Thanks-vember 14: Seattle

14 Nov

Every morning I try to give myself 10-15 minutes with a cup of coffee and the online news. I usually end up reading a bit of The Seattle Times, a bit of NPR, and a bit of BBC World News. I don’t get a lot of down time, and I cherish this little moment of quiet before my day begins.

This morning, on the Seattle Times front page, I saw an article titled “Finland’s educational success story: Less testing, more trusting.” The article focuses on Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish Education Minister, and author of the book “Finnish Lessons: what can the world learn from educational change in Finland” (Teachers College Press, 2011).

So, why should we care about Finland? Well, in case you haven’t heard – Finland’s education system has been ranked at the top of the pack since 2000, when the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) was first introduced. Finnish students spend less time in the classroom than Americans, and yet they routinely score better in math, science, language, etc…

Pasi gave a free lecture this evening at The University of Washington, which I and another teacher-student attended. The first thing he said was “I’m not trying to convince you that Finland has the best education system in the world… because we couldn’t care less if we are the best.”

No, what they care about in Finland is providing each student with an education that best fits his or her needs. Pasi said that Finland’s goal is: “We want to have a school system where pupil’s success doesn’t depend on their home background.” That is, students can succeed regardless of their socioeconomic status. Remember, many studies have been done in the US “proving” that socioeconomic status is the number one indicator of a child’s ability to succeed in school. Finland threw that idea out the window.

The idea of the lecture was not to say “Finland is better than you” or “Here is how to make the US’s education system exactly like Finland’s,” but instead to point out some key differences, and perhaps how the US can improve education based on Finland’s ideas.

I would say that Pasi’s message was broken into two main points: equity and professionalism.

40 years ago, the Finnish government looked at their country, and at their education system, and knew that something needed to be fixed. They worked on creating equal footing for all students – on improving equity (the well-being of students, providing resources to those in need, etc…) and then worked on improving education. Students who aren’t fed breakfast can’t learn. Students who have to stay home to take care of their younger siblings can’t learn. These things needed to be fixed before the actual problem of school could be tackled.

Additionally, teachers are respected in Finland, on the same level as doctors and lawyers. In fact, it takes as much schooling to become a Finnish primary teacher as it does to become a lawyer or doctor. All teachers must have Master’s degrees, which usually takes about 6 years to obtain. The programs are not easy to get into – the University of Helsinki received about 2,000 applications last year and admitted 120 people to the program. Once these highly qualified teachers are in the classroom, they are given control over what they teach – there are no standardized tests, and loose curriculum standards that must be met.

Pasi shared a video with us, contrasting the high-pressure schools of South Korea (another top-scoring country) and the schools of Finland. I couldn’t find the South Korea part to share with you, but here is the section on Finland:

The lecture was recorded, and will be put up as a podcast on the UW Finnish Studies Webpage. I’ll post a link to it when it’s up.

What does this have to do with being thankful? I am thankful for the opportunity to attend events like this. I’m thankful to live in a city with a highly respected university which attracts speakers from all over the world. I’m thankful for the opportunity to hear about education systems in other countries. I’m also thankful for the opportunity to connect with my fellow teachers and discuss these new ideas.

10 Responses to “Thanks-vember 14: Seattle”

  1. Chris Beatty November 14, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    This is my favorite post so far. Thank you for going to this and sharing. I wanted to attend, but I had a conflict. Does it make you at all sad that we will probably never see the reform necessary to give us the curricular freedom that Finns enjoy today? While I’m hopeful that change comes before our collective teacher spirits are crushed, I feel as though the powers that be wish to institute more controls and more testing rather than less. Thanks again for sharing!

    • teacherbecoming2013 November 15, 2012 at 7:33 am #

      Thanks Chris! I’m glad I found out about it and was able to go. Something to remember is that this reform took Finland about 30 years. Who knows where the American education system will be in thirty years? Maybe we will be the ones to start the process. Hopefully people will begin to see that testing and control is not the way to improve the education system.
      An interesting counterpoint, however, are the schools in South Korea – they are right up there with Finland in the rankings. Students in South Korea spend all day studying and drilling for tests. They are usually in school from 8 am to 4 pm, and then many of them attend private tutoring schools. I hope that our education system moves towards the Finnish model and not the South Korean model, personally!

  2. Cassu November 15, 2012 at 2:41 am #

    Yes, we have master’s degree in Finland, takes about 5 years. The appreciation of teachers is high, but not like the respect of lawyers of doctors. We have free education in University that gives the possibility for all regardless of socioeconomic status, to reach University.

    One reason for good results in PISA tests is the commitment of teachers on the teaching profession. In Finland the attrition rates are much lower than in US. This is one thing which guarantees the quality of teaching. We do not have teacher testing and teachers have good autonomy to perform their work. These are big reasons to maintain teachers.

    • teacherbecoming2013 November 15, 2012 at 7:28 am #

      Thank you so much for your comment! I know that this lecture was just one perspective, and it is great to hear from an actual Finnish teacher.

      It was suggested last night that because, in Finland, teachers have already spent so much time working towards being teachers by the time they graduate, they have become “experts” and are not as likely to be scared off by the difficulties they face in the classroom. This is quite different from how we train our teachers here in the US. My program provides us with more in-class training time than any other program in the state, and it is still less than a full school year. (However, with the time I have spent in schools already, I feel I will be prepared.)

      I wonder if something as simple as requiring Masters degrees would improve the appreciation and trust in teachers here in the US, or if it would take more of a cultural shift. Do you know when Finland began to require Masters degrees for teachers?

      • Cassu November 15, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

        In Finland we had education reform in 1970’s. It has been obligatory to have a master’s degree in the late of 1970’s in every subject, so it is over 30 years. I don’t think that changing the Bachelor’s degree to Master’s degree change the things in a second. It takes time.

        In Finland we have practise schools, which are giving good picture about what teaching is. So when graduated, you have better picture about realities of school. You’re not facing the “reality shock”. Of course in the beginning of the career there are also lots of new thing to learn and so on, but still, you are prepared to your main duty, teaching.

  3. maly3 November 15, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

    Thanks for posting this, Rosie! I wish I could have gone too, but you know, kids and stuff. Its such a novel idea in America to encourage creativity rather than fact memorization. Though its great that U.S. politicians keep talking about education reforms, its unfortunate that they rely on standardized test scores rather than professional opinions to inform their policies. I love that our training so far has been about exploration and big ideas. Maybe this is a sign that ideas about education are changing for the better. Now we just need a campaign to take these ideas mainstream. Hopefully we can all get jobs after our program that will allow us to use our professional judgment and not teach to the test.

    • teacherbecoming2013 November 15, 2012 at 11:05 pm #

      I agree! It is great that people know our education system needs to change – I just wish the people making the decisions would listen to the teachers when it comes to deciding what those changes should be. I hope that other programs are training teachers to think for themselves, so we can be instruments of change in our new positions next year, and in years to come.

  4. RLT November 19, 2012 at 10:30 am #

    Thank you for attending this and becoming a resource for all of us! There is so much important information out there, so many events to attend, books to read, people to meet. I hope we continue to share these experiences with each other as we enter our professional practice.


  1. Thanks-vember 16 « Teacher, Becoming. - November 16, 2012

    […] doing. Teachers respond to principals and administrators who refuse to quit. Returning, if I may, to my post about the lecture given by Pasi Sahlberg, I believe that teachers who are passionate are more […]

  2. End of Quarter Reflection: Fall « Teacher, Becoming. - December 9, 2012

    […] most-viewed post was about a lecture I attended at UW titled “Finnish Lessons – what can the world learn from educational change in […]

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