Archive | March, 2013

12 Questions about Finnish Education answered

25 Mar

Two weeks ago I provided some answers to a colleague, Angela Watson, who maintains The Cornerstone for Teachers website and blog. She asked several questions about education in Finland and I am posting the Q&A here in my Notes as well:

1) Pay is not the answer. Teachers in Finland are not paid like doctors.  Starting salary for a teacher is not huge (around $40k-$50k), but when in a permanent contract they get paid for the summer, too. Doctors are paid more, but generally the salary gap between professionals is smaller in Finland.

2) Professional development is strongly emphasized in Finland and teachers are viewed as respected professionals.  Professional growth is viewed necessary for teachers, but usually they have much independence in deciding about their PD.  Elementary teachers must have a M.Ed. with major in education and a minor in multi-disciplinary school subjects and another minor in a chosen subject. Teachers are part of the academia, and their professional opinion about learning is respected. Usually teaching is the chosen career, not a stepping stone to something else.

3) Teachers in Finland get a great deal of freedom to meet students’ needs: the national curriculum is very short and non-prescriptive.  The national curriculum includes the objectives and core contents for different school subjects, but schools and districts create their own curricula within the framework of the national core curriculum. Teachers get to decide how they help their students to reach the objectives.

4) Students in Finland get more than one hour of recess a day.  The basic model in K-12 is to have 45 minutes of instruction/learning and then a 15 minute break. First and second grade students go to school for four hours per day and from that time they have 75 minutes of recess. During recess students go outside to play – and they are encouraged to be physically active.

5) There is no mandatory testing in Finland. Teachers are trusted to provide assessments they see best benefit their students’ learning. Feedback of individual learning process is emphasized over standardized testing.

6) School doesn’t start for Finnish children until age 7.  The year before school starts is called pre-school, and it is free for all students but not mandatory for 6-year-olds. Students are not expected to learn how to read in pre-school. They are learning how to learn and how to take part in group activities.

7) Pre-school (the year before school starts) belongs to formal education system, and is free. The same requirements that regulate the teaching of 6-year-olds in schools also are valid in daycare centers for 6-year-olds, and enrolling is parents’ choice, often depending on their employment. Every child has a subjective right for high quality early childhood education, but whether it is free depends on the income level of parents. ECE is heavily subsidized, so the highest monthly payment for childcare is 264 euros ($350) per child at a daycare center.

8)  About private schools: Finland has common legislation for both private (state subsidized) and public (city or state owned) schools.  Last year there were 85 private schools in Finland serving approximately 3% of the whole student population.

9) Parental involvement is not required. Parents are encouraged to be involved in their children’s education, but it is not a requirement. Students are very independent, including getting to school and back home when the distance is less than 5 km (~3miles). They walk or ride a bike, or parents transport them.

10) Teacher’s Unions:  more that 95% of teachers belong to the teachers’ union (OAJ) which is a member of the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff in Finland (AKAVA). But, the relationship between schools, education policy makers and union is constructive.

11) The often heard claim of Finnish children doing better in school than American students simply because the poverty rate is so much lower is a heavily loaded question and the answer is anything but simple.  The poverty rate in Finland is certainly lower, but what makes the difference in education is equity combined with quality. Instead of highlighting individual performance and competition of students in Finland the focus is on schools’ ability to provide equally good education for different learners. Basic education is completely free including instruction, school materials, school meals, health care, dental care, special needs education and remedial teaching. One Finnish specialty is the free hot lunch served to everyone every day. Hungry students cannot learn well.

12) The Finnish way of teaching could never be replicated in the United States because our population is so much more heterogeneous.  No educational system should ever be replicated in another culture as it is – just like no information should be accepted as it is, but must be assimilated and/or accommodated to become a perfect fit. The way of facilitating individual students’ learning by promoting cooperation and cognition with constructive practices could easily be replicated.

Situational learning and teaching

12 Mar

Sometimes it seems that we want a magical pill to improve education and learning. This, of course, is not possible, no matter what the advertisements say. We cannot become fluent in a new language in two weeks any more than grow tall trees from saplings in the same amount of time. Learning and growing are both delicate processes where time is one essential component. How we use that time is important. In each unique situation.

I have previously stated that I believe learning happening in interactions. These dialogues are essential for concept development and creating deeper understanding (about anything).  Some interactions happen between the student and the learning materials others are facilitated by teachers and/or parents.  How interactions develop depends entirely on the situation. Some days and times are better than others, but for effective learning facilitation the basic requirement is for the teacher – or the parent – to remain fully present (physically, emotionally and cognitively) in the situation.

What prompted me to blog about this was a small article in the March/April issue of Scientific American.  “The myth of family meal: Eating together might not be as magical as researchers thought.”[1]  Placing value on something like family meal, without transferring the essential content (here: quality interactions) leads to misunderstandings, and emphasizing wrong things.

Gathering around the table for an enjoyable meal with the whole family and having vivid discussions about important issues certainly improves the quality of life and learning. However, if the family meal is used as a rule, thinking how performing this daily ritual improves the education and the future of children, we are misleading ourselves. In this case the family meal has become an empty doctrine. This was also the finding of researchers who followed nearly 18000 adolescents: Beyond indirect benefits via earlier well-being, however, family dinners associations did not persist into adulthood.[2]

I wonder how different the results were if this research had focused on meaningful interactions? I know it is easier to quantify family meals than interactions, and I appreciate the researchers’ efforts, because debunking yet another urban myth about education is good indeed.  Maybe it helps us shift the focus away form prescribed and scripted actions into the importance of situationality in education.

In my family the best discussions often occur in the car, mostly because of the closed space and having time to chat.  (My wish is that this gives hope and confidence to other parents who also at times may feel like running a family taxi service.) Some days nobody feels like talking, other times there are more items to discuss than we have time.  I am not trying to promote quality time over spending bigger quantities of time with children. I am just stating a fact that in my busy life the shared car ride sometimes turns out to be an enjoyable and meaningful conversation. Should it be generalized and stated that spending time in the car with your kids improves their well-being? Absolutely not. Because it depends on the situation.

I am afraid the same mistake of neglecting the true nature of learning is happening with Common Core.  The frames of teaching and rules of instruction are emphasized over the content, which should be learning instead of teaching.  We cannot box learning into a tight and tidy package, because it is situational and depends on dozens of individual factors during any given moment in the classroom.

Why not equip teachers with understanding of learning facilitation instead of providing them with a ready script for every minute spent in the classroom?

[1] Arnold, C. (2013, March/April).  The myth of family meal.  Scientific American Mind 24(1), 8.

[2] Musick, K. and Meier, A. (2012). Assessing Causality and Persistence in Associations Between Family Dinners and Adolescent Well-Being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 476–493.