I launched IEN in 2011 to respond to a need I recognized when I returned from a year living in Norway with my wife, Karen Hammerness, and three daughters. Once back in the United States, I found it very difficult to get timely information on policy developments and the latest research on educational improvement outside the United States. Since then, working with Deirdre Faughey and other colleagues, we have searched for and shared links to articles, reports, and other resources that we hope provide a glimpse into what’s new, what’s good, and what’s effective in education around the world. One of the most powerful aspects of my experience in Norway, however, was the combination of learning about the educational system through my work with educators, researchers, and policymakers (summarized in “Beneath the surface of accountability”) and through my children’s experiences in Norwegian schools (briefly described in “What Norway (not Finland) can tell us about schools”). Through that experience we found how much we could learn from the approach of what some call a “low-performer” (Norway’s PISA scores have been closer to those of the US than to Finland’s over the years) but a system that can also be seen as highly successful in other respects.
Now, through a grant from the Fulbright Scholar Program and the Fulbright Center in Finland, my family and I are fortunate to have a similar (though much shorter) opportunity to learn about education in Finland. Over the next few weeks, my wife and I will be Visiting Scholars at the University of Helsinki. While most people want to know why Finland scores so much higher than the U.S. (even with some decreases in Finland’s latest PISA scores), I’m still interested in figuring out why Finland’s scores are so much higher than Norway’s – two countries that are much more comparable in terms of their social-welfare systems, size, and demographics. Karen will be continuing her studies of teacher education in Finland and several other countries. At the same time, our 9, 13, and 15 year olds will have a chance to spend the last two weeks of the Finnish school year in a school in Helsinki. While there, Karen and I hope to post occasional reflections on what we’re learning from our Finnish colleagues and to share as well what our children are doing. (We’ve already learned that the end-of-the-year in schools in Finland, as in the United States, often involves field trips and special projects)
Of course, our experiences will provide only a small window into what the educational system and the schools are like in Finland, but we hope it will complement perspectives from Finnish experts like Pasi Sahlberg and Hannu Simola as well as Americans who have had a chance to get inside schools in Finland including Tim Walker (a U.S. teacher teaching this year in a Finnish school) and journalist Amanda Ripley (who followed an American teenager during a year in a Finnish high school). Ideally, in the future, we will have more opportunities at IEN to share these kinds of personal perspectives on educational policy and practice in different countries. Our point, however, is not to suggest that there is any “best” model to follow nor to promote particular practices. Rather, we hope to encourage further reflection on the social, cultural, political, geographic, economic and other factors that shape different educational systems and the efforts to improve them.