Now that I’m back after three weeks in Finland sponsored by the Fulbright Specialist Program, the Fulbright Center in Finland, and the University of Helsinki, a few other aspects of the Finnish educational system stand out.
Social connections, common experiences, and common resources may support coherence amongst “autonomous” individuals
On the whole, our visit highlighted some of the ways in which the strengths of the Finnish education system go far beyond a focus on “human capital” and include attention to “technical capital” and “social capital” as well. Thus, Finnish teachers benefit from what are generally considered to be strong textbooks, instructional materials and assessments that are linked to the national core-curriculum and from social connections that support sharing of information, coordination of activities, and the development of shared understanding across different parts of the education system.
While teachers have considerable autonomy at the classroom and school level, these social connections and several mechanisms that support the coordination of teachers’ activities with others may be particularly valuable. For example, as Helena Thuneberg and colleagues explain, special education is seen as a service for all students and as a collective responsibility of the school. As a consequence, classroom teachers often work with special education teachers in their own classrooms, and each classroom teacher periodically meets with a school welfare teams help to coordinate the work of special education throughout each school (Tim Walker, currently teaching in a Finnish school has described the sense of “shared responsibility” he experienced as part of these meetings). Working groups that are part of the curriculum renewal process also bring teachers together across regions and the country as a whole in a joint enterprise on a periodic basis. In addition, these kinds of working groups of teachers regularly include teacher educators, researchers, school leaders, policymakers, and, in some cases, text book publishers who join together in spirit of trust and collaboration. Notably, many of the members of these other groups have themselves spent time teaching (and, relatedly, going through and graduating from a teacher education program). The result may be a system with more extensive informal social connections amongst well-prepared educators who share common experiences and rely on a small set of relatively good resources to reach common goals.
The Finnish system has changed (in some ways) over time
The “autonomy” of the current Finnish system only emerged after a highly centralized effort to create the 1-9th grade comprehensive school in the 1970’s. That effort included a required curriculum, massive re-training of teachers, inspection of schools to make sure the curriculum was being followed, and even inspection of textbooks to make sure they were aligned with the curriculum. Since that time, Finland has pursued a number of important reforms, including the development of the core curriculum, the abolition of inspections, and the development of a more inclusive approach to special education. At the same time, Finnish pedagogy is often described as fairly conservative and traditional, and there are concerns about recent declines on international (as well as on recent local and national) assessments. Sorting out which aspects of the system might have contributed to high international test scores and which might be contributing to a recent decline is no simple matter. For example, even the social connections and coherence of the system may reinforce the traditional pedagogy that could make it difficult to respond to changing populations, to take advantage of new technologies, or to support more active student engagement.
Even a system that “works” may need a new approach to change
One of my last meetings in Helsinki was with our hosts Leena Krokfors and Auli Toom and the members of the OmniSchool Project, a group that was asked by the Finnish Ministry of Education to help open schools up to more active learning opportunities for students inside the classroom, outside in the community, and online as well. In many ways, they are trying to reach the same goals that many educational reformers in the US are trying to reach, but the circumstances and conditions in Finland are different. With a relatively successful, coherent system, why should a well-regarded group of autonomous professionals change their pedagogy? Our discussions outlined three different approaches to change that highlight in some ways both the challenges and opportunities for making system-wide improvements in teaching and learning in Finland:
The “within-school” approach
This approach to change (familiar to many in the US and around the world), takes the school as the unit of change and often engages small groups of teachers in developing and piloting new practices. Ideally, those teachers will share what they are doing and learning with others (either informally or formally through “turnkey” professional development), and, eventually, when enough individuals get involved, a tipping point will be reached, and the new practices will spread throughout the school. In Finland, however, the autonomy of teachers (in their teaching and in their choices of professional development), the lack of any school-wide mechanism for collective professional development in many schools, and the lack of obvious rewards for changing instructional practice suggest this may be a difficult task. Furthermore, even if such an approach succeeds in a particular school, the whole process has to be repeated to try to spread the practices beyond the walls of individual schools to the system as a whole. (For a related analysis of the problems with such an approach in a US context, see Richard Elmore’s “Getting to scale with new educational practice.”)
The across schools approach
This approach strives to connect teachers across schools and to make the development of professional networks (as has been championed by Ann Lieberman and many others) a key lever for change. Such an approach may be particularly appealing in Finland, as it builds on a history of networks in which schools and municipalities have participated. Furthermore, this approach could build on the traditions, experiences and practices of the working groups that come together as part of the curriculum renewal process. Thus, rather than trying to create a new mechanism for change at the school-level, an across schools approach can take advantage of this existing mechanism for bringing usually autonomous teachers together in a spirit of national service and collective responsibility. Such working groups, however, still need to figure out how to develop “new” pedagogical practices within existing classroom and school structures and a “grammar of schooling” that, as David Tyack and Larry Cuban have argued, reinforces traditional instruction.
The “beyond-the-schools” approach
A third approach might try to find more advantageous conditions for developing new kinds of learning arrangements by going beyond schools to build on learning opportunities in afterschool programs, museums, online spaces and elsewhere. In most countries, such an approach is limited either because it is so difficult for practices developed outside of schools to penetrate the regular classroom (because of the “grammar of schooling” etc.) or because outside of school time has already been consumed by tutoring, cramming, homework, studying, and other school-directed activities. In Finland, where children spend much less time in school than they do in places like the US (particularly at the primary school level as our children found out), there may be substantial opportunities to engage students in new kinds of learning activities that do not have to conform to traditional instructional models. One could imagine this approach as including a couple of hours of traditional instruction in the morning and then time for a series of afterschool clubs, activities, hobbies, sports, and projects in the afternoon. Thus, classroom practice in school does not necessarily have to change, though it might eventually as students and then teachers and perhaps even teacher educators have more and more opportunities to experience alternate modes of learning. Furthermore, strengthening learning opportunities for all students outside of schools might also help to deal with the ways in which out-of-school experiences contribute to the inequities that the whole Finnish system seeks to address. Challenges to this approach include difficulties coordinating an enterprise that’s distributed across communities and online spaces and concerns about consuming and “curricularizing” students’ free time. In Finland in particular, the value placed on providing children with ample time for play and recreation and for encouraging even relatively young children to take responsibility for their own activities might pose a particular obstacle. As a consequence, the success of this approach may depend on developing learning opportunities that children themselves can organize and direct.