Tag Archives: Finland

Recent Observations on Finnish Education from Elizabeth Green

This post can also be found on IEN Founding Editor, Thomas Hatch‘s new blog focused on school improvement, educational change and innovation.  

This past week Elizabeth Green, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Chalkbeat, shared a number of tweets from a recent visit to schools and day care centers in Finland.  She made telling observations, noting students’ use of slippers and the raised tables in daycares that make it easier for teachers to “get on students’ level”, that hint at the Finnish attention to detail and design.  She also pointed to key aspects of the Finnish education system that connected to some of the experiences that I had when spending a month in Finland with my family 2 years ago.  At that time, two of my daughters spent the end of the school year in Finnish classrooms, and my wife, Karen Hammerness, and I got to talk with a number of policymakers, educators, and researchers.  As Green indicates in tweets showing a graphic of the new Finnish Core Curriculum and noting that schools were given considerable time to prepare for implementation, the Finnish approach to developing a coherent national curriculum is totally different from the development of the Common Core in the US. While Green points to teachers who generally support the new Finnish Core Curriculum, the roll-out has included controversy over the extent to which the new curriculum emphasizes interdisciplinary work.  Interestingly, Green also found that some teachers also dislike an emphasis on learning to code, an emphasis which seems to be embraced in many quarters in the US. Nonetheless, Green cited a new teacher gushing about her lesson plan as one of the best moments of a visit to a school as well as a teacher who commented that even with a “core” curriculum she still felt considerable autonomy.  We found that same kind of enthusiasm and sense of autonomy among teachers again and again, perhaps reflecting the extensive preparation and support that new teachers in Finland receive.  At the same time, during my visit, it seemed that autonomy also depends on a level of interdependence and collective commitment that often goes unmentioned. Green’s comment that she “Never considered proximity to Russia, geographic and cultural, when considering Finnish educational success” struck a chord with me as well.  The pressure and urgency that might have contributed to a commitment to centralize and transform the Finnish education system in the 1970’s (as Pasi Sahlberg describes in Finnish Lessons) came through to me when a Finnish educator told me that she grew up near the border in Finland knowing that Soviet tanks could be in her front yard in twenty minutes…

— Thomas Hatch

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Government funding and refugee migration in Nordic region

syria_children_refugee_camp

Photo: DFID

Our review of education news this week focuses on Nordic countries, where issues of government funding and the migration of refugees figure prominently. This brief scan shows that for countries such as Finland, Norway, and Sweden, the influx of refugees has implications for the classroom. For example, Norway is launching an innovation competition to teach Syrian refugee children to read. As The Nordic Page reports:

Norway is fronting an initiative to develop a smartphone application that can help Syrian children to learn how to read, and improve their psychosocial wellbeing. This will take the form of an international innovation competition in cooperation with Norwegian and international partners.

Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway, also recently announced that Norway will double its support for education between 2013 and 2017. In a statement published on MSNBC.com, Solberg stated:

The gap in education funding is vast. Reaching the new goals will require concerted efforts and major investments. National governments must lead the way. Innovative partnerships, including partnerships with the private sector, will play an important part. A crucial outcome of the Oslo summit on education in July was the launch of the International Commission on the Financing of Global Education Opportunities, which was welcomed by the UN Secretary-General. 

Similarly, Sweden has recently announced the addition of $3 billion to its national budget, intended to address education and housing issues, and to restore a welfare system that many feel has been depleted in recent years; however, at the same time the country has seen an unprecedented number of 6,901 people seeking asylum in just one week’s time—3,467 of them from Syria. As Reuters reports,

Local authorities will get more than 1 billion crowns extra for integrating refugees this year, with government also increasing spending to support refugee children in school. Total spending on refugees will rise to 19.4 billion crowns in 2016 out of a total budget of around 920 billion and up from an estimated 17.4 billion this year.

In contrast, Finland is grappling with a strong opposition to the influx in refugees, as well as controversial cuts to the education budget. According to The Helsinki Times, these cuts will have implications across all levels of education, but for primary education it will call particular attention to:

…the appropriations for the reduction of class sizes in primary schools. Terhi Päivärinta, a director at the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, believes it is consequently possible that class sizes will grow in some municipalities.

In each of these countries, plans for increases or decreases to educational funding were in the works long before this refugee crisis began. As they are now being implemented under somewhat different circumstances, it will be interesting to see how they unfold in the next weeks and months.

Deirdre Faughey

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The “biggest-ever” league table?

The latest education report from the OECD ranks 76 countries according to the percentage of the population that lacks basic skills. The report, by Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich, derives the ranking from the latest test scores from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 15-year-olds and the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for 14-year-olds. In what BBC News called the “biggest-ever education league table,” Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan (again) top the charts. Coming in at number six, Finland is the top-ranking non-Asian country. Our latest scan of education news around the world finds many media reports highlighting the relative ranking of particular countries, but a number mention as well the report’s claims of a connection between improving performance on the tests and economic growth. At the same time, it is worth noting that not everyone agrees there is a straightforward relationship between performance on tests like PISA and TIMMS and economic outcomes. James Heckman and colleagues Tim Kautz, Ron Diris, Bas ter Weel, Lex Borghans, in particular, have emphasized that current tests like PISA and TIMMS “do not adequately capture non-cognitive skills, personality traits, goals, character, motivations, and preferences that are valued in the labour market, in school, and in many other domains.” As they explain in Fostering and measuring skills: Improving cognitive and non-cognitive skills to promote lifetime success and Hard evidence on soft skills, for many outcomes, the predictive power of non-cognitive skills rivals or exceeds that of cognitive skills.

“Global school rankings: Interactive map shows standards of education across the world,” The Independent

“Asian kids race ahead on learning: OECD,” The Australian

Bottom in EU on OECD education league, again,” Cyprus Mail

“New education rankings from the OECD put Finland in sixth position worldwide—the top European country and the first non-Asian country in the list,” yle UUTISET

“Ireland ranks 15th in global league table for maths, science; GDP would be boosted by 2.3 per cent if universal basic skill levels were achieved,” Irish Times

“OECD report links school achievement and economic growth; despite oil wealth, Arab world trails far behind,” Israel Times

“When it comes to education, Singapore is a world-beater,”  The Straights Times

“Turkey ranks 41st in education on OECD report of 76 countries,” Today’s Zambian

UK below Poland and Vietnam in biggest ever international education rankings, TES Connect

“Improving Basic Education Can Boost U.S. Economy by $27 Trillion,” U.S. News & World Report

–Thomas Hatch

How Do School Sites Support the Adoption of Educational Innovations in the Finnish Context?

As part of a symposium focused on educational innovation around the world  at the annual conference of the American Educational Assocation in Chicago next week, we are sharing commentary papers from the participants.  Today’s contribution is from Jari Lavonen, Tiina Korhonen & Kalle Juuti, Department of Teacher Education, University of Helsinki, Finland. 

This post introduces an Innovative School Model (ISM) currently being implemented at a Finnish elementary school and shares reflections on the model by several of the school’s teachers. Building on the work of Michael Fullan and Everett Rogers, the ISM is designed to create conditions in Finnish schools that will enable teachers, pupils, the school principal, parents and other collaborators from the neighbourhood to work together to generate and implement innovative structures and practices.

Among the innovations developed at the school are a project in which teachers and pupils created an approach to personalized science learning using smartphones. The pupils used phones mostly within a water-themed science project for making notes, revision and information gathering. This innovative approach was then adopted by the other teachers in the school. The second innovation was a new model for School-Community Collaboration (SCC) emphasizing the use of ICT. This collaborative model was developed and researched in an iterative way as teachers and students worked with researchers and other collaborators from outside the school in real science learning and collaboration situations. The SCC helped students learning creative problem-solving and inquiry strategies and to develop skills in collaboration.

The Innovative School Model (ISM)

Students’ learning and learning environments. The Finnish national and school level curriculum emphasize meaningful learning (and the learning of 21st century competences in versatile learning environments. Especially, students should learn to think critically and creatively, to use a wide range of tools, to interact in heterogeneous groups as well as to act autonomously and to take responsibility for managing their own lives. Due to the inclusion of most special need students in the regular classrooms in Finland, it is important to utilize a variety of teaching methods to engage students in learning of 21st century competences. A learning environment refers to the diverse physical locations, contexts and cultures in which students learn). A learning environment does not need to be a physical place, it can also be virtual, online, or remote. In the ISM, goal orientation and interaction are supported through the ICT tools available in the learning environment, including basic writing and drawing applications, social media environments as well as various types of mobile devices and other tools that facilitate flexible, remote and mobile learning. High-quality learning materials, including digital learning materials such as learning games and other interactive learning content are also essential parts of the learning environment.

Teachers’ professionalism. Professional teachers are at the heart of the ISM. Professional teachers are seen as academic professionals who are committed to their work and are able to plan, implement, and assess their own teaching and their students’ learning. They formatively monitor students’ progress, particularly those with special needs, and they try to support all students’ learning.

This model of a professional teacher, however, is different from the model of the effective teacher reflected in policies in the US. In those policies, an effective teacher is defined as one who is able to support students’ learning and achievement as measured by tests. The view of teacher in the ISM context is closer to that described in the “teacher leadership” movement. These teachers are goal oriented and have a clear vision for school development. Moreover, these teachers are able to work collaboratively and in interaction with other teachers towards their shared goals. They are considered to be able to use research productively, and they have a deep understanding of teaching and learning that allows them to act as curriculum specialists.

Leadership. The professional culture in a school is a key element in supporting teachers’ collaboration, in classroom operations, and in the development and adoption of innovations. In turn, the school principal and their approach to leadership plays a key role in establishing the school’s professional culture. Teachers are positively influenced when school leaders encourage collaboration among teachers, students, families, and other school personnel. Therefore, school principals in the ISM have an important role in facilitating a school culture and creating a school schedule that supports teachers’ collaboration. In practice, this collaboration manifests itself in various school teams and networks, such as grade level teams and multi-professional teams.

Networks & partnerships. Parents are the most important partners in education. A fruitful partnership with parents facilitates the sharing of responsibility for students’ weekly activities.

Family events and personal meetings with teachers are particularly important in establishing that partnership. ICT offers a multitude of opportunities for enhancing home and school collaboration (HSC), and it can be applied to enable continuous interaction between the school and families. The aim of HSC is for parents and teachers to develop shared educational values and goals, with the important consequence that mutual trust is established in each other’s ability to work towards supporting the child’s growth and education. In addition to HSC, partnerships with a wide range of other members of the local community are also important including collaborations with school support personnel, day-care providers, public librarians and senior homes as well as actors in national and international networks. Respect for the thoughts, opinions and wishes of all stakeholders serves as an essential part of all partnerships. Through long-term collaborative development, more families, teachers and community members learn to work with each other as parts of a community for the benefit of all children.

Key aspects of the ISM from the teachers’ perspective

Students’ learning and learning environments. The teachers see their school building as rather traditional, including standard classrooms and a couple of special classrooms found in many Finnish schools like a workshop for the teaching of handcrafts (such as knitting and woodworking), a minor science and technology lab and a music class. The teachers feel that the structure of the physical environment does not support flexible grouping of pupils. Nonetheless, the teachers and pupils have used their creativity and created learning spaces all over the school building. They have, for example, used curtains and pillows for creating learning spaces in the corridors and other areas of the schoolMoreover, the students learn in out-of-school locations such as a library and outdoor environments such as parks where they use mobile ICT tools like smart-phones for learning.

In their reflections the teachers also identified several aspects of their physical and virtual environments as crucial for supporting learning. Beyond the nature of the environments themselves, the teachers emphasized the need for strategic and collaborative planning on how to use those environments. However, the teachers agreed that there are enough basic ICT tools, like computers and data projectors at the school. From the point of view of personalisation of learning there are not enough basic laptops or mobile devices. Further the Internet connection and wireless network is undeveloped. The city is not able to offer these services. In addition, the city is not able to offer enough technical support to the teachers, and the web-based learning environments do not support the use of mobile devices and, therefore, different cloud services, like SkyOneDrive are used.

Teachers’ professionalism. In their reflections, the teachers suggested that school staff including teachers and classroom assistants have high levels of competence that support planning, organising and evaluating learning and learning outcomes. They also reported that the teachers are skilled in using versatile learning environments and ICT tools as well as in networking. Teachers have a strong orientation to life-long-learning and were eager to learn from one another and to adopt educational innovations developed by their peers. Their learning and collaboration is supported through weekly meetings that are designed specifically for teachers to information with one another in “pedagogical coffees” and other formal and informal meetings. Teachers are especially eager to learn new technology and use of this technology in education:

Leadership. The teachers also emphasized the importance of strategic planning and goal orientation; interaction; and an open decision-making process. There should be versatile interaction forums for leadership in schools using the ISM. For example, teachers at the school meet once a month in official teacher meetings and once a week in informal “noon”-meetings. Moreover, there are team meetings of the teachers working at the same grade. Furthermore, the official development discussions and unofficial daily personal discussions are important for teachers. Because of the versatile use of ICT in leadership, there are opportunities for interaction that are both face-to and virtual.

Principals and vice principals also need to be able to share/distribute leadership and to be aware of the division of labour. For example, teachers and classroom assistants belong to grade-level teams responsible for co-planning and evaluation. ICT is used in a versatile way in administration. The principals, teachers and classroom assistants work together to develop ways to use ICT in administration and collaboration. The use of ICT in school operations support the teachers to acquire ICT skills the teachers can utilize in their teaching as well. It is important that the school follows technology developments on the principal, teacher and classroom level.

The role of a principal is important in supporting both teachers’ designing and adopting educational innovations. In particular, principals need to be able to support teachers by starting where they are and by helping them to integrate all kind of learners in the same classroom.

Partnerships. In their reflections, teachers recognised five different levels of networks and partnership, and in all levels, ICT is used. Inside the school there are several networks, like grade-level networks/teams and school-level networks, like the multiprofessional team (consisting of school nurse, social worker, special need teacher and principal) that supports the welfare of pupils. At the city level, the teachers of the school belongs to several networks, including a local curriculum development team and an in-service training team). The school is also involved in networks with other schools in Finland, among them networks to foster the use of ICT in education and collaboration.

Networks with families and community organizations function more as partnerships than networks. In particular, the school is in partnership with several organisations including the library, kindergarten and senior house located near the school. This partnership allows pupils opportunities for learning and collaboration in those organisations. In addition, these organisations also benefit from the partnerships. The pupils have, for example, introduced the use of mobile devices to the senior citizens at the senior house and to the young kids at the kindergarten. All teachers also emphasised that collaboration with parents is an important type of networking for the school.

Challenges for the future

The teachers emphasised that one of the biggest challenges for the future is to continue the partnerships and networks with all important parties. In particular, updates to the ICT tools require continuous learning on the part of all those involved. Another challenge in the use of ICT is the variation in the competence of the parties, particularly the variability in parents’ ICT competence and their access to ICT tools. The third challenge is the resources needed in coordinating the networks. As one teacher put it, “there are too many networks and we do not utilise them enough.” The teachers also felt that networking with some companies was not fruitful as only the companies benefited from the collaboration. 

Acknowledgments

This work was made possible with support from the Finnable 2020 project, funded by the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation (Tekes).

What’s New? Challenges and Possibilities for Educational Innovation Around the World

Over the next two weeks, we will be trying something different at IEN. We are participating at a symposium – “What’s new? Challenges and possibilities for educational innovation around the world” – at the annual conference of the American Educational Assocation in Chicago (April 17th, 8:15 to 9:45 AM, Swissotel, Lucerne Level, Lucerne I). In order to broaden the conversation, we will be sharing short papers by the participants in that symposium who will be talking about efforts to support educational innovations in Mexico & Colombia, Finland, Ghana & Mali, and Singapore:

  • Bringing Effective Instructional Innovation to Scale in Mexico and Colombia, Santiago Rincón-Gallardo, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
  • How Do School Sites Support the Adoption of Educational Innovations in the Finnish Context? Jari Lavonen, Tiina Korhonen, & Kalle Juuti
    Department of Teacher Education, University of Helsinki, Finland
  • Real-time Data for Real-time Use: Case Studies from Ghana and Mali, Radhika Iyengar, Earth Institute, Columbia University
  • A Framework to Organise the Enabling Factors for the Spreading of Curricular Innovations in a Centralised-Decentralised Context of Singapore Schools, Paul Chua and David Hung, National Institute of Education, Singapore

While the participants will be focusing on what has worked in their countries as well as the challenges they’ve faced, in the symposium we will also be looking across contexts and discussing some common questions including:

  • What kinds of resources, expertise and networks are needed to create an “infrastructure for innovation” in different contexts?
  • What commonalities are there in the spread of innovations across these contexts? To what extent are these “context-specific” lessons?
  • To what extent and in what ways are “innovations” in these countries really “new”?
  • What really changes and “improves” if/when innovations take hold?
  • When, under what conditions, and for whom, can innovations be considered “good”?

We invite you to follow along and share your own examples of the possibilities and challenges for innovation in different contexts.

Clarifying the Latest “Reforms” from Finland

Although recent reports in Finland have made a number of specific recommendations for improving student learning, the focus outside Finland has centered on Finland’s interest in promoting more of a focus in schools on interdisciplinary topics.   Following an initial report from the Independent that the school subjects would be “scrapped” around the country, Pasi Sahlberg explained in The Conversation “Finnish schools will continue to teach mathematics, history, arts, music and other subjects in the future.” But he also outlined aspects of the new Core Curriculum and the extent of local authority that will affect how an interest in promoting more interdisciplinary approaches is playing out in Finland.

The Finnish National Board of Education (FNBE) has also responded to the reports and explained some of the changes in the new core curriculum that might have led to the misunderstandings:

“In order to meet the challenges of the future, the focus (in the core curriculum) is on transversal (generic) competences and work across school    subjects. Collaborative classroom practices, where pupils may work with several teachers simultaneously during periods of phenomenon-based project studies are emphasised.

The pupils should participate each year in at least one such multidisciplinary learning module. These modules are designed and implemented locally. The core curriculum also states that the pupils should be involved in the planning.”

Notably, a more radical version requiring much more of a focus on grouping subjects together though more generic competences was proposed earlier in the curriculum renewal process. However, that proposal was stalled by political debates, particularly objections by one of the six political parties that were involved in the coalition government at the time.

Irmeli Hallinen, Head of Curriculum Development at the FNBE and a key participant in the most recent renewal of the Finnish Core Curriculum, provides further clarity on the new emphases in latest curriculum renewal in a blog post (What’s going on in Finland – Currriculum Reform 2016). As she puts it:

“Developing schools as learning communities, and emphasizing the joy of learning and a collaborative atmosphere, as well as promoting student    autonomy in studying and in school life – these are some of our key aims in the reform. In order to meet the challenges of the future, there will be much focus on transversal (generic) competences and work across school subjects.”

Hallinen goes on to explain that the curriculum framework identifies learning goals in seven different competence areas, with local authorities able to consider their own ways of reaching those goals. Hallinen points out that the emphasis on the competences will be reflected in assessments as well:

“The competences will also be assessed as a part of subject assessment. In this way every school subject enhances the development of all seven         competence areas. This is a new way of combining competence-based and subject-based teaching and learning. Nevertheless, the traditional school            subjects will live on, though with less distinct borderlines and with more collaboration in practice between them.”

Thomas Hatch

The Latest Recommendations for Education Reform in Finland

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.”

Thomas Hatch

 

 

Educational change in Finland?

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.

Thomas Hatch

 

The Finnish Core Curriculum Renewal

While we’ve been in Finland these past two weeks, we’ve been learning about the “renewal” of the Finnish Core Curriculum. In a recent post for Diane Ravitch, Pasi Sahlberg gave a Finnish perspective on some of the similarities and differences between this core curriculum and that of the Common Core in the US. As U.S. educators who have been studying teacher education and school improvement efforts in a number of countries including Finland, we are finding several other aspects of the renewal process particularly interesting.

The “Core Curriculum” is not really a curriculum

As others have noted, the Finnish core curriculum for basic education (grades 1-9) is better understood as a kind of ‘framework’ that guides curriculum and instruction—rather than a strict and specific scope and sequence of topics and skills that must be taught. Less well known perhaps is the fact that the demands of the core curriculum go far beyond specifying the objectives in school subjects. In fact, the core curriculum requires (among other things) that the curriculum developed by municipalities and schools reflects the underlying values of Finnish basic education (“human rights, equality, democracy, natural diversity, preservation of environmental viability, and the endorsement of multiculturalism”); describes the main features of a school’s “working culture”; specifies criteria for grading and for final exams in ninth grade (the end of Finnish basic education); establishes objectives for pupil behavior; dictates that parents’ and guardians should be able to have an influence on local education objectives; and requires the drafting of the local curriculum in collaboration with those involved in municipal social and health services.

The Finnish core curriculum has evolved over time

While we were initially told that the core curriculum is revised or “renewed” every 10 years, we’ve found that there is no hard and fast rule about this (in contrast to Singapore, for example, where the curriculum for each subject is revisited on a regular schedule). However, periodic debates about education have initiated revisions in the curriculum in 1985, 1994, in 2004, and today. Each time the process and outcomes have been somewhat different, calibrated it seems to provide tighter control at some points and more flexibility in others (see Karl Weick and others on tight and loose coupling).

Diptic-2In the 1970’s for example, the entire nation was engaged in the development of the Finnish basic education system and a Finnish national curriculum specifying what was to be taught in each subject and at each level was created. (In fact, the accompanying picture of the original curriculum of the 1970’s only includes the first section, a thicker volume includes the curriculum for each subject). Almost immediately, however, discussions about the need for local flexibility began, and the first revision in 1985 created the first “core curriculum.” The core curriculum was somewhat thinner, providing guidelines, objectives, and content for school subjects, and granting municipalities primary responsibility for developing their own curricula. In the 1990’s, in an era of decentralization, the core curriculum became even thinner as guidelines were reduced further and power to draw up local curricula in many municipalities was delegated to schools. But by the early 2000’s (notably just before the first PISA results were released), there were concerns in Finland about a lack of consistency across schools and about a lack of support and specificity from some municipalities (particularly smaller municipalities that had very limited staff to work on the curriculum). Those concerns contributed to an expansion of the national guidelines in 2004 that specified some of the criteria that teachers and schools had to use to assess students’ performance. In the current renewal, some the initial discussions of changes have focused on the kind of teaching teachers can do to promote learning and on broadening the conception of good teaching beyond ‘traditional’ desk learning to include a variety of active, constructivist and research-based strategies; but whether the core curriculum will be thinner or thicker, “tighter” or “looser,” remains to be seen.

The process for developing the core curriculum may be as important as the outcome

Although the process for developing the core curriculum has evolved over time, particularly in the last two renewal cycles there has been extensive involvement of key education stakeholders from the very beginning of the discussions. Thus, numerous “curriculum groups” have been at work developing the guidelines and objectives in each subject and aspect of the core curriculum. Teachers are at the center of these committees, though the committees also include school leaders, municipal administrators, teacher educators, and researchers among others (and many of those other representatives have themselves been teachers at some point in time). In addition, an advisory board overseeing the whole process includes a cross-section of representatives of teachers, school leaders, parents, students, textbook publishers, researchers, teacher educators, ethnic groups (for instance representatives of the Sami people), and municipalities.

In past revision cycles, there were opportunities available to give feedback to the draft curriculum before it was formally adopted. However, this particular revision has been the most “open” of all. Surveys have been sent to all the municipalities so that they can share their responses to initial drafts; municipalities and schools have been encouraged to share and discuss the initial proposals with parents and students; and initial drafts of the curriculum have been made available online so that anyone who wants to can provide feedback. That feedback has already come from numerous individuals as from more than 200 different organizations representing many aspects of Finnish society. Members of the committees are looking at that feedback as they make revisions. The feedback addresses the broad objectives as well as the specific language used. (For example, the use of the word “tolerance” in an early draft’s discussion of diversity and culture was changed because of feedback that it conveyed a limited sense of acceptance, rather than mutual respect and understanding.) Interestingly, those we talked to who have been involved in the process also report that there are widespread concerns about financing and the ability of schools and municipalities to adopt the new guidelines. In turn, these concerns are contributing to calls from some in the field for more detailed guidance from the national authorities. In the end, the curriculum groups will make the proposals for the new guidelines and the leaders of the National Board of Education will make the final decision.

The process builds shared understanding and collective responsibility

Of course, such an open process can be unwieldy, but the wide engagement of teachers, leaders, teacher educators, textbook publishers, researchers, parents, students and others in the process creates social connections that facilitate the sharing of information and knowledge about the changes long before those changes are actually made. In fact, the working committees and feedback process has been going on since about 2012, well before the new core curriculum is scheduled to be adopted this year and long before the required development of new local curriculum in 2016. That means that those who are involved in supporting the work of teachers and students—like teacher educators and textbook publishers—are already getting a sense of where the revisions are heading and what kinds of changes they will need to make so that the whole system is “ready” at the introduction of the new local curriculum.

More than a mere adjustment to ensure the system is “aligned”, however, the curriculum renewal process can also be seen as an extension of the crucial, collective, nation-building effort that Finland launched in the 1970’s to create the basic education system. Curriculum renewal in Finland provides an opportunity for those all across the country to re-commit themselves to a national enterprise and to develop the shared responsibility for carrying it out.

— Tom Hatch & Karen Hammerness

 

Assessment in Finland: Steering, Seeing, and Selection

In Finland, the notable lack of tests for accountability purposes receives considerable attention. In fact, when we talk to teachers, administrators, and policymakers here, the question “how do you know how well things are going in your …. (classroom, school, municipality…)?” elicits quizzical stares. It’s a question that doesn’t make much sense when the initial assumption is that things are going well. However, our discussions here over the last three weeks have highlighted a few other interesting aspects of the uses of assessment here.

Assessment for steering not accounting

The word “accountability” has been traced back to ancient “account-giving” and record-keeping practices, tracking how funds have been spent and ensuring those funds have been spent as intended. Correspondingly, in places like the US, tests have been used to hold teachers, school leaders, and schools “accountable” for their actions and to see if they have done what they are supposed to do. But rather than using assessments to look back to see what was done, in many ways, educators and system leaders in Finland use assessment to look forward and to see if people, classes and schools are headed in the right direction. Such an approach doesn’t require data on every single aspect of student, teacher, or school performance, but it does require paying attention to ensure that no one gets too far off course. It means a focus on looking for outliers and listening for signs of trouble, not checking on each individual or making sure everything is done a certain way or in a certain timeline. But such an approach also requires mechanisms (like the curriculum renewal process as we will argue in a later post) to support shared understanding of the goals and expected outcomes of the whole system and a wide range of supports to make sure that everyone can get where they are going. Of course, it also helps if the whole system seems to be moving in the right direction already.

Assessment by walking around

Given the focus on this kind of “steering” approach, questions about the data used to make decisions from an American seem odd. While we have only spoken to a small group of teachers and school leaders here, invariably, those we’ve met have explained that learning whether a class or a school is on the right path can be accomplished by regularly “walking around” (while our Finnish colleagues did not refer to it directly, a similar concept—management by wandering around—has been part of the literature in business for some time). That means getting around the classroom and the school; talking to students, teachers, staff, and parents; listening to needs for support; and being alert to any signs of trouble. Concerns that arise about particular classes, schools, programs, or practices (especially when they come from more than one source) can then trigger “a talk” with those involved and some further investigation. (Even at the national level, a policymaker we talked to said that they don’t need a lot of data to tell them that many Finnish teachers are not using the assessment criteria that are in the core curriculum because regular meetings with teachers make that clear all the time…)

Despite the benefits, however, such a personal approach leaves unspecified the basis for many important decisions. In fact, when we asked teachers how school leaders know what they are doing or how well they are doing, many weren’t sure. Similarly, school leaders often couldn’t tell us how their supervisors (municipal administrators) could determine whether or not they were effective leaders. This lack of clarity may become more problematic as at least some municipalities in Finland have begun piloting some ways of using bonuses and salary increments to reward some teachers. While it is not widely discussed, those we talked to in at least two different groups of schools reported that their school leaders could decide to give them small bonuses if the leader felt that they did a particularly good job with their students or were particularly engaged in professional activities like research or professional development. While teachers could make their own case and often came to mutual agreements, leaders and municipal administrators, not teachers, have the last word.

Assessment for screening, sampling and selection

Even with a focus on assessment “by walking around,” however, educators in Finland do make use of a variety of tests and assessments. In contrast to Norway (where students do not get any written marks and there is comparatively limited testing until 8th grade), teachers in Finnish primary schools regularly use assessments of their own design as well as tests and quizzes from the textbooks; students get a report card at the end of the year; and in some cases, high scoring students may be singled out for recognition and rewards (something that the Norwegians would find shocking). Finnish teachers use an array of diagnostic and screening tests extensively in the early grades in Finland to make sure that no students are falling behind, particularly in reading. For example in one municipality, primary school special education teachers administer a screening test in reading comprehension to all students at the end of 2nd and 4th grade across all schools (and many administer it at the end of every year). That information, however, is not used at the school or municipal level to “check” on who is and isn’t performing well, rather, it’s used to identify those students who will need extra help moving forward.

As many have reported, the National Board of Education in Finland also regularly gives tests to samples of students and schools that are used to look at national and regional performance in key subjects like Finnish and mathematics. While the National Board does not use that information for ranking (and can’t because all students and schools are not assessed), they do share school level information with the schools that participate and municipal level data with the municipalities involved. In addition, the National Board makes these sample assessments widely available for free so that any teacher, school, or municipality that wants to administer these tests can do so. As a consequence, even without national testing, Finnish schools and municipalities have government-paid for tools that are linked directly to the core curriculum that they can use to benchmark their performance against regional and national samples.

Despite this diagnostic emphasis, tests and assessments in Finland do have important consequences, however, even if they are not used to hold teachers and schools accountable directly. In particular, despite the emphasis on equity, in some municipalities, students can express a preference to attend a particular school and a students’ final exams and final grades at the end of basic education (9th grade) can have an influence on whether or not they get into their top choice upper secondary school. Thus, in some of the largest municipalities in particular, students with the highest grade point averages are likely to get into their first choice schools, while students with lower grade point averages may have to opt for less selective schools.

Furthermore, at the end of upper secondary school, students have to pass matriculation exams in several subjects, and their scores on those exams (in combination with the Universities’ own entrance exams) determine whether students can go on to university and which institutions and programs they can get into. In fact, the results of the matriculation exams are made public; and newspapers report on the highest performing students and rank the schools according to their students’ average scores (see “Lukiovertailu – Etelä-Tapiolan lukio Espoosta kärjessä” roughly: “Comparison of High Schools – South Tapiola in Espoo at the forefront of high schools”). In addition, even more information on the performance of vocational schools is made publicly available—including the numbers of graduates and the average time to completion—and that information is used by the government in decisions about funding.

As a consequence of the school choice options available and the selection practices of students, Sonja Kosunen and colleagues have argued that there is a kind of implicit tracking within the Finnish system that may have an impact on the equitable distribution of learning opportunities. (Nonetheless, as Jennifer Von Reis Saari has pointed out, in contrast to most countries like the US and Sweden the Finnish system is highly “permeable,” so that even students who choose a vocational track in high school can still end up studying advanced subjects and can still gain entrance to University programs.)

In the end, what we’ve learned makes it clear that teachers, school leaders, and policymakers in Finland have access to a robust set of assessments that are supported by a long tradition of work on assessment at institutions like the Centre for Educational Assessment at the University of Helsinki, the Centre of Learning Research at the University of Turku, and the Niilo Mäki institute, associated with the University of Jyvaskyla. Furthermore, those assessments are used for a variety of purposes that can have important consequences for students and schools. But at the same time, many teachers, school leaders and policymakers start with the assumptions that things are going (at least relatively) well, that they will know if things start to go off course, and that, if necessary, everyone will work together to get things back on track.

Thomas Hatch