Since the 1980s when politicians blamed our public schools for our economy falling behind Japan, we‘ve struggled with how to improve them. Many complained about how our schools were stuck in a 19th century mode of educating our young people but instead of consulting with experts and learning from the latest research they decided that a slash and burn approach would be much better: Test performance of our students on high stakes tests and shut down the schools that did not measure up. There are still a good number of politicians with this hard hearted approach.
On the other hand the counter argument is that we just need to spend more money on schools. In part this latter idea comes from the realization that there are underfunded schools because we have allowed some communities to fall behind, a measure of our growing inequality across the country.
This is very clear when you examine the correlation between zip codes and the test scores. Poverty and low test scores appear to go hand in hand. So some might say, fix our economy and we’ll fix our schools. But we’re still not asking what do researchers tell us about how we can do better. If we look outside our borders we might find a clue to how to do this.
Finland is not the only country where we find students consistently scoring among the highest on international test scores but they are an example of a country that confronted the problem of how to improve their schools by going to the research. Research mostly done in the United States with taxpayer funds.
I recently attended a forum about the future of schooling sponsored by Education Evolving, the most interesting part of the event was receiving a copy of Pasi Sahlberg’s new book, FinnishED Leadership: Four Big, Inexpensive ideas to Transform Education.
If you haven’t heard of Pasi Sahlberg, he is the author of several books about the remarkable education system that out performs most other systems in the world. He has been a teacher and professor and now spends his time sharing his experience and the successes of the Finnish Education system.
Essentially his message is that Finland’s success is based on focusing on a few principles, on proven methods many of which have come from the US, and research done at American Universities.
The Finnish principles that shaped their education reform efforts were equity and trust. They wanted a system that would guarantee equity of learning, success and opportunity; and they wanted a system based on mutual trust between parents and schools, teachers and students and teachers and administrators.
Among the U.S. research Pasi Sahlberg mentions are multiple intelligences, cooperative learning, and the idea of schools as learning environments for students and teachers.
His advice to us in improving our public schools is 1) Make recess a child’s right. He argues that our “addiction to reform” (Merrow) have caused us to lose sight of the basic needs of the learning child. He argues for the importance of play in learning.
2) Use small data for big change, this is humanizing data and rather than looking at information unrelated to what we do in the classroom – look at what we are actually doing tells how to improve. Because it is transactional you learn from student’s ideas and behavior. “If you don’t lead by small data, you will be led by big data.” Finally, because teachers participate in small data collection it is respectful of their role. Big Data is suspicious of the teacher’s role.
3) Enhance equity in education, the idea of a good school in Finland is a neighborhood school for all children regardless of family background, community characteristics, or personal conditions. All schools should have the capacity to address disparities in health, nutrition, and socio-economic status. Equity is about fairness and inclusion not giving everyone the same education. Equity is central to school improvement.
4) Know the difference between fact and myth even with Finnish schooling. Don’t believe just what you hear, be willing to really learn what Finnish schools are like and what U.S. schools could be like. “Keep the focus on student needs not international test rankings.”
There is much in Pasi Sahlberg’s words that ring true for me – his ideas remind me of my own experience as a teacher and the experience of others like Utah educator Lynn Stoddard. Lynn doesn’t begin by thinking about the end of an educational career and how he can give corporate America the workers they want.
In his book, Educating for Human Greatness, Lynn describes how to think about the beginning of child’s learning by helping them learn who they are and what they need to know. “How can we design a school so that each child can discover who they were meant to be?” is the question he asks. He advocates a truly student-centered approach that identifies seven powers necessary for developing human greatness: Identity, Inquiry, Interaction, Initiative, Imagination, Intuition and Integrity. The message he gives to his students is “We need you and your talents and your experience. Find your greatness and you will find your reason for living.”
Instead we seem to create an education that attempts to shape students into what we want them to be. In my experience the most important element in my teaching was finding that path to engaging students in the excitement of learning. Without it they cannot succeed.
I’ve written about some of these ideas in my little book, We All Do Better: Economic Priorities for a Land of Opportunity, because if we truly want to build an economy that works for everyone we need to make sure we set our students on the path of success. If we don’t make the investments in the institutions that will create an economy capable of providing what our students need, it is not the students who are failing–it is us.