Even in Finland, consistently a top performer on international tests, declines in recent national and international assessments have spawned tasks forces and calls for improvement. As Pasi Sahlberg tweeted last week, recently released reports in Finland have focused on creating a “Continuum of Teacher Development,” establishing “Tomorrow’s Comprehensive School,” and (most recently) exploring the future of higher education. While teacher preparation is often highlighted as a strength of the Finnish system, improving support for teachers figures prominently in many of the proposed recommendations. In fact, the report on creating a “Continuum of Teacher Development” is described as calling for an “overhaul” of teacher training. That report includes recommendations for Universities and teacher education colleges to develop an approach to mentoring and “induction” into the teaching profession that includes training and supporting mentors, developing a national network of mentors, and ensuring that graduating students have a personal development plan and support in the transition to “working life.”
“Tomorrow’s Comprehensive School” (with an accompanying brochure in English) was produced by a task force that included researchers, teacher educators, school principals and teachers. As Jari Lavonen, a task force member and Professor and Head of the Department Teacher Education at the University of Helsinki explained, their main charge from the Minister of Education was to assess the current situation, examine the reasons for the drop in learning outcomes in the PISA survey and other national assessments, and “find ways to make students feel more motivated and enjoy school.” The task force identified challenges to improvement at the national, municipal, and classroom level, as well in teacher preparation. In response to these challenges, the report highlights several key “themes” deemed central to improving learning attitudes and outcomes:
- The structures and practices of basic education must strive to eliminate links between a pupil’s learning outcomes and his or her social background, living area or gender.
- Allocation of resources adequate to guarantee a high standard of teaching in basic education must be ensured in the future.
- Development of new pedagogical solutions that will support both communal and individual learning.
- Developing the school as an ethical and a learning community where pupils have a voice and a choice, and also responsibility for their own learning.
- Further development of research-based teacher education in cooperation with universities and municipalities to form a continuum of initial education and professional development of teachers
- Support for teachers’ lifelong professional development.
- Develop new models for teachers’ work and the use of their working time.
- Enhancing principal’s preparation and establishing personal plans to support their professional development.
One news item on the task force report focused particularly on proposals to increase extra-curricular activities and to make changes in the school schedule, quoting Aulis Pitkälä, Director General of the Finnish National Board of Education, as saying, “We more or less unanimously came to the conclusion that the school day should begin no earlier than nine in the morning.” (Notably, calls for reform in the United States often involve demands to increase class time, already substantially more than is required in Finland, though not as much as is often reported, as Sam Abrams sorted out in a recent post on teaching time in the U.S.)
Auli Toom, University lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Helsinki, highlighted that creating a more systemic approach to “in-service” support for teachers and connecting pre-service and in-service teacher education have been under discussion for over ten years, but she hoped that this report might finally lead to some changes. She was also encouraged by a task force recommendation to establish a national, longitudinal programme of research that would investigate the characteristics of the Finnish educational system and its impact on student learning, but it is not clear if that recommendation will be implemented.
Pasi Sahlberg, author with Andy Hargreaves of a new post about “saving” PISA, commented that the report was particularly welcome because it provides a much-needed look at Finland’s education system and its current challenges. “It takes a comprehensive look at not only cognitive aspects of education but also how to make teaching and learning more meaningful,” he added. “However, it remains silent about what many have said to be the most important shortcoming in Finland: What kind of comprehensive school do we need in 2030?” Without a clear vision Sahlberg worries that some will see the report as an effort to bring PISA results in Finland back to the top of the charts. “Making Finland the top PISA performer is the wrong vision.”