Monday, August 22, 2016

Successful Education Systems: An Unorthodox Approach in Finland

High School in Valkeakoski, Finland

Since I have decided to become a part of the education dynamo that perpetuates the learning of our children in the United States, I have continued to hear how broken and ineffective our system is compared to other models in the world. Changes are being made, though. We are moving away from the Common Core Standards that have been in effect since the George W. Bush administration and have set up different guidelines. For my state, the Missouri Standards are now the curriculum to implement in the classroom. 

I do agree that we need to continue to make improvements to our education system in a few major areas. Learning assessment, classroom management, and student engagement are at the top of this list. This article will present some of the issues that lie behind the scenes for these three areas in the United States. Then, in the context of Finland's educational environment, a few unorthodox strategies will be revealed as to how they have advanced these very important aspects. 

One of the most important tools of teaching is to have one or more mentors who help educators make better decisions. Perhaps the top leaders in the United States' education system should follow this same advice. I would encourage them to, in the least, give successful programs like Finland's an honest consideration. Please, let go of the destructive bureaucracy. Our students need be released from the chains of bad policies and misguided leadership.

The Learning Environment

Here in the United States we still have a tendency to lean toward the outdated Industrial Age classroom, although thankfully that is changing. Finally, we are recognizing the realization that sitting forward in a chair and regurgitating spoon-fed information is not the path into the future. We am seeing more diversification in the classroom where students have choices of where they will read, study, and learn. They can choose the traditional chair or maybe they want to pull up a beanbag. When once only the center of the classroom was used for instruction, now the entire parameters are incorporated to help students in how they best can learn. The environment has become more friendly and students can feel a little bit like they are at home. This is important.

Despite these positive changes, there is still the strict adherence to standardized testing. Yes - parents, teachers, and administrators must have some means to evaluate students. But perhaps the traditional fill-in-the-bubble sheet or the mixture of multiple choice and short answer tests are not the only answer. I think many teachers know this to be true, but they are employees at the same time, and so their hands may be tied. Here is where the country of Finland is very different. 

“Finland’s historic achievements in delivering educational excellence and equity to its children are the result of a national love of childhood, a profound respect for teachers as trusted professionals, and a deep understanding of how children learn best.”

This statement sets the tone for Finnish education. One of the biggest differences between teachers in this country and those in Finland is how they are treated by the government and society as a whole. Only educators with Master's Degrees from one of their 11 elite colleges are allowed to teach. They are deeply respected and trusted with running the learning environment - from curriculum creation, classroom management, assessment, and so much more. Finnish teachers are encouraged to try new things to test whether or not their ideas are more feasible or simply work better. In Finland, the people who are working at ground zero with the children make the decisions, not the bureaucrats. Doesn't this approach make common sense? 

When it comes to ascertaining how well a student has mastered the learning curriculum, the teacher decides how he or she will be evaluated. There are no state tests. There isn't any government evaluation that predicts how much money a school will get. There are little criteria that explicitly state if a teacher can get his or her students to perform higher on the testing, then they will be given a bonus. Schools are not run like corporate businesses, driven by the power of the dollar. Instead, they are treated as the educational environment should be - with the student in mind. Teachers are paid well and they are fully trusted with the assessment process.

Managing the Classroom

Discipline is handled a bit differently in this Slavic country. When students are being disruptive or chattering, the teacher continues forward with the curriculum. If the incidents are too involved, then the teacher will quietly speak to the student after class and ask how this issue(s) may be resolved. The focus is on student engagement, not reprimanding bad behavior. 

Flickr -  Mika Hirsimaki
It is asserted by some teachers that Finns in general are shy people and so if there were strict boundaries between the student and teacher, then students would not contribute or ask questions. This context suggests that behavior management is defined by cultural boundaries. These cultural boundaries also carry over into the curriculum, as teachers may cover the same material in a 4 week time period that would be covered here in the U.S. in a mere few days. Slowing down the advance of the curriculum boosts student engagement, which will be discussed in a moment.

All classrooms are fully-integrated with all types of students. There are some small concessions for special needs and some students are equipped with IEPs. But overall, students are expected to work with one another, despite any differences in learning styles, levels of proficiency, or behaviors. For students who may be more proficient in the subjects they will be given extension tasks as a means of compensation. These are assignments that are built around the class activity which require a little more in-depth work to complete. This prevents boredom from surfacing while other students are focusing on the core assignments. 

The mixed ability philosophy and behavior models seem to work well for Finnish educators, although at first glance it would seem they would not. One of the most successful aspects of this philosophy is their sophisticated support system. 

"Special needs teachers... help to support students who need it in class, and also run small group sessions in certain subjects to give students a boost when they need it. Students' needs are tracked carefully by the form teacher, who meets with a multi-disciplinary team in the first term of each year to discuss each student.... Solutions discussed here address the needs of the pupil as a whole, rather than addressing only the particular thing that is causing a problem at the time." 

Capturing a Student's Full Attention

Inspiring students to want to "own" their education experiences can be quite a challenge for teachers here in the United States. Their hands are bound by some degree to the state and government policies that are in place. It is within the context of an environment that they do not have complete control over where they must work the learning miracles. Many teachers have exited the field because educating students has too many hoops to jump through and the mounting frustration eventually overwhelms them.

Changes are, of course, being made and a few new approaches are currently in practice. The use of technology may perhaps be the best way to get students engaged in their learning journey. Just yesterday my high school son could not stop talking about a horribly disgusting video he watch on YouTube in his health class. The teacher chose this footage to make a lasting impact on her students and it worked. 

Finding ways to incorporate social media into the curriculum is also a great way to engage students. English teachers might present a Facebook challenge where a student would create a poem on whatever subject he or she chose. Then it would get posted on a classroom page where students and other Facebook members could "Like" the poem they think is the best. The flurry of activity from this assignment would certainly get students more involved than they would from monotonous in-class readings. 

Research has shown that there are three criteria that need to be present.

"To be engaged, students need to have high levels of interest, skills, and challenges." - Linnansaari

Finland has gone to great lengths to try and understand the core reasons behind student engagement and how exactly it is figured into the education equation:

"Most recent studies of student engagement treat it as a predictor of academic achievement, inferring being disengaged, or disaffected from school, causes poor academic achievement. However, the theoretical literature argues that is low achievement that causes students to withdraw from school, or that engagement and academic achievement go hand-in-hand." - Willms

Final Thoughts 

There is a great amount of information coming out of the education system in Finland. Keep in mind that a majority of its members hold Master's Degrees and spend an extensive amount of time researching and trying out new ideas in the classroom. Their work is revolutionizing the field of teaching and it would behoove the country of the United States to take some good notes. 

I believe that we need to do a type of cleansing in our educational hierarchies by removing all of the money-hungry avarice that tends to settle in its governmental ponds. For our students, many of the policies that are currently in place serve better as scum on the surface of the water than in being the life force they should be for our children. The bottom line is - for our education system to truly work, students and teachers must be the highest priority.

Works Cited 

Linnansaari, J. Finnish Students' Engagement in Science Lessons. Universitetet i Oslo. 2015.

Willms, Jon Douglas. Student Engagement at School: A Sense of Belonging and Participation, Results from PISA 2000. Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

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