This week in Helsinki we met with Auli Toom and Kirsi Pyhältö (members of the Faculty of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Helsinki), and several PhD students from their research group including Lauri Heikonen, Henrika Häikiö, Ulla Karvonen, Emmi Saariaho, and Sanna-Mari Salonen. They shared some of their research and perspectives on the education system here, and our discussions highlighted several things:
First, while we know that teacher candidates in Finland come from the top quartile of students, those who go to University to study to become teachers are also often somewhat older than other University students. In fact, some of the teacher education applicants are just completing their secondary education, but some applicants have already graduated and have taken jobs as substitute teachers or are working in other fields and are career-changers from other professions. Furthermore, the annual selection process to become a primary teacher is so challenging, applicants often fail on their first try, and some have to apply several times. The process includes an interview as well as an entry exam called the VAKAVA. The VAKAVA is offered once a year in the spring and requires applicants to read a set of research articles and then respond to a series of related multiple choice questions.
Second, although teaching is a highly-regarded profession, there is teacher turnover in Finland. Precise figures are hard to come by, but turnover rates for teachers within their first five years could be as high as 20% across the country, and even higher in the area around Helsinki. Those we talked to suggested that reasons for leaving teaching are similar to those in the United States including seeking a higher salary; opting for a career with more possibilities for advancement (the primary advancement opportunity for teachers in Finland is to become a school leader); as well as stress and burnout.
Third, Finland is engaged in a major core curriculum reform, but that effort is perhaps more accurately characterized as “curriculum renewal” as it is part of a regular cycle of revision that takes place every ten years. Furthermore, the reform of the core curriculum represents a collaborative project that engages numerous people and organizations from all parts of the education system including teachers, school leaders, policymakers, educational publishers, parents, students and others. (As we mentioned in our last post, our 9 year-old’s teacher in the practice school is a member of one of the curriculum reform committees and we hope to talk to her next week about her role in the process). Furthermore, the core curriculum provides guidelines and principles that serve as the basis for curricula created at the municipal level by teachers, school leaders, and administrators working together. Schools and teachers then have the autonomy to adapt the curriculum in their classrooms. In other words, whether PISA scores go up or down (or stay the same), everyone knows that the core curriculum will change over time and educators are expected to revise and adapt their curricula to keep them current and forward-looking.
— Tom Hatch & Karen Hammerness