Wednesday, April 02, 2008

We could be the Finland of the South?

One region of the world scores high in international science and maths tests - and also tops reading, is Scandinavia. New Zealand does reasonably well - coming in around seventh or so. Why is this?

Americans are always researching, or visiting, to find out why other countries do well in International testing ( since their industrial aged model system is predicated on standardized testing).They are aways surprised to find other countries that do far better than them. Conformist Asian countries are one such group that score well but Scandinavia is more interesting. Forgetting that the testing may well be looking for the wrong attributes for the 21stC, it is worth looking to see what they do in Scandinavia.

But first a few thoughts about the New Zealand scene. Once we were world leaders in reading ( we still do well) but with the imposition of the, now seen as failing standardized, curriculum of the 90s, we seem to have lost our edge.

It is not that we don't know what to do to remedy the situation. The Ministry 'preisthood' is full of self congratulation for it's Best Evidence Synthesis, proudly stating that an oversea educationalist ( from Canada) says it is , 'the smartest intellectual property in the world. Reading it will show that most of it states what creative educators, past and present, have aways known. The Ministry, after recently discovering it is the quality of the individual teacher that is the key to real student achievement, has now discovered the , 'evidence is emerging...that show the role of the principal is central to creating the right conditions for effective learning and teaching.' Both amazingly obvious one would have thought?

Such Ministry success is paraded in their recent Newsletter but the real 'evidence' lies in the reality of our schools. Figures still indicate large achievement gaps with up to 25% of all students, still leaving with little to show for their time. Secondary schools, in particular, seem impervious to the 'best evidence research' and remain locked in their academic straightjacket's.

So what is they do in Finland. A country, by the way that has lowered dramatically its diabetic and prison population rates, problems that we have yet to face up to in New Zealand

An American delegation, visiting to see how the Scandinavians were able to score so highly in recent international tests, found that educators in Finland, Sweden and Denmark all cited, 'autonomy and project based learning', as keys to their success. What they didn't find was competitive comparisons of schools, complicated curriculum, standardized testings and top-down accountability - all staples of the American system.

Credit to Finland's success were attributed to major reforms of the 1970s that placed an emphasis on primary education. All three countries start formal education at age seven after participating in extensive early childhood and pre-school programmes focused on self reflection and social behaviour, rather than academic content. By focusing on self reflection, students learn to become responsible for their own education. Philosophical thought is encouraged at an early age and student grading doesn't happen until the high school level because they believe it takes the fun out of learning. They want to inspire continuous learning.

Self reflection, philosophical thinking, fun and inspiration - great words!

Educators, in Scandinavian countries, view accountability far differently than in the United States. In contrast to the quantitative measures and standardized testing found in their 'No Child Left Behind' Scandinavians rely on a system that produces highly competent teachers who use their professional expertise to work with each student to develop individualized learning plans. In Finland such plans are completed when students achieve tertiary education or their first job.

My teacher' and 'the teacher' are terms of respect, not only when used by the student but also school principals. The teacher is viewed as a mentor, someone with the knowledge and wisdom to impart and who plays a key role in preparing students for adulthood. Teaching is a highly respected and sought after career. It is interesting to note that respect for teachers is also mark of Asian countries.

Scandinavians countries have established national curriculum standards but have set broad mandates, letting authority trickle down as close to the classroom as possible. Communities have the flexibility to provide services according to their students unique needs and interests as long as the basic policy statement is followed.

This is the essence of the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum but we are just starting the journey having been diverted by, the now enlightened, Ministry the past decades.

In Scandinavian countries teachers are extremely autonomous in their work , so are students. While in the US 'teachers are held accountable for teaching, here they hold students accountable for their own learning'. Students become independent learners working across curricular areas and it is common for one teacher, or mentor, to stay with students from grade one to nine, with students moving freely about the building. School libraries are seen as pedagogical centres.

In Denmark students are judged in relation to their own growth, rather than that of others, and they are continually evaluated. Teachers also write individual learning plans for each student after these evaluations. American visitors found this remarkable!

Project based learning begins in the first grade and teachers work with students to structure their learning through a process described as 'dialogue and trust'. Assessment is achieved primarily through a dialogue with each student, as is communication with parents about their child's progress. Exams tend to be limited as exit criteria to grade nine, along with project based assignments that require students to plan, research, present and create around a broad theme.

Along similar lines our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum asks teachers to see students as, 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge', something creative teachers have always done.

Changes in Scandinavian occurred because teachers felt the system stifled them and hindered creativity in the classroom. One Finish school believes students should, 'have fun and know the joy of life.

Best Evidence Synthesis is one thing - changing the system to create every student as a life long learners is another.

More about Finland

And even more


Anonymous said...

While I agree with what you are saying isn't it also true that Scandanavian countries( along with Asian) are far more homogenous than diverse countries like the US and NZ. This would make for easier teaching and higher test scores?

Bruce said...

There is truth in what you say but Finland once had one of the highest prison figures in the world and now thay have reversed this - they also had school failure comparative to us but this has been changed since the 70s.

It can be done.

They are high taxed but equitable society without the 'winners and losers' we accept as normal. They are also very technologicaly innovative.

I guess it depends on how much you value equity and education.