Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Top of the learning class!

Learning from the best Posted by Picasa

Politicians love reports that place their county at the top of the class and this is no more so than education. No matter how you look at it (depending on the political party concerned) New Zealand has always done well in international tests. If there is a problem in New Zealand it with what is called our long achievement tail – and the answer to this in New Zealand is to focus on basics, formal teaching and testing.

With this in mind it was interesting read that the country that comes top in the world (in reading and science) in the latest OECD testing is Finland. New Zealand came fifth and eighth respectively. The countries 'our' Ministry policy analysts seem to follow, the UK and the US (with their literacy and numeracy obsessions), were not in the top sixteen (which is as far the tables went).

So it would seem we would be well advised to study what it is the Finnish do

Teachers who believe in a creative way of teaching will be reassured.

Students from an early age set their own goals and determine the speed of their learning depending on their needs. Students learning styles are valued and, during the school day, they work in mixed ablity groups at a variety of tasks that they themselves have negotiated. Formal teaching is uncommon. Students at all ages, helped by their parents and teachers, establish individual learning plans and set their own goals. Those who need special help receive it and, if they want to progress faster, they can do so.

This is personalized learning in practice.

The OECD test results indicate the Finns do better at educating, not only their less gifted, but they also significantly reduce the differences between boys and girls. They do, it has to be admitted, have the advantage of having a reasonably homogenous society.

So what is it the the Finn’s do right? Interestingly their students do not start formal schooling until they are seven and, as well,they spend no more than thirty hours a week (including homework) on schoolwork. More importantly they do not rely on aggressive testing, nor an emphasis on 'back to basics', or tougher discipline; and problems that beleaguer other countries such as, bullying, drug use, disrespect and school failure, are rare.

Al this has occurred since the mid seventies when the Finns overhauled their, then more traditional, system so their students would thrive in a new knowledge–based society. At this point schools shifted to a more ‘student centred’ approach giving more power to teachers and more attention to students individual needs. National exams were abolished and finally, in 1994, school administration was radically decentralized and freedom given to schools to set their own educational priorities.

Something lke this almost happened in New Zealand but.....

Finnish teachers are well trained and respected and enjoy a high degree of autonomy. They are free to use whatever classroom methods they like, with curriculums they have devised. Once hired teachers are not subject to regular inspection, nor are they expected to waste time on excessive paper work!

Standardized testing is shunned, with the belief that they take up valuable learning time, and penalize students who want to figure things out their own way. Standardized teaching, they believe, results in teachers teaching to the tests, and narrowing the curriculum in the process.

Students are taught to evaluate themselves, right from preschool, to help them take greater responsibity for their own work. Students are encouraged to think about what didn’t go well and then to consider what they need to do to accomplish their tasks - comparing their progress to their previous personal best.

Students work both independently and cooperatively. They are encouraged to learn by seeking out their own information and to value their own thinking. Students of all abilities benefit from working together with the stronger students helping the weaker students, while teacher circulate around, listening for problems, helping and giving encouragement as appropriate. Students are also encouraged to learn from their mistakes in an environment that is careful not to embarrass learners. Slower learners are given intense support but, rather than remedial help being seen as failure, the Finns treat it as an opportunity for students to improve. Students, with special learning needs, receive individualized programmes that focus on self set achievable goals. Disruptive students are extremely rare. Teachers work on the premise that if students are not succeeding teachers need to look hard at their teaching.

The Finnish system offers its students the promise of patience, tolerance, trust in teachers and learners, and a self critical commitment to excellence. Finnish schools are flexible, easygoing and inclusive. Students reflect responsibity because they are not exposed to imposed arbitrary authority and value the freedom to learn.

This would be revolutionary to the traditionalists but would be confirmation for a lot of teachers in New Zealand.

If only we had the courage to transform our schools along similar lines rather than the current timid obsession with tinkering with our dysfunctional system.


Anonymous said...

This is very encouraging and somewhat frustrating in that N.Z.teachers that have valued personalized learning approaches, and acknowledge and respect student perspectives, have often had a battle on their hands. Too many hurdles are placed before creative teachers and the importance of the student's interests and ideas,their natural abilty to make sense of their world and think for themselves, has been greatly underestimated in recent times. It seems that things were more on track in the 80's in N.Z. with such things as the Waikato Learning In Science Project and the 'interactive teaching' model. Let's hope there are some lessons to be learned here from the Finnish.

Bruce said...

I couldn't agree more. We have taken several steps backwards in teaching and learning the last decade or so while gaining little except lots of time and energy wasted.

We could have been world leaders.

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Christopher Trottier said...

The fact of the matter is that bureacrats are always looking for a way to pat themselves on the back.

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Bruce said...

Thanks everybody for all that great feedback - we seem to have made learning intuitivly all but impossible in our hyper rational, top down , data driven, schools.

Dean Fink, Canadian educationalist, writes that, 'schools are a cross between a low security prison, a monastry and a testing organisation'. And as Bob Dylan sang, 'sometimes you can't tell who are the prisoners and who are the guards'.