What makes the Finnish school system different from the US?

Business Insider Nordic recently published an article ‘7 reasons Finland’s education system puts the US model to shame‘ that covers a comparison between the two’s basic education systems. Similar articles have been previously written as well, for instance by The GuardianFinland has an education system the US should envy – and learn from‘ and Business Insider4 reasons Finland’s schools are better‘. Naturally, it’s never as simple as these articles would have you to believe.

So let’s examine the differences between American and Finnish basic education systems. I’ll go through 7 claims that were presented in the Business Insider Nordic’s comparison article.

1. Competition isn’t as important as cooperation

Partly true. Finland has basically no private schools for basic education. And pretty much the only standardized test is matriculation exam that we have in senior high school at age 18/19.
But after 1998’s school district reform parents have been able to sort of ‘choose’ in which school does their child initially go (parental choice). According to some educational experts that has been one of the reasons leading to rising inequality and competition between Finnish schools. As a consequence, parents try to get their child to a school that has a better reputation. Additionally, some schools compete by offering courses in less-spoken languages than English, such as German, in order to attract pupils (though it’s also a question of resources as not every additional course is viable in small schools).

2. Teaching is one of the most-respected professions

Might well be, but difficult to measure. At least class teacher education is one of the most popular subjects in Finnish universities. In the University of Turku almost as much as people applied for it than for medicine.
Further, all eligible teachers have a Master’s Degree, aside from kindergarten teachers who have a Bachelor’s Degree. Teachers are paid average wages in Finnish scale, but high on global scale (around 3000 euros depending on the school level, plus e.g. service increments based on how many years one has been a teacher).

3. Finland listens to the research

Depends, difficult to measure. There are various types of ‘research’, it’s not a one kind of entity and surely some research institutions have agendas that stem from different ideologies. Also for sure political decision-making affects to a degree. So it’s all relative how well things compare to other countries. Yet, I’d conclude by saying that some things are decided based on thorough research, others not.

4. Finland isn’t afraid to experiment

Holds true in some aspects, I’d say. At least in the teacher training we are encouraged to try out different teaching styles and not just copy existing teaching models. Also basic education curriculum gives much freedom for teaching methods. Though some teachers might be fed up with their work and have lost their interest to experiment so in the end it’s highly individual how experimenting plays out.

5. Playtime is sacred

True. As it’s stated in the article, Finnish law requires teachers to give students 15 minutes of play for every 45 minutes of school lessons. There are studies that suggest 15 minute recesses improve learning (study found here). And in general the attitude that ‘kids should stay as kids as long as possible’ is evident in the society.

6. Kids have very little homework

True, one of the lowest amount globally. It’s also verified in OECD study: In average Finnish pupils (in all schools) spend 2.8 hours per week doing homework, while e.g. in Australia it’s 6.0, in USA 4.9 and in Vietnam 5.8. On top of that Finnish pupils enjoy long, 10-11 week summer holidays, which enforces the idea of appreciating leisure.

7. Preschool is high-quality and universal

Partly verifiablePreschool and daycare are both universal until age 7. Quality is subjective though, for some it works better than others.

Finally, I’ll be making an article on things that Finland could learn from the US education system so stay tuned 🙂

Finnish schools are dissolving traditional division to girls and boys

Based on the newest curriculum concerning basic education Finnish National Agency for Education (Opetushallitus) has released a guide how schools should take into account gender variations, which these days transcend girl and boy centric approaches. Gender-conscious teaching means that teachers are sensitive in recognising individuality and personality of each pupil, regardless of their background. In practice this means that teachers guide pupils to make individual choices instead of maintaining segregation in education and job market.

This line of thought also includes that teachers should acknowledge there are more genders than two and therefore pupils shouldn’t be only recognised as boys and girls. Recognising various sexual orientations and a multitude of identities is crucial in teaching as it helps to break stereotypes, prejudism and broadens one’s understanding.

The key is to realize that any person can become anything. A gender or being genderless shouldn’t dictate one’s life choices. That’s why teachers should encourage pupils pursue their abilities despite of deep cultural assumptions how one ‘should behave’. As with any possible topic teachers should be aware and be willing to discuss about new fields which might not be that known to them. Thus we achieve better level of inclusion among pupils.

Anything to comment?

Today’s teaching models

As a teacher student it’s fascinating to speculate ‘what kind of teacher will I become?’. Based on Dr. Sue Askew, an university lecturer in health education in the University College of London, I’ll go through present day models of teaching. They comprise of roles for teacher, goals of teaching, what’s the view on learning and how feedback is seen.

  • Receptive transmission
    Role of teacher
    is to be an ‘expert’ and goals for teaching are to impart new knowledge, concepts and skills.
    (This is fairly basic and could be seen as the minimum base for teaching).
    View of learning includes that a cognitive dimension is stressed. Learning is individual and affected by ability which is fixed. Learning involves increased understanding of new ideas, memorasing new facts, practising new skills and making decisions based on new information.
    (Memorasing is currently losing ground in teaching, since understanding and making connections are more emphasized).
    Feedback discourse is considered as traditional discourse in which ‘expert’ gives information to others to help them improve. Main goal through feedback is to evaluate and it’s seen as a gift for the pupil.
    (Feedback is then sort of given one-way. Most teachers I have encountered have utilized feedback in this manner).
  • Constructive
    Role of teacher
    is to be an expert. Goals incorporate facilitating the discovery of new knowledge, concepts and skills. And helping to make connections, discover meanings as well as to gain new insights.
    View of learning is based on cognitive dimension, although social dimension is recognised to some extent. Learning is affected by abilities which can be developed and is affected by experiences. Learning involves making connections between old and new experiences, integrating new knowledge and extending established schema.
    (It’s important to see learning as an ability that can always be developed, as contrast it being somehow ‘fixed’ ability).
    Feedback discourse means an expanded discourse in which ‘experts’ enables others to gain understandings, make sense of experiences and make connections by the use of open questions and shared insight. Primary goal is to describe and discuss. Feedback is considered as two-way process.
  • Co-constructive
    Role of teacher
    is based more on an equal power dynamic. Teachers view themselves as learners. Goals include facilitating the discovery of new knowledge, concepts and skills. And to help make connections, discover meaning plus gain new insights. To practise self-reflection and facilitate a reflexive process in others about learning through a collaborative dialogue.
    (In general I see this style progressive and good, but it could also weaken teacher’s credibility. Yet, it has to be acknowledged that a teacher is never ready and there’s always room for improvement).
    View of learning includes that the cognitive, emotional and social dimensions of learning are seen as interconnected and equally important. The view of learning is extended to include reflection on the learning process itself and meta-learning, that is learning about learning.
    (This manner brings up sociological dimensions of teaching, which should be better understood in order to improve pedagogical thinking).
    Feedback discourse is based on expanded discourse involving a reciprocal process of talking about learning. Primary goal is to illuminate learning for all. Feedback is a dialogue, formed by loops connecting the participants.
    (Finally, this manner stresses that feedback should go both ways and that teachers should also receive feedback from pupils).

As always, comments and feedback are most appreciated 😉

Thoughts about school curriculums

Technically speaking school curriculums are administrative documents, which include goals of teaching, desired information and skill levels, teaching methods, time needed for teaching/learning as well as actions needed from pupils and lastly evaluation of their learning. In theory, curriculums are based on values and norms of each society and they are built on a vision for future needs. Curriculums change as new information comes along, through transforms of political tendency and paradigm shifts. For instance Finnish basic education’s curriculum reform from 1994 was partly based on an analysis about quick change in economic environment. Finland was recovering from a deep recession caused by the collapse of Soviet Union. It was then that school system’s function concerning upbringing was recognised in a more profound way (to aid families in the midst of financial problems) and the need for lifelong learning was brought up, so that swift changes in the society wouldn’t cause too much disturbance.

Moreover, it’s possible to perceive from the school curriculums whether societies appreciate first and foremost that an individual is adapted to the society or are individual personalities taken more into account. Naturally it isn’t as black and white, due to the fact curriculums may involve many elements. In any case in Finland curriculums have transformed from emphasizing ‘collective good’ to ‘individuality’ and religious ‘lutherian morale’ to ‘rationality’ (whatever that in any given moment might be).

Another aspect to look at curriculums is to investigate how well they translate to real life scenarios. In Finland equality is an important factor in curriculums and in principle, they are neutral documents in which gender isn’t present, but girls and boys are rather treated as equal pupils. In that context equality is defined as equal rights and obligations for girls and boys covering family life, education, job market as well as broader society. Lahelma (1992) has been inspecting school curriculums and according to her pupils always represent a gender as well — despite of school’s agenda. And one can wonder, whether pursuiting creativity, spontaneity and responsibility means same things for girls and boys. Lahelma emphasizes how gender neutral curriculum always get ‘genderalized’ in a reality where teaching practices and educational content differentiate boys’ and girls’ lives according to a social hierarchy between the two genders. As it’s also been studied through several school textbook analyses that textbooks are connected first and foremost to masculine experience. It’s then a paradox to think that curriculums somewhat aim for equality and neutrality, yet real life school teaching scenarios could make pursuing them difficult. I’ll look school textbooks more into detail in later posts.

Comments and thoughts welcome.

Why teaching about marginal issues matters?

Many of us have been taught deeply about important historical events, about times when our country faced a moment of crisis. In the case of Finland, such instance is probably best known as the Winter War (1939—1940). While those struggles should not be forgotten or be left out from the curriculum, there are also other historical themes which could be taught to pupils more in depth.

It’s eventually a choice what we teach and how. A constant debate exists how much emphasis is to be put on certain topics and how the ever-present lack of time should be handled in teaching. Yet, I argue that marginal issues concerning for instance ethnical minorities could be addressed better through teaching. After all, we teach since we want to create awareness and improve critical thinking, not just reproduce lessons exactly the same way as was taught earlier.

Further, marginal issues should be more present during school lessons, because:

  • Today’s marginal issues could be tomorrow’s majority. During European history several natural scientific theories were put in margin due to the fact they didn’t fit into catholic church’s agenda.
  • It gives opportunities to explore new fields. Not everything has yet been researched and pupils should be encouraged to enter topics which aren’t mainstream.
  • They expand awareness. Teaching ultimately creates awareness and it’s our job to prepare pupils with better cognitive skills. Pupils learn to inspect a phenomenon through multiple angles.
  • They offer means to handle new knowledge. Pupils face new knowledge currently at the greatest speed ever. Handling and filtering incoming data is crucial. We don’t want anyone to feel powerless amidst information flow and that they can’t have an influence.
  • That’s a way to present pupils opportunities of discovery. The joy of making new findings and connecting them to earlier lessons is important for school motivation. It also underlines that anyone can make information discoveries.

All in all, this blog post leads us to question:
What topics are left out of the curriculum and why?
(I’ll come to that more in future posts).

Please share if you have ideas concerning the topic.

 

Why was modern school system created?

These days we take education somewhat for granted in many parts of the world and perhaps rightly so. But I decided to go way back and inspect historical reasons for why the modern school system was created in the 18th and 19th century in Europe.

One explanation for modern school system is found through functional approach: schools were created in response for the representation dilemma. Before industrialisation and urbanisation seized Europe there wasn’t really a need for large-scale schools — parents taught their children all the necessary skills needed for instance in farming. But troubles appeared when factories started spreading, towns began changing and work places started moving farther away from the people. How could people learn without actually seeing how things were done in the industrialised society? School system was therefore needed to fill the knowledge gap.

Another explanation is to see schools as a product of modernisation, an evolution of societies, which was an evident result of the Age of Enlightenment (breakthrough in the 18th century). According to Zygmunt Bauman modern society could be described as a dream of humans to create order to world’s disorder and to be capable of ruling life through rationality and knowledge. Development of modern school system is a prime instance how that kind of order has been tried to achieve and maintain.

Thirdly, one could see schools being formed to gain social control. When legislation to restrict the use of child labor was put into effect in the most industrialized country in the world, England, in early 1800s a chain reaction leading to mass compulsory education began. It was common that everybody in worker families contributed by working in factories and it wasn’t until 1860 that use of child labor was effectively put to a halt. Parents had to work, often times for the whole day and children started roaming around cities, creating fears of social problems. That’s why schools were introduced — in a way to ‘store’ these children in a safe place of order.

Further, modern school system has been the central institution for separating people into different social and cultural layers. Main rule of thumb has been that the greater the degree, the greater the social and cultural status one has possessed. Schools are even as of today an important place where people find their calling, identify their own skills and compare them to others and eventually receive counsel to which area should they spesialize in.

Anything to comment? Please share your ideas!

What is hidden curriculum in teaching?

It’s common knowledge that teachers have the official, written curriculum to give us for instance guidelines about topics meant to teach. However, that’s not the only thing influencing teaching. So called hidden curriculum is a side-product of teaching and means all the things that are taught and learned (usually) unintentionally.
Hidden curriculums could even displace the official curriculum and pupils could learn totally different things than what was originally meant during teaching.
I’m not here to to argue whether the idea of hidden curriculum is real or not, good or bad, but rather to broaden the understanding concerning teaching.

Hidden curriculum doesn’t exist in any written form as each teacher and pupil have their own underlying motives which affect the whole learning experience. Additionally, rules and norms which are taken for granted in schools could be a result of hidden curriculum.

It’s said that by researching the concept of hidden curriculum we gain information about the reality of schools that transcends the most obvious forms of teaching. That’s because there’s a lot of aspects in schools which both teachers and pupils are unaware of, yet ones that should be taken into account. 

One of these aspects is the seemingly apparent individualism, personalism and freedom which school teaching is supposed to enforce, based on the curriculum. Effectively those ideals could mean all the things outside the official curriculum are shut out and each pupil’s social actions are evaluated without taking class, gender, ethnical identity or wealth background into consideration.

Another idea behind hidden curriculum is to remove the misconcept that schools somehow are failing to achieve official goals and that the failure would be due to school system or practiced pedagogy. It could be considered that the mission of school institution isn’t to produce critically-minded and creative human beings or to equally develop each pupil, but rather to guide and force pupils in to the power structures and division of labor which are found in the society. This is called social reproduction in which new generations are socialised in to the society. In any case the success of school system could easily be compared to this agenda.

Closely connected to the idea of hidden curriculum is meta learning. Meta learning refers to the concept that in schools pupils learn to characterize themselves and their skills compared to others and the demands of the school system. Therefore, pupils learn to predict their future identity, place in the society and at the same time learn the limits of their capabilities already in school.

The theory related to hidden curriculum goes not without criticism. Some have argued the theoretical base of hidden curriculums is too rational. It’s also seen as common practice and natural that to protect integrity each school has their own agendas which are derived from multiple sources.

Comments and thoughts welcome!

Teacher’s survival strategies

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Lately I’ve been reading this book concerning sosiology of education, since it’s the first mandatory book of teacher studies. It has many fascinating topics, including a chapter about teacher’s survival strategies.

First introduced by Peter Woods in 1979, teacher’s survival strategies involve ways for a teacher to make teaching more pleasant — in other words to cope with the reality of schools. These strategies incorporate a dual nature, meaning that they form through teacher’s professional role as an advocator of state’s interests but also by personal ideals, which are based on teacher’s own history and experience as a pupil. The aforementioned clash of profiles results in teacher’s survival strategies.

Let’s check out some of them.

Socialisation means that a teacher tries to evoke certain ideals for ‘good pupils’. In practice a teacher shapes pupils to meet her/his ideals, which consist of e.g. proper behaviour and language.

Then there’s domination, meaning that a teacher may use varied degrees of power over the classroom. Domination is described as an easy survival method, due to the fact that pupils are subjected to teacher’s control both being underaged (and therefore under guardianship with limited rights) and due to their institutional position as pupils.

Teacher may also utilize trading, i.e. a teacher might get pupils to promise to remain quiet for certain period of time by promising they can see a movie in the classroom.

Fraternization means that a teacher could seek to come in good terms with pupils through e.g. similar humor. And young teachers might try crossing generations by utilising cultural identification, e.g. using references from popular culture.

Exiting means that a teacher could completely exit situations which involve conflicts or difficult problems. Teachers could for instance ignore identifying learning disabilities.

Routines and rituals are used for instance to ensure peaceful classes. A school could be traditionally seen as peaceful and that’s then used as an argument for demanding peacefulness from pupils.

Professional therapy means that a teacher could see teaching first and foremost as a therapeutic activity. It’s then enough seeing pupils working on something appearing busy and enthusiastic and to think that the therapeutic, pupil-centric teaching is that way being realised.

Morale boosting occurs when a teacher justifies the importance of teaching, for instance after a bad day. This could happen along with discussions and professional humor shared in the senior common room with other teachers as well as by seeking their approval for methods used in teaching.

Comments and thoughts welcome!

Sales and teaching — an unorthodox approach

It’s not often you read about teaching and sales in the same sentence. Before I started studying to become a subject teacher I actually did relatively lot of sales work. The more I study teaching, the more I consider sales attitude being applicable in teaching and giving a teacher synergy to achieve more. Granted, it’s an unorthodox approach. In any case one needs to inspect teaching from multiple angles.
Let’s begin by listing a few important aspects related to sales:

  • Research
  • Marketing
  • Optimisation
  • Goal-attainment

I see researching and understanding the educational needs of pupils extremely important. Same applies to sales and customers as well. In sales you might have (or might be planning) a commodity or service for which you need to find customers. That’s how some begin a market research. Whereas in teaching you have a subject to teach and could be thinking: Who needs this information and why? That’s why it’s crucial that the curriculum is developed based on feedback from pupils, research, trends and practical experience — these are the basic components of teaching’s ‘market research’.

Next you begin to think methods to present the subject. Or in sales you would initiate marketing phase. Teacher, at some level, needs marketing skills if we’re ever to convince pupils that the topics brought up are relevant. But it’s not about just pushing teacher’s important ideas one-way. Neither is ‘good’ sales about pushing. As time goes by you develop a sort of game-sense (in Finnish we call it ‘pelisilmä’) that helps in recognising the right tone of voice, authority and expertise needed to get the message clearly understood.

Additionally, both teaching and sales need constant optimisation. For instance time is scarce and resources limited so we have to manage with those assets we have and make the best out of them. Through optimisation we’ll discover what works and what doesn’t. It’s sometimes frustrating but in the end very educational.
Both sales and teaching involve a lot of human encounters so you need to adapt quickly to various changing circumstances. Every interaction is different and gives one an unique opportunity to learn from others as well and to develop awareness of diverse behaviour models.

Finally, in sales and teaching ultimately results matter. I don’t consider good grades or high test results the end result we should help pupils to blindly achieve per se (neither do I ignore their value). Attitudes that help to prepare pupils with life-long cognitive capabilities to always learn more and adapt to ever-changing world are perhaps the most relevant general skills we can teach everyone.

Comments and ideas welcome!

Inclusive teaching strategies

In the previous post I discussed briefly about equality in teaching and how social exclusion could be prevented in schools. In order to expand the topic I decided
to present ideas concerning inclusive teaching methods, because improving them could help to activate pupils more profoundly and make learning altogether more enjoyable an experience. I started thinking this topic after recently watching a video about ‘how to activate pupils more’. A subject teacher described his inclusive teaching method simply by saying that to activate pupils during lessons he states them what is mandated in the curriculum and asks them how could the goals set in the curriculum be achieved. That way, in theory, teaching meets the demand of the pupils’ better while at the same time fits in to the curriculum.

Furthermore, it must be noted that inclusive teaching shouldn’t be about the teacher transferring as many responsibilities as possible to the pupils, but rather about teachers really trying to understand pupils’ educational needs and make improvements based on their feedback. Although a teacher should always be the fair authority in the classroom, whose expertise can be relied upon.

Let’s investigate inclusive teaching methods, which in my opinion consist of:

  • Possibility to influence what is taught
    (e.g. history of modern technology or history of video games)
  • Possibility to influence teaching methods
    (e.g. group work or a school play depicting a historical epoch)
  • Possibility to influence school surroundings and rules
    (e.g. what’s the preferred time for a lunch)
  • Possibility to give feedback
    (e.g. a short questionnaire in the beginning/end of the course
    or feedback at the end of each lesson, which then affects consecutive lessons
    )

Firstly, possiblity to influence what is taught is pivotal if the modern school system is to be flexible and meet the constantly changing interests of the people and the world outside schools. It’s easy to teach the same things year after year, but by doing so we would do a huge disservice to the people. It’s clear that the effectual curriculum with its time limits should be followed, but there is also room for fresh ideas from the pupils. Subject teaching needs to be relevant, interesting and beneficial.

Secondly, possibility to influence teaching methods opens new ways for interaction.
I recently heard from a friend that one teacher has a system in which pupils earn collectibles (points) through ‘good behavior’ and once enough collectibles have been earned the pupils can decide a school trip destination from a selection. In my mind, this method teaches not only strategical thinking, goal-orientation but also about choices.

Thirdly, possibility to influence school surroundings and rules is connected to everyday things happening in the school environment. Timetables concerning lunch and recess or necessary school yard equipment — everyone has their own preference and not all is realizable or even practical. But concessions should be made if the wishes are reasonable and the rules for instance outdated. Therefore, a teacher should also be aware of trends and evaluate them.

Fourthly, possibility to give feedback both openly and anonymously enables active participation in common affairs. Feedback is often mentioned but still much overlooked. Some teachers don’t really care about the feedback due to thinking they know better, whereas some understandably just want to survive another work day in school. Yet, feedback could give us insights what works, what doesn’t and why.

Finally, these methods should be optional and none should feel they’re being forced to participate. Though everyone should be introduced to the advantages of participation. 

Please comment, subscribe and share your ideas about inclusive teaching.