By Mike Johanek (updated)
Have you heard the one about the Finnish extrovert? He looks down at the other person’s shoes when he speaks.
I first heard that joke told about physicists some years ago. I just heard it again on Wednesday from a Finnish education expert during our visit at the Helsinki Normal Lyceum.
What does this have to do with our group inquiry into Finnish education?
We are visiting, and trying to learn from, our Finnish colleagues, at least what we can absorb in a week. From a renewed perspective, we hope to improve the work we do in the US. In the process, we look, naturally at times, for models to scale, miracles to bottle, promising practices to pursue. “What can we learn?” often translates into “what practices can we adopt?”
- Is it the later start to elementary school that does the trick, kicks out those PISA gains? Perhaps, but child care does start earlier for most, with public support. We heard a parent tell us today how her child started at age one in organized child care. And other countries have similar patterns, including Nordic neighbors, with quite different results.
- Is it the collaborative spirit? Perhaps, but competition certainly seems to kick in by upper secondary, and in very selective admissions at some universities.
- Is it the lack of testing? Perhaps, especially in primary grades, but again, by upper secondary, one veteran principal claimed that roughly 20% of time went to testing; 500 hours of class sessions required, 100 hours of testing across the 5 8-week academic periods; and then getting to college means an additional testing battery, completing external graduation tests, the matriculation exam, and individual university exams. Yet PISA results are gathered prior to upper secondary, so perhaps the lack of testing has a role?
- Or the longer recess periods of 75 minutes a day, confirmed in our elementary school visit today? Perhaps, and it does seem to highlight a more playful, exploratory and autonomous spirit we also saw.
- Or maybe it’s the well-prepared lunches and crisp Nordic design knack so evident in school furniture and natural light-rich architecture? I’ve certainly enjoyed both first hand this week, and you do feel reaffirmed by the thoughtfulness of the environment’s design.
As leaders, such distinctive features should cause us to consider our own work in these areas. I did feel we entered spaces more respectful to children and adults, in design, temperament and disposition. The live flowers on the cafeteria tables, fresh nutritious lunches at student-height buffet counters, sunlight pouring in through two-floor high windows as students huddle on corner sofas in self-directed student clubs … yes, that felt like quite a rich and exciting environment for the engaged kids we saw today. Naturally we ask, “what of that can we can do in our schools?”
But individual practices only get you disconnected pieces, as well as tempt causal attributions from messy, complex correlations. Singular ad hoc practices also don’t tend to sustain improvements over several decades. But here is a system that has made dramatic shifts in educational performance over the last several decades, and across significant reform legislation. So, what of that transformation can we glean today? We need not, indeed we can not, evaluate that transformation. But how might we understand it a bit more, so as to inform how we critique and improve our own practice?
Instead of searching for practices to adopt, I heard in our varied conversations this week traces of some fundamental Finnish decisions, some made decades ago, that weave persistent threads across various Finnish practices. It is, I suspect, in these core decisions that we might fairly shed light on our own work in useful ways.
What are the core decisions echoed in the practices and pronouncements we experienced among our Finnish colleagues? I’ll take my best shot at teasing these out a bit in my next post tomorrow, and then see what they imply for our own work.