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Learning at its Best

Parenting Magazine’s Mom Congress 2012 and Finnish Education

Originally posted at Dirt Under My Fingernails

Last week I had the privilege of attending Parenting Magazine’s Mom Congress 2012 conference in Washington, DC as the delegate from North Dakota. Parenting selected one delegate from each state, flew us in, hosted and fed us, and introduced us to some of the most dedicated and intelligent folks in the country who are working to make a positive difference in their communities’ education practices. I am honored to have been a part.

Lots of amazing people were there, including education correspondent for NBC Rehema Ellis, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, White House chef Sam Kass (he spoke on nutrition), and CEOs and founders of several fabulous national and international programs that support the education and well-being of children. Salman Khan produced and shared a video introduction to his work specifically for this conference. It was full and amazing, and I was refreshed to see how many positive efforts were going around me every day.

The speaker who I found most fascinating, was Anu Partanen (in photo at right), a journalist and author of “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success.” If you haven’t read this article, it’s worth taking the time. Finland is outpacing the US in education success, and their model is quite different from our own. Many of their practices are easy to digest for me; they are what I regularly advocate. But some are frankly more uncomfortable. Although no model will fit every culture, there are points to consider and examine, and I will share some of the more intriguing ones here:

  1. Finland does not give their kids standardized tests.
  2. Individual schools have curriculum autonomy; individual teachers have classroom autonomy.
  3. It is not mandatory to give students grades until they are in the 8th grade.
  4. All teachers are required to have a master’s degree.
  5. Finland does not have a culture of negative accountability for their teachers. According to Partanen, “bad” teachers receive more professional development; they are not threatened with being fired.
  6. Finland has a culture of collaboration between schools, not competition. Most schools, according to Partanen, perform at the same level, so there is no status in attending a particular facility.
  7. Finland has no private schools.
  8. Education emphasis is “equal opportunity to all.” They value equality over excellence.
  9. A much higher percentage of Finland’s educational budget goes directly into the classroom than it does in the US, as administrators make approximately the same salary as teachers. This also makes Finland’s education more affordable than it is in the US.
  10. Finnish culture values childhood independence; one example: children mostly get themselves to school on their own, by walking or bicycling, etc. Helicopter parenting isn’t really in their vocabulary.
  11. Finnish schools don’t assign homework, because it is assumed that mastery is attained in the classroom.
  12. Finnish schools have sports, but no sports teams. Competition is not valued.
  13. The focus is on the individual child. If a child is falling behind, the highly trained teaching staff recognizes this need and immediately creates a plan to address the child’s individual needs. Likewise, if a child is soaring ahead and bored, the staff is trained and prepared to appropriately address this as well.
  14. Partanen correlated the methods and success of their public schools to US private schools. We already have a model right here at home.
  15. Compulsory school in Finland doesn’t begin until children are 7 years old.

There’s some meaty stuff there, and frankly, some of it makes me squirm. I can easily get behind higher expectations and the resulting broadening autonomy of teachers. I can support equality in wages between administrators and highly trained faculty. I am a vocal advocate for individualized, child-centered learning, that deemphasizes grades and standardized testing. I love the idea of doing away with sports teams (sorry, but there it is). But I’ll admit: no compulsory education until 7? Wow. That one is a tough one for me. And I value excellence – not in the form of competition, but within the umbrella of equal opportunity. And although I value and honor and advocate for teachers, I do not  believe that anyone should be above being fired, especially when they are in a position of power. Those are my personal hangups. But perhaps those hangups are a result of living in our current educational system. Those three points wouldn’t work in our landscape, but perhaps if the model itself was turned on its head like Finland, they would make more sense. Or perhaps the model would need to be altered slightly to accommodate different cultures. I would be willing to be open-minded and consider the options.

What do you think? Is this a model worth pursuing? Could the US ever transform its culture and values this drastically and finally put the genuine, open-hearted well-being of its children first? Would love to hear your thoughts. It’s time for a change, my friends.

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About STEAM-Powered Classroom

I'm a home educator and public education advocate. I work with parents and teachers to encourage individualized education for all children, emphasizing student-led, project-based, eclectic learning. I am also a children's librarian; one of my greatest joys is putting the perfect book into the hands of a child.

Discussion

13 thoughts on “Parenting Magazine’s Mom Congress 2012 and Finnish Education

  1. I’m totally in favor of making any or all of the changes listed above not because it’s what Finland does but because it’s better for kids.

    Personally I think training teachers is better than firing. Support for teachers is what kids need not just losing a teacher who struggles. I think in part kids in this country abuse teachers because that’s our culture and they know they can get teachers fired.

    Posted by Alfonso Gonzalez (@educatoral) | May 5, 2012, 3:09 pm
    • Well said, Alfonso. I too feel this country should respect its teachers and the teaching profession much more than it does. I do not favor firing in general; I would be the first to advocate for additional training to resolve a teaching problem (or any professional problem). I was just saying that it should never be impossible if all else fails. But yes, always a last resort.

      Posted by gwynridenhour | May 5, 2012, 3:33 pm
  2. Not just teachers, but children need to be respected. In all honesty, this country hates and fears children. And it hates and fears any attempt to change public education in ways that respects and loves children, and which takes children’s interests and needs seriously. As long as we continue to construct schools on an adversarial basis (i.e., principals vs. teachers vs. students), predicated upon fear and control, we’re doomed as a nation. A nation that would sacrifice its children on the alter of global competition and corporate greed has lost its soul.

    Posted by Michael Paul Goldenberg | May 5, 2012, 11:12 pm
    • Hi Michael. I couldn’t agree with you more about respecting our children. I am a huge advocate for involving children in the planning and implementation of their own education. I believe that children will function at a higher level when their education is 1) individualized, and 2) invests the student beyond the assignment level. Let kids help decide what and how they learn, and they will learn to care about their education. Show them that we will take the time to make sure their unique education will address their unique interests and needs, and they will learn to value the process, the teachers, the administration, and education as a whole. They will learn to self-educate, and this will serve them all of their lives. This is why good systems work – because we empower and trust the people involved.

      I also agree that schools and teachers should enjoy autonomy (and respect). We need to recognize and honor the individual, whether it be the individual student, teacher, school, or district. We work better when we can be flexible and creative.

      Over the last three years, I have homeschooled my 2 kids, and have explored and adhered to this model. There are some basic subject that they have to study: math, history, science, literature, but I am very open as to how we study them, and regularly ask my kids to help design and choose our subjects and methodology. If they don’t like the chosen math curriculum, we toss it and try something new. The science we study is chosen by them, history is explored by letting them play act or write or do puppet shows, or whatever *they* choose. My daughter is a writer, so we make sure that her school day and year incorporates this. My son is a musician, so we do the same for him, allowing hours in the day for practice and composition and private lessons.

      It’s a messy business, individualization, but I have seen my kids flourish under it, and it is for that reason alone that I so loudly advocate similar systems in our public schools. I started blogging about our model a year ago, and I hope our example will inspire and encourage others to put our children first. gwynridenhour.wordpress.com. I am thankful for your perspective, Michael – it is moving to know that not everybody out there hates children. After all, your voice is there!

      Posted by gwynridenhour | May 8, 2012, 9:10 am
  3. You are correct when you say that we need to consider cultural differences in any comparative discussion. One of the best ways of doing this is to look at the work of Geert Hofstede who surveyed IBM employees in 177 different countries. You can see his cultural considerations as well as Finland’s rating at http://geert-hofstede.com/finland.html.

    If you compare the Finnish “scores” on Hofstede’s scale to the scores of the US, two things stick out. First, the US is far more individualistic. We believe an unspoken “truth” (Hofstede calls it “software of the mind” – or the way we are programmed) to believe that the individual can “pull him/herself up by the bootstraps.” Finland, in contrast, is more collective. They would be less likely to say that any problems in education rest in the student…or the teacher…or the parent. Raising children is a collective effort.

    The other comparison that sticks out is the “masculinity/femininity” scale. This scale is NOT about gender, but in the tendency to be driven by (or not driven by) competition, achievement and success. America is a highly competitive society and we look for comparative measures such as standardized tests. Finland’s scale scores indicate that free time and flexibility are greater incentives than “success”.

    The Finnish school system reflects its society values. So does the American system. The Finnish system, in its full form, would make many Americans uncomfortable. Isn’t it interesting that we call the system “good” based on measures that we value far more highly than they do?

    Janet | expateducator.com

    Posted by Janet Abercrombie | May 5, 2012, 11:40 pm
    • Hi Janet. I’ve been mulling over your comments all weekend. Thanks so much for them!

      I find it ironic that the Finnish system in its very nature of being more of a collective approach focuses on individualized education, while the American system which supposedly seeks to reflect and promote our culture of personal freedom and rights seeks to make all education exactly the same for all kids everywhere, ignoring the individual needs and interests of the child. In other words, the “collective” Finnish system is successful because of its focus on individuality, while the individual liberties American system is run with an extremely collective focus.

      Do you find that to be true? I feel that the collective approach of Finland highlights all that is positive of that term: children’s welfare is the responsibility of all involved, from parents to teachers to neighbors and administrators. But the American collective education reality feels like it’s grabbing all the negatives: sameness and standardization for all, without making the children the priority. It feels very industrial. Sir Ken Robinson says it better than I can in his famous TED talk.

      Anyway, these are just musings that your comments springboarded me off into. It made for lively conversation with my husband Saturday evening. :)

      Posted by gwynridenhour | May 8, 2012, 9:00 am
      • HI Gwyn,
        I’m honored to have inspired a conversation but hope I have not incited marital conflict :).

        Perhaps the irony is that the collective approach is better equipped to meet individual student needs.

        On a cognitive level, the Professional Learning Community (PLC) is meant to be such a collective approach – at least a collective approach within a school. An necessary extension of a PLC is knowledge and support to respond to needs gleaned from student learning data. In _Good to Great_, Jim Collins talks about the “autopsy without blame.” What’s working? What’s not working? What can we do differently next time?

        The true joy of teaching overseas has been freedom from blame. We have plenty of pressure placed upon us – parents expect these kids to rule the world (and I hope they will remember me when they are rich and famous). When I call a parent about an issue, the first words out of their mouths are usually, “Thanks so much for calling. How can I help?” I do intensive things at school. I send home follow-up activities. The parent (or tutor) follows up. I attempted to explain the overseas teaching environment in a post: http://wp.me/p1Dq2f-sU.

        Kids with that kind of collective support do amazing things. We just have to stop the odd parent from hiring an architect to do student physics projects – another thing you’d probably not find in Finland :).

        Posted by Janet Abercrombie | May 8, 2012, 9:23 am
        • Ha! No marital conflict – we generally agree on this kind of thing. The lively conversation was all good. Love your insights, and I’m looking forward to reading your blog and learning more about you and what you’re doing overseas. Thanks for connecting-

          Posted by gwynridenhour | May 8, 2012, 11:24 pm
  4. “But I’ll admit: no compulsory education until 7? Wow. That one is a tough one for me.” — I have never read that to mean that the children were not learning until age 7. They just weren’t necessarily in school. If work and the community were set up on the basis of at least one parent being home until a reasonable age, unlike the US, age 7 would make a lot more sense.

    Posted by NanceConfer | May 7, 2012, 7:07 am
    • Yes, that’s how I understood it as well. Partanen talked about the Finnish expectation that one parent would be home with their child/ren until they were school age, and that yes, learning started early, but in the care of the parent instead of the teacher. I’m a homeschooling mom, so I of course am attracted to this model, but when thinking of it carried out in this country, I worry about economic and educational disparity, and the inability (both real and perceived) of so many parents to go without employment. Perhaps that piece is better used in places other than the US.

      Posted by gwynridenhour | May 8, 2012, 8:45 am
  5. Interestingly I have only just picked up this article now. What a great blog. Thank you. We in the UK are struggling with exactly the same issues you in the US seem to be experiencing.

    As a father of 2 young children (and soon to arrive #3 in November). I am horrified at the pressures which the teachers & headteacher are put under at our local State School with “performance contracts” and “curriculum targets”. And our school is one of the outstanding schools !

    I’m a computer programmer and its great in our industry that the teaching process is starting to be critically analysed.

    I think the title of the article is a little (just a little) over-sensationalised. But some of the contents of the article are worth a read.

    http://www.wired.com/business/2013/10/free-thinkers/2/

    “Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College who studies children’s natural ways of learning, argues that human cognitive machinery is fundamentally incompatible with conventional schooling. Gray points out that young children, motivated by curiosity and playfulness, teach themselves a tremendous amount about the world. And yet when they reach school age, we supplant that innate drive to learn with an imposed curriculum. “We’re teaching the child that his questions don’t matter, that what matters are the questions of the curriculum. That’s just not the way natural selection designed us to learn. It designed us to solve problems and figure things out that are part of our real lives.”

    Some school systems have begun to adapt to this new philosophy—with outsize results. In the 1990s, Finland pared the country’s elementary math curriculum from about 25 pages to four, reduced the school day by an hour, and focused on independence and active learning. By 2003, Finnish students had climbed from the lower rungs of international performance rankings to first place among developed nations.”

    Posted by ahermens | October 17, 2013, 8:01 am
    • Thanks for your comments – it’s nice to know the article is still circulating! I can relate only too well to your anxiety as a parent when considering all the struggles of your/our existing education system. I’ll read the article you posted in full, but I already am nodding along with the quotes you included. The further I get into all this (my kids are now 10 and 13), the more devoted I become to helping other families negotiate the educational choices for their children. There’s a wonderful video you should see about one school in the US that is giving over an entire semester to its high school students to create their own learning goals and environment. You should check it out – it certainly gives me hope!

      http://steampoweredclassroom.com/the-independent-project/

      It’s also the model we strive to create in our own home environment. I have one child who is homeschooled, and the other just returned to public school after being homeschooled for 4 years. He’s now been accelerated 3 full grade levels, and that has helped him in so many ways. He’s extremely happy, has been able to orient his education to fully embrace his first love, music, and will have 3 years after high school graduation to continue this pursuit with as a minor and with full support of his parents.

      If I can help support in any way, please let me know. I don’t know the laws where you are, but in our state, we are allowed to arrange a “hybrid” education, in which students can take some courses at public school and some as home education. It’s been a fabulous system for us, though the challenges in the school system remain. There is so much work to be done.

      Glad to meet you!
      Gwyn

      Posted by STEAM-Powered Classroom | March 7, 2014, 10:06 am

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