By Mike Johanek
We should never confound schooling as the sum total of education, Finnish or American.
An early mentor, US historian Lawrence Cremin, argued that to understand education anywhere, you need to see it broadly — comprehensively, relationally, publicly — across the variety of institutions that educate, schools among them. Thus, no practices exist separately from their contexts, their histories, their cultures – even including how they define extroversion.
Try to understand education by just looking at schooling and you let the rest of the matter slip out through your fingers; you’re left to grasp futilely at incoherent fragments before they hit the floor.
To help us visualize the larger picture during our Helsinki tour, Pasi Sahlberg pointed out the significance of the Senate Square in the heart of the city. Along each of its four sides, you have represented in massive structures the powers of the church, university, government and commerce. The “Finnish way of steering” apparently works across these institutions, and the many civil associations of this intricately organized society. Pasi claims that 5 million Finns hold more than 15 million memberships! School improvement operates within this larger multi-institutional world, and we heard school leaders repeat their intent to give students voice in organizing themselves; primary students today were called “club owners,” with decision authority over their destiny. Organizations apart from schools support them by providing sports, music and other “hobbies” for students, while extensive social and psychological services buttress sound student growth with annual check-ups and interventions. Schools report into local municipalities, who supplement resources; the traditional culture, including a deep Lutheran cultural imprint, underlines a pragmatic and prudent design disposition; universities assure a reliable professional base, imprinting research centrally within teacher development; and the business community voice assures vocational linkages, with the national government setting a generalized core curricular frame, the main plaza in which each sector interacts.
But what values does this collective “steering” support? What values underlie the words and behaviors we experienced this week, from the quick sampling we gathered? How have the Finns answered the same core questions we all need to face in our educational systems?
We heard our Finnish colleagues, directly and indirectly, suggest answers at least to the following:
- Who do we want to be, and do schools serve our shared public purposes? For Finns this last centry, now beyond Swedish kingdom and Russian empire, schools have aspired to meet individual interests, independent expression and playful exploration, evident in a broad primary curriculum, rich in arts and music, demanding in multiple languages, and with considerable leeway for flexible individual learning plans through secondary. An effort to nourish independent thought seems a watermark to schooling’s design here, including its multiple modes of expression across academic and non-academic pursuits, in and out of school. Get engaged and get working, play and persist, and as an elementary teacher urged today, “earn your trust.” Our Finnish colleagues spoke of the societal trust embedded in school relations – among students and teachers, between teachers and parents, between administrators and local municipal authorities, and between schools and society at large, even amidst recent budget struggles. Of course we trust the schools, seemed the message. A parent today became just a touch emotional in describing her deep respect and appreciation for her son’s teachers – and we had just met her five minutes earlier.
- How equal do we want to be? Finland has chosen free education, eliminating tuition across institutions decades ago, for all, maintained apparently with rare exceptions. Perhaps the most selective independent school in the country is free, and provides transportation for those who may find those costs a burden. Everyone benefits from universal health care, pensions, and much greater income equality than in the US. No Finnish school can charge tuition, even those not run directly by municipalities, which are few. Only the few international schools can charge tuition. We heard much pride especially in the free comprehensive (elementary) schools, an easily-offered assurance that every Finn can reasonably expect the same strong quality, independent of their background or location. If you end up taking a vocational track in secondary, you can make a living wage in range of your fellow Finns. Even with rising income inequality of late, Finland remains below most in the OECD, echoed in its commitment to evenly high quality primary schools across the nation.
- Are educators professionals? It was hard to discuss schooling for long this week without hearing of the high esteem given Finnish teachers. Last year a Finnish magazine survey asked which professions were most popular, and teaching came in fifth. One university professor confessed to introducing herself first as a teacher, as it conveyed a more selective status than university academic in many circles. The oft-claimed 10% admissions rate to teacher education, at least at the University of Helsinki which we visited, attested to this understanding of teaching as a serious, university-based profession that one enters for the long haul. We heard no hint of teaching as a few-year stint on the way to another career.
- What role should the market play? I was struck at the reaction to our inquiries into choice, into how parents might have more options to choose their children’s schools, or how private schools might be expanded to introduce more options. A slightly perplexed “why” often slid out, with a suggested response implicit. No, it’s just not something I’ve thought much about, confessed one parent; I’m so fortunate to have this wonderful school in my neighborhood. While this seemed understood at the comprehensive/lower secondary levels, the competitive admissions processes at upper secondary seemed equally “natural” to the system’s landscape. While entirely public in terms of support, and almost entirely public in governance, the “market” in which GPA’s served as currency seemed a merit filter consistent with a level provision of a rich foundation. The need for a market based on real currency seemed an odd perversion to most we met, a distraction, a threat to this rather refined “Finnish way of steering.”
So, extrovert or not, and even if you look at your own shoes occasionally, you can still decide to walk together rather than separately, and certainly more equally than if left unplanned. You can decide not to narrow who you might become to those aspects most easily measured. You can even sift and sort by merit, given a clear enough fairness in starting points. You can decide to refine the machinery of consensus across multiple layers of professional, cultural, commercial and political associations. You can tweak your core decisions incrementally, consensually, as long as you keep your eye coolly on the shared value of free, diligent and independent spirits with whom you want to populate a still-young nation.
Somewhere here are the lessons to be learned from Finnish colleagues who took a modestly developed nation and made it a topic of international discussion in education. Somewhere also is an invitation to consider how we in the US answer these same queries.
We return to revisit our own practices next week!
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.
By: Mike Johanek
We’re very much looking forward to visiting with our colleagues in Finland, and many thanks to everyone’s efforts in putting this trip together. Special thanks to Joe Mazza, a social media maven and patient teacher to the rest of us!
We look to learn a great deal about the Finnish system, especially myself as one who brings no particular expertise in the matter. I find myself admiring a good deal about how the Finnish schools have been portrayed, and hope to get a better sense of how the various pieces actually fit together on the ground.
As a start, I hope we’ll find out more about the following:
- What is the nature of the school’s relationship with its local community, including other family-facing agencies and the general public? What does this look like in practice, in terms of working collaborations across these agencies? What do school-community relations look like independent of agency ties? Links to local churches, community organizations, etc.?
- How do Finnish educators address disparities of academic achievement that exist by SES levels? Is there a particular challenge in underperformance among boys? How would the dropout situation be characterized at the upper secondary level (their last three years before university-level studies)?
- How do Finnish educators understand and approach leadership development in relation to their schools and education system? Who serves in leadership roles, how are they identified, how prepared, how supported, and what sort of career patterns do they have?
- How much does Finland spend educating its students? What portion of this is managed by the schools, and what portion from other budgets? From the overall social safety net? What leeway do leaders have at various levels of the system in terms of allocating resources per priorities they set?
- To what sort of testing are Finnish students exposed? I understand that little happens in elementary, but that university-bound students are frequently tested, though with locally-constructed exams. How does testing look across the system for students?
- What sort of choices of schooling are available to Finnish students? There are some “independent” schools, apparently, and magnet-type programs. How do these function? Who attends what sorts of schools/programs? How do they differ?
- Given the more developed vocational track alongside the university-directed studies in Finnish schools, do some students start down one and end up in the other? What sort of options do students have to switch, and when is that possible?
- What is the typical pattern of student experiences in the arts, particularly music?
I’m certain a whole series of other questions will arise, and we welcome the input of those following our trip! What else should we be asking?