Some Thoughts on Finnish Lessons

I recently re-watched a video of Alan Lishness (who designs middle school science programing for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute) talking about his visit to Finland and his reflections on their educational system.  While I believe deeply in American public education, it seems there is much to be said about Finland’s system and how it compares with ours.  Yes, there is more to uncover than just educational policy, such as how economics plays into education, but there certainly are some interesting philosophical differences that we can examine and perhaps learn from.

One of the differences that got me thinking was the point made about teacher autonomy.  I can recall starting out teaching at a small middle school in Vermont, and having discussions with my team about what topics, standards, and assessments we were going to use to teach our kids.  Those conversations changed every year, as did our students.  While there were state frameworks to examine and use as guidelines, we were allowed much more freedom to assess our students’ abilities, readiness, and interests, then plan lessons accordingly.  We did have state testing (a great portfolio system) and while our assessment often drove instruction, we were not bound by the perspective that education was a “race”.  This was also before NCLB and just before newspapers printed school rankings based on state testing.  I now teach at an independent school and I am afforded the same flexibility and autonomy not to teach to an assessment.  I do have a curriculum and we do test our kids (although not using a “state” test), but I am given the freedom to put aside topics, timelines, and sequences without the worry that I am not “covering” enough content relative to a statewide test.

In Finland it seems that teachers are given that same level of autonomy over their classrooms and curriculum.  There are guidelines, but the teachers are very well trained and they are allowed the freedom to explore with their students.  There is no national test to drive instruction or curriculum, and teachers are encouraged to take chances and mold their curriculum around their students, rather than their students around their curriculum.  This seems to be a key factor in Finland’s success.

What struck me about this, is that while it is the opposite direction American education is going in, it is precisely what many independent and private schools do with much success.  I recently had a conversation about this direction with some public school colleagues at a conference.  Inevitably the conversation centered on the Common Core Standards and how the assessments (Smarter Balanced and PARCC) will drive instruction.  They spoke highly of how their districts are incorporating them, and their excitement and understanding of how they will integrate them into their classes demonstrated why, for the most part, I support the standards.  However, when it came to being bound to a specific assessment driven curriculum I illustrated the differences in our schools by offering the example that last year in my social studies class, during the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, I was able to put aside my scheduled curriculum and create and focus on a whole new set of standards, not test driven, but driven by current events, pedagogy, and student interest.  Their response was simply that they could not do that.

I worry that as a country we continue to work at building a better test when what we should be working on is building better teaching and learning.  In NY, according to the Buffalo Summit for Smarter Schools, the testing of elementary students has jumped from 650 minutes to 3200 minutes over the last ten years.  In addition, the stakes from these state tests have risen to include school and teacher rankings, state funding amounts, employment options, and school closings.  High stakes standardized tests are an inherently flawed means of evaluating student learning and thinking, and one that we would not tolerate in our classrooms, so why do we tolerate it from our state and federal leaders.

The really interesting piece is that during that three week period, I still touched upon many of the Common Core standards.  However without the worry of “covering” a state assessment driven curriculum I was able to engage my students in real world issues and thinking, and isn’t that what college and career readiness is all about?  So I wonder, if Finland can do this, and American independent schools can do this, why can’t our public schools?

To view the video of Alan Lishness: Indigenous Innovation….click here:



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