On Thursday night I saw the premiere of “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System.” This is the latest film by Robert Compton, who perhaps best known for “Two Million Minutes.”
Let me simply list the key takeaways from the film:
1. Finland does not have high stakes tests
2. Finland worked to develop a national consensus about its public schools
3. Having made a commitment to its public schools, Finland has few private schools.
4. When asked about accountability, Finns point out that they not only do not have tests, they do not have an inspectorate. They find that trusting people leads to them being accountable for themselves.
5. Finland does not have incredibly thick collections of national standards. They have small collections of broadly defined standards, and allow local implementation.
6. Qualifying to become a teacher is difficult.
7. Teachers are well trained, well supported, and given time to reflect about what they are doing, including during the school day.
8. Finns start school later in life than we do
9. Finnish students do little homework.
10. There is meaningful technical education in Finnish Schools
The premiere was introduced by the Ambassador of Finland to the US, and followed by a panel discussion. I will provide some comments about the panel discussion, but I want to focus mainly on the takeaways.
The premiere was by invitation only, held in the auditorium of the National Press Club in Washington DC. After he was introduced by Bob Compton, the Ambassador offered a few remarks about the importance of education in Finland. We then saw the film, which was followed by a panel discussion led by Dr. Tony Wagner of Harvard U, who is the narrator of and featured in the film. Then came the panel discussion, about which more anon.
Some commentary on the takeaways with which I began.
No high stakes tests – Finland does have one test for college admissions. It does not have high stakes tests for high school graduation. Teachers and schools are not evaluated on the basis of student scores on such tests. And yet when nations are compared on the basis of scores on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS, Finland has been consistently at the top. Keep that in mind. Also understand that absent such tests with high stakes, Finland is not taking instructional time way from meaningful learning in order to prepare students for such tests. That leads to a more efficient use of instructional time for real student learning. There are entrance exams for tertiary education, which are used for student selection. There are no exit exams from high school, and no use of student performance on external exams as part of the evaluation of teachers or schools.
National Consensus – The film points out that Finland is not rich in natural resou��rces, other than timber. They understood the need to develop creativity, to develop the minds of students to be creative people for the economy and the society. Much of what occurs in Finland is derived from this national commitment, which was developed over a number of years, and was very much the process of a bottom-up study rather than imposed from above legislatively or administratively. Here I might not that we do NOT have such a consensus. Insofar as there is a conventional wisdom right now in the US, it is that everyone is supposed to be college/career ready upon graduation from high school, which an increasing emphasis on STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I would also note that the Finns seem to understand the importance of educating the whole child, something that our current focus on STEM seems to ignore
Having made a commitment to its public schools, Finland has few private schools. This of course is not possible in the United States – we have private schools with a history older than the US as an independent nation. That Finland went this route indicates how different our cultures are. Still, it is worth noting because of the emphasis on a common educational approach across the entire nation. It is also worth noting that the Council of State must approve the opening of a new private school, and that school is provided funding on the same basis as the local public schools, cannot charge tuition, and must admit students non-selectively. This makes private schools far less attractive than many in our country, which are deliberately established as elite institutions.
When asked about accountability, Finns point out that they not only do not have tests, they do not have an inspectorate. They find that trusting people leads to them being accountable for themselves. – our emphasis on “accountability” for schools and those that work in them (although for some reason we do not seem willing to apply the same metric to those who almost destroyed our economic system) is often destructive real learning. When those of us who are professional educators try to point this out we have thrown back at us an accusation that we don’t want to be accountable. We are accountable, first and foremost to the students before us, in ways that often cannot be measured by the poor quality tests upon which we have been relying. We are accountable to one another, since most of us recognize that we do not teach our students in isolation from the other adults responsible for their education, starting with their families, but including every adult within the school system.
Finland does not have incredibly thick collections of national standards. They have small collections of broadly defined standards, and allow local implementation. – By contrast, our direction in the US has been to cram more and more in, even though it is not possible to meaningfully test all of the mandated content. As a result, in many subjects our approach to education is coverage of material but with superficial understanding. Assessments such as PISA which require a deeper understanding and application of material demonstrate that the emphasis we have been making is not improving real learning, even if the scores on our various state tests may have been going up. Local implementation allows for greater flexibility in meeting the students where they are, rather than being forced to move at an artificial speed to ensure coverage of material that will be assessed by external tests. We use tests to drive instruction to the detriment of real learning, no matter how good the performance on those tests might be.
Qualifying to become a teacher is difficult. We have institutions in the US that take all comers. In Finland, as those paying attention already know, one has to have demonstrated superior academic performance at a post-secondary level in order to be eligible for teacher training. That is the greatest barrier. Then the training is far more extensive, with all teachers expected to earn the equivalent of a masters degree.
Teachers are well trained, well supported, and given time to reflect about what they are doing, including during the school day. – The training and support are part of the preparation and qualification. New teachers do not simply walk into a classroom with responsibility for a full load of teaching. They are inducted gradually, with greater support, more opportunity to learn from experienced teachers. Of equal importance, even after they are experienced, they are expected to cooperate, collaborate, and most of all reflect, and they are given time within the school day. I know as a teacher how valuable it is to have to think about what just happened in a class. That is rare. There are times when I have had 4 classes back to back, covering 3 different preparations. I have 5 minutes between classes, some of which time I have to use for administrative tasks in order to maximize the amount of time available for instruction and learning.
Finns start school later in life than we do. – in Finland schools start at age 7. In the US, 1st grade is normally age 6, but we have near universal Kindergarten at 5, and an increasing emphasis upon preschool even earlier. In someways what we are doing in these earlier programs is contrary to our best understanding of human growth and development, especially as we push elements of academic learning to ever earlier ages. We now obsess on having children reading “on grade level” in third grade, even though many of our young people are not developmentally ready for what we throw at them, and as a result get turned off to reading, a skill that is essential for much of what we later demand of them. I wonder if our approach is not more to provide mass child care to allow parents to earn greater incomes at the same time as providing business and industry with a larger work force that enables them to depress wages. But then, that is my cynical side showing. On this I think we keep children in school for too long – in terms of number of years, even in terms of number of hours. And then we ask even more of them. Which leads to the next immediate takeaway:
Finnish students do little homework. – at the high school level, it might be an average of 30 minutes a night. We insist on so much more, to the point where some of our students are in theory supposedly doing 4-6 hours of homework. Of course they don’t do it all, and what they do they often rush through. I want to come back to this point, and not just because I pay attention to what Alfie Kohn offers, and he has been critical of our insistence upon homework for many years.
Finally, There is meaningful technical education in Finnish Schools – that is, it involves real world task with real world people. The Finns do not have our obsession with trying to prepare everyone to be college ready – or as we now phrase it, college or career ready – upon graduation from high school. Too much of our technical education is becoming focused on STEM, and does not recognize the real world skills that can enable one to earn a good living with other skills. I have written about this in the past, which is perhaps why this part of the film caught my attention.
What also caught my attention was seeing students work in groups to solve real world problems. It was finding out that they have much more freedom in choosing the projects they do to demonstrate competence. I will also return to this point.
Homework – Let me focus on my Advanced Placement class. It is supposed to be a college level class in American Government and politics. It meets 45 minutes a day for the entire year. While we have in theory 180 instructional days, the AP test is in early May, which cuts the time for instruction before that to around 150, although it is less with mandated testing, assemblies, shortened periods due to weather or administrative functions. If it met for 45 minutes for 5 periods a week, that would be 225 minutes. A college class that meets 3 times a week does so for 150 minutes. We are already devoting more instructional time than students would have in college. Of course, in college I would expect students to do 2 hours of work for each hour of class. That would be a total of 450 minutes between instruction and independent work. To equal that, students would be doing 45 minutes a night for my class outside of school, right? Except consider this: in college a full load of classes is usually 4, occasionally only 3. In our school students take 7 courses, occasionally 8. A similar commitment of outside time is simply not possible.
Of course, related to this is our increasing emphasis on AP courses. We have students who as high school juniors are taking 6 such courses. That is 1.5 times the class load of a college student, when they are not yet in college. That concerns me. It concerns me that they do not have time to reflect about what they are learning.
In the film we discover that older high school students in Finland often take only 3 or 4 courses at a time. That seems so much more sensible. We could do that with course that met for two periods for half a year, except what we do with AP makes that impossible – if you do it in 1st semester, the students are not in the course at the time of the AP exam, and if you do it in 2nd semester, the amount of time before the AP exam – or for non-AP courses any external state exams – means you have less instructional time than you would in first semester.
Let me turn briefly to the panel discussion. It was led by led by Dr. Tony Wagner of Harvard U, who is the narrator of and featured in the film. It included Annmarie Neal, Chief Talent Officer from Cisco Systems; Gene Wilhoit, Executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers; John Wilson, Executive Director of the National Education Association; and Tom Friedman, author and columnist for the New York Times. I am going to ignore most of what Friedman said, other than to note that he seemed to want to prove that he was cleverer than anyone else and that he could coin the most memorable phrases. I got little of value from his remarks. Wilhoit and Wilson spoke at times bluntly, both representing the point of view of the organizations they direct. There was actually a fair amount of agreement.
It was the remarks of MS Neal that caught my attention. She was very impressed by what she saw of students staying 26 hours in a school working together on a common project within broad outlines to come up with a real world solution. She related that to how Cisco puts groups of people together to brainstorm future business endeavors. And she related it to one of her real passions, which is Montessori education – she is a mom as well as a high-ranking business executive. In the Montessori approach one key emphasis is on the interest of the student. The role of the teacher is far less “sage on the stage” than it is of facilitator and to some degree of co-learner with the students. The kinds of people she is seeking for Cisco are far better prepared by that kind of approach that by the kinds of instruction far too common in our schools.
Further, even though she works for a technology company, and needs engineers, she values the learning how to think that is a product of a liberal arts education. She expressed some concern that our focus on STEM is too narrow.
I had a chance to chat with MS Neal briefly afterward, and she repeated those points. Remember her title – “Chief Talent Officer.” She goes all over the world seeking out the best people for one of the more productive high tech companies in the US. I told her that her approach reminded me of something I had encountered when I worked in a data processing placement company many years ago. The old Philadelphia Railroad did not want mathematicians to train as computer programmers, it wanted musicians. I also noted that the 2nd best orchestra in the Boston area has traditionally not been found at Harvard or the New England Conservatory, but at MIT.
There are things we can learn from Finland, as the film makes clear. It is not that we can simply transfer their approach to the US. If nothing else, we by now should have learned that taking a model out of its context and imposing it in a different situation often leads to failure, as many of our attempts at whole school reform demonstrated in the past couple of decades.
What we can learn is that the direction we are going with our national policy on education is diametrically opposed to what Finland did to totally reform their educational system over a period of several decades. The Finns began in the 1970s. Our current round of reforms can arguably be dated to A Nation at Risk in 1983. While the Finns have made major improvements in their public education, we have perhaps not even tread water for too many of our students.
We do have some superb public schools. We also have inequitable distribution of resources, and not just within schools. We lack a consistency of approach on how we are going to address our problems. We attempt to do much of what we do from the top down, whereas much of what happened successfully in Finland was because of a deliberate decision to do as much as possible from the bottom up.
There are other things I could note. All students in primary and secondary schools get free meals. Students grow up learning Swedish and English as well as Finnish. There is health care in the schools. Oh yes, Finland’s teaching force is 100% unionized. Administrators function in support of teachers, not in opposition.
Some of this I knew before seeing the film. Not all of it is addressed in the film, nor was it addressed in the panel discussion.
Can we learn from Finland? I believe we can. Too often Americans seem to want to ignore what we can take from other nations. Yet there is much we have already taken from other nations in education. After all, the original concept of kindergarten was German, as the name itself demonstrates (too bad that it is decreasingly a garden and much more of a regimen). We have in some places learned what Maria Montessori developed. It might be helpful for those wanting to understand what is possible in educating young children to also examine Reggio Emelia – I note that when I have asked some major politicians who are often considered committed to education what they know about the last, I have yet to find anyone who has any knowledge beyond perhaps having heard the name. Of course, the same is unfortunately true of most in the media who write about education and schools. Few politicians or education journalists are familiar either with Simpson’s paradox or Campbell’s Law, both of which are basic to truly understand much of the data upon which we are now basing major policy decisions.
If I could offer one overall sense of what I derived from seeing the film, it was this – education in Finland is much more conducive to producing the citizenry necessary for the sustaining of a democratic government than what we are currently doing in the United States.
That does not mean we should copy the Finns. In many ways we cannot. it is not merely that they have less than 6 million people, have far less poverty or economic disparity than we do. There are major cultural differences that can require differences in approach.
But surely we can learn from them.
Surely we can learn the importance of giving students the opportunity to explore their own interests.
Perhaps we can learn from them that excellence in education can be achieved without mandating sameness from the top down, with no need for a punitive approach based on a test-based accountability system.
We should learn from them the importance of properly selecting and preparing teachers. Yet for all our verbiage on the importance of teachers, somehow the policies we implement seem to work contrary to that stated goal.
Is what Finland has accomplished really all that surprising? It shouldn’t be. That the word “surprising” is part of the title of the film speaks more to what is wrong in our approach to education than it does to what is outstanding in Finland.
Thursday night I saw the film, I talked with some people from the panel both before and after seeing it. I talked with the producer both before and after viewing it.
I pondered until Saturday morning, when i began drafting this piece, to which i returned several times, finally finishing it in mid-evening.
Were I to see the film again, I might have different takeaways.
I offer this as a starting point, to let you know about it, and about my experience on Thursday.
If you are interested in education and have a chance to see the film, I suggest you do. I found it worth the time spent viewing it.