many ways, doing the exact opposite of the things that we are doing. We, who are eagerly seeking to improve our system, are putting our hopes in standardized testing and state and federal manipulation of school districts through funding incentives. Perhaps it’s too early to state boldly that American reform efforts will fail, but we can say boldly that there are places where real excellence is happening and those people are moving in the opposite direction.

We could spend weeks arguing/discussing/explaining about WHY the Finnish system works. Don’t get me wrong, that is important. But, what matters most to me is this: It works. We could be doing what they do. We’re not… and it appears we won’t be for the foreseeable future.

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2 comments

  1. “Allow high levels of teacher autonomy by not mandating curriculum from the top down.”

    But Finland has a national curriculum. They have a Common Core.

    http://www.oph.fi/english/sources_of_information/core_curricula_and_qualification_requirements/general_upper_secondary_education


    • Thank Dan. I appreciate you fact-checking me. I read through it and I still appreciate their discussions of assessment more than the ones that are used here in Michigan. Thanks for keeping me honest. For the record, this is why I appreciate the math-blogging community. We are all teachers willing to teach, which is good because I am still willing to be taught as I need to be.



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