Posted by: ACFE Inc | January 9, 2012

Thoughts on Finland

Often I have seen people become distracted by where we are failing: what Secretary Arne Duncan is doing wrong, why this idea or that idea will never work. But it is time we start asking: what are we doing well? What can we do better, and how?

Last year I wrote about the PISA scores and America’s low ranking in comparison to other first-world countries.Top 3 countries when it comes to student scores in reading? Shanghai, Korea, and Finland. Top 5 in math? Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea and Finland. Many have pointed out Finland as the odd man out in these rankings and have begun asking: What’s Finland doing so well that we can do here?

Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility, wants to answer that question. He recently wrote Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Recently he visited New York to discuss the book, and the Atlantic has published a great article focusing on the pieces of Finland’s educational system that appear to go largely unremarked upon. In the United States, we talk about school choice, class size, professional development for teachers, differentiated instruction, and a plethora of other trends and buzzwords floating around. But Anu Partanen, the reporter who wrote the article, focuses in on one piece that I have not heard much mention of in regards to why Finland works–and it’s a piece that, as she points out, is highly relevant in our current economy, where the gap between classes continues to widen:

“Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity. Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.”

Many have pointed out the differences between Finland and the United States; in particular, Finland is a small, relatively homogeneous country that has outlawed all private schools. However, the article also cites Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who compared Finland with Norway, similarly situated in size and diversity but with a more American educational system than Finland’s. Abrams found that Norway also had a mediocre performance on the PISA Survey, leading him to conclude that the educational reform took more credit for Finland’s success than their size or diversity.

In considering Finland, and the differences between their educational system and ours, for better and worse, one question I and many others keep coming back to is: : why is our system the way it is, and what does it need to look like? Sir Ken Robinson would like to take a crack at these questions, and he does here in a combination of lecture with whiteboard illustrations for a great multisensory approach. This video is 11 minutes long and worth your time:

Here’s the link: http://youtu.be/zDZFcDGpL4U

Although his comments on ADHD may be controversial to some, so much of what he says rings true. Our system of education has become outmoded, and the question becomes: what will we do about it? What can we do about it?

Finally, Ira David Socol has a suggestion: Stop asking questions if you know the answer. As Robinson discusses above with divergent thinking, Socol says: “‘Gotcha’ devices to train kids to respond exactly the way they’ve been taught. When we ask real questions, kids stop repeating and start thinking, and learning.” So instead of asking 9 x 12, for example, he suggests asking questions for which there is no definitive answer. “I’ve never really gotten the “9 x” table, so, if I asked you what 9×12 was, how would you figure it out?” This question, as he points out, has no “right” answer. He argues: “The teacher who asks, “what is 9×12?” teaches nothing. The question I asked, among other things, introduces the concept of algebra. For the “9×9” kid, x = (9×9)+(3×9), finding the unknown via knowns, and he is thinking, not parroting.” This concept can be applied to all subject areas, not just math. When I think about standing in front of a class, asking a question that I don’t have the answer to (“where does space begin?” is another great example), it can sound terrifying at first. But this is the very divergent, creative thinking that Robinson finds to be crucially missing from our current educational system, that we need in order to engage our students and help them be fully alive in school and as people and citizens.

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