September 5th, 2011

"We Prepare Children to Learn How to Learn"

Fascinating piece in Smithsonian this month on the “success” of Finnish schools. And I put “success” in quotes because for most American observers, Finland’s school system works because they score near the top on PISA tests. When you read the article, however, you see that test scores have little to do with it from a Finnish perspective. 

There’s a lot to learn from what the Finns do, but more than anything, it’s an attitude toward learning that makes the difference. They’ll do “whatever it takes” to help a child be successful, whether that’s extra time, providing nourishing food and health care, or making play a focal point of the school day. School isn’t high stakes; as one principal said, “We are interested in what will become of them in life,” which is why 43 percent of Finnish kids go to vocational high schools and why there’s only one test in their senior years that they have to take.

But here are the three snips that really jumped out at me. First, the goal of the system:

“We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture.

What a concept, right? What they seem to understand that we here in the States can’t seem to get is that high test scores do not equal learning. That you can’t create a learning disposition if the focus is on content, Common Core or otherwise. That it’s about being a learner rather than being learned.

And this:

Finnish educators have a hard time understanding the United States’ fascination with standardized tests. “Americans like all these bars and graphs and colored charts,” Louhivuori teased, as he rummaged through his closet looking for past years’ results. “Looks like we did better than average two years ago,” he said after he found the reports. “It’s nonsense. We know much more about the children than these tests can tell us.”

We’ve become so dependent on the test to tell us about our students that we know less and less about who they really are. And without really knowing them, how can we help them reach their individual potentials?

And finally:

In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on competition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

Why is it we have such a hard time in this country seeing this “human aspect” of education? Is that something only understood by socialist cultures who see government as a way of lifting everyone up, of providing an equal starting point for all kids, as opposed to countries like ours that are so hell bent on competition that we’ll let millions of kids suffer a mediocre education just so we can have winners and losers?

I don’t buy the argument that we can’t learn from Finland because it’s smaller and doesn’t have such a big system or that it’s different from our culture. At the core, it’s about caring for kids, doing what’s right by them not what’s easy for us. That’s the piece we seem to be missing, and that’s the piece that should be motivating all of us start screaming about a meaningful overhaul of the system. 

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Welcome! I'm Will Richardson, parent, educator, speaker, author, 12-year blogger at Weblogg-ed and now here. I'm trying to answer the question "What happens to schools and classrooms and learning in a 2.0 world?" Best selling new book: Why School?s...order now!!


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