Tag Archives: Finland

What has remote learning looked like in Finland? School closures, equity, stress, and well-being

This week Raisa Ahtiainen reports on the work of a research partnership between the Centre for Educational Assessment at the University of Helsinki and the Research Group for Education, Assessment, and Learning and the Research Group on Children’s and Adolescents’ Health Promotion both at Tampere University. (See Schooling, teaching and well-being of school community during the COVID-19 epidemic in Finland.) Since the start of the pandemic and the transition to remote learning in March 2020, the members of this partnership have been documenting how teaching has been organized during the school closures in order to provide an overview of the situation for the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. Further, the study aims to support the development of the practices of education organizers and schools. This post draws from data collected in May 2020, just after Finnish schools reopened following the initial lockdown and in the fall of 2020, about 6 months later. Data included surveys with five different groups – students, guardians,  teachers, principals and school welfare group members -that yielded almost 100 000 respondents in total. A third wave of data collection is being carried out in April 2021. For news stories on the school closures and reopenings see “Kids head back to school across Finland” (May 2020),“Three-week shutdown for Finland in March” (February 2021), and “Corona group recommends remote learning continue until Easter” (March 2021).

This spring, many students in Finnish comprehensive schools have returned to their classrooms after a 3-week remote learning period that started on March 8, 2021. In contrast to March, 2020 when all schools were forced switch to remote learning with just a few days’ notice, in 2021, remote learning applied only to the students in the upper grades of comprehensive schools (7th to 9th grade). However, in some regions the remote learning period has been extended until the beginning of April due to the high number of local COVID-19 cases.

After the nationwide remote learning period ended in May 2020, the regulations governing remote learning were changed at national level in response to the variation in the spread of the coronavirus around the country. Consequently, since August 2020, the local education organizers (i.e. municipalities) have been given responsibility to make their own decisions on remote learning (e.g. for 1-2 weeks) for a school or certain group of students and teachers if there have been verified Covid-19 cases or exposures. That has made the course of actions concerning needs for temporary local remote learning periods more flexible, and it is in line with the decentralized approach to governance in the Finnish context.

Based on experiences gained during the 8-week remote learning of spring 2020, the government has also made temporary changes in the Basic Education Act (i.e. the legislation guiding work in comprehensive schools) to make sure the most vulnerable student groups can still have access to school. That means schools are required to stay open for students in pre-school (the year before children enter government schools, around age 6), for students in grades 1-3, and for students receiving special support (students with SEN). These students have the right to go to school, with their teaching organized in school buildings. It has been seen as important to secure and support learning and schooling of these students during the exceptional times.

What did remote learning look like in Spring 2020?

In the spring 2020, remote learning divided students’ perceptions of learning. Some students reported that remote learning suited them well and they felt that learning at home had been more effective than at school. However, nearly half of 7th to 9th grade students and a third of students in 4th – 6th reported that they had learned less than usual during remote learning. The researchers concluded that despite the fast transition period, technically, remote learning went surprisingly well. Consequently, they noted that, if schools turn to remote learning again, the focus should be on the content of learning and on supporting students individually.

However, the results also confirmed the researchers’ suspicions that during the exceptional period in spring 2020 equality in education was not achieved as well as under normal circumstances. That is, the researchers found large differences in the distance learning practices of schools. For example, about a quarter of teachers and principals said that the school had jointly decided on loosening assessment requirements or on not lowering student grades, but more than half of the schools did not have such guidelines in place. In one in five schools, assessment practices were not agreed upon at all. In most schools, the aim of remote learning was to arrange teaching according to the school timetable/schedule as much as possible, meaning that the teacher was to be regularly available to students. However, as many as one-fifth of 7th to 9th grade students said that video-based teaching had not been provided at all in their literacy, mathematics and language courses. There were also big differences between schools with respect to how schools had been able to provide their students with the digital equipment they needed for studying. About a third of parents said family members had taken turns using the equipment. In addition, when the usual school timetable/schedule was not followed or their normal teacher was not available to teach, the students’ stress symptoms increased. The differences in operating practices between comprehensive schools with only the upper grades (7-9) were remarkably large. However, schools with lower grades (4-6) typically implemented remote learning practices that were less structured and students received homework packages instead of interactive remote learning instruction.

… as many as one-fifth of 7th to 9th grade students said that video-based teaching had not been provided at all in their literacy, mathematics and language courses.

Based on these findings, the researchers argued that well-implemented remote learning has a clear structure, it is interactive and students are required to be self-directed in a way that suits their level of development. Especially, for younger students, they found that more guidance was needed. Guardians of the younger students (1st to 3rd) grade were frustrated with remote learning tasks that their children received that did not include teacher guidance. 

What did remote learning look like in Fall 2020?

In the autumn 2020, the researchers examined a wide range of safety guidelines that schools were advised to follow. There were large school-specific variations in safety practices reported by teachers that were not explained by regional differences in the coronavirus situation. Guardians’ perceptions of the daily operations of the schools greatly differed from the situation described by the teachers, but confidence in the operation of the schools was strong. School safety practices were related to whether the school had experienced corona exposures during the autumn, although the epidemiological situation in the area explained the exposures more strongly. According to the study results, schools should continue to adhere to safety practices.

Further, the study paid specific attention to the number of and reasons for student absences and their effects on learning. According to the guardians, there were differences in the remote education received by students in the autumn depending on the reason for the absence from school. Remote learning was most positively described by guardians whose children had had many absences due to quarantine imposed by health care staff. In contrast, for students in voluntary quarantine, the situation appeared to be the opposite.

Remote learning was most positively described by guardians whose children had had many absences due to quarantine imposed by health care staff. In contrast, for students in voluntary quarantine, the situation appeared to be the opposite.

In order to achieve equal learning opportunities for students, the researchers proposed that it would be good for schools to consider whether in the future it would be possible to implement distance learning more uniformly for students absent for various reasons.  Overall, students with more school absences felt that they received slightly less support to mitigate the effects of the spring exceptional situation and to keep up with their studies. Personal contact from the teacher, even remotely, was related to the student’s experience of receiving support. The researchers stress that schools should therefore continue to pay attention to reaching students personally who are absent for various reasons in when exceptional circumstances continue. Even a short personal interaction with a student during the school day can act as a means of engagement. The researchers pointed out, however, that in general, a large proportion of both primary and lower secondary school students felt that they had received study help from their teacher when they needed it.

School closures, remote learning, and well-being

Furthermore, school practices are important for the well-being of students and families, especially in distance learning situations. According to the study, the stress associated with a child’s schooling was high among guardians during the exceptional circumstances in spring 2020. Although the situation was not yet normal in the autumn, when the schools were generally open, the stress experienced by the parents was clearly less than in the spring.

It may be that in teacher communities where teachers are used to collaborating and sharing effective practices, the school is perceived as more ready to face school closures in the future

Stress experienced by teachers and principals due to their work was generally at the same level in the spring and in the autumn in 2020. In contrast, recovery from work-related stress was easier in the autumn than in the spring. The majority of teachers and principals felt that the school was well or very well prepared to implement remote learning if the school would be closed in the future. There were no regional differences in the responses based on the epidemiological situation in the region. However, school-specific variation was found, and part of it was associated with teachers’ experiences of collective efficacy. The researchers found that collective efficacy experiences are built on shared experiences of success and management. Thus, it may be that in teacher communities where teachers are used to collaborating and sharing effective practices, the school is perceived as more ready to face school closures in the future. Schools should therefore strive to maintain and strengthen cooperation between teachers and the team spirit of the school, as it can help the school and its staff to cope with this difficult time. 

Note: The research on ‘Schooling, teaching and well-being of school community during the COVID-19 epidemic in Finland’ is funded by the Finnish Ministry of Culture and Education

                                                            — Raisa Ahtiainen

What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland Now? Pasi Sahlberg on Finnish Lessons 3.0

In this conversation, Pasi Sahlberg discusses his latest work and the motivation behind his new book  Finnish Lessons 3.0 What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? This is Sahlberg’s third look at the Finnish educational system, diving deeper into the changes and challenges since the publication of the first edition of Finnish Lessons in 2011.

Why this book, why now? 

Pasi Sahlberg: It is about ten years since the first edition of Finnish Lessons was published. At that time the world was very different, OECD’s PISA had rearranged the global image of education, and international transfer of educational ideas was blossoming. There was relatively little literature about education in Finland at the same time when the demand for deeper and more evidence-based stories was huge. When the book was published in 2011 only a few believed it would live beyond its first edition. Everyone, including me, was surprised to learn that Finnish Lessons soon became a best-seller that was translated to nearly 30 languages.

We decided to update the story about Finland’s schools when more data became available, especially from OECD’s PISA 2012 that showed Finland’s earlier high performance had started to decline. The Economic downturn caused by the 2008 banking crisis had forced Finland to cut spending on education and Finnish schools were experimenting with new pedagogical innovations. The second edition was published in 2015, and I thought that this updated edition would be good enough forever.

Unfortunately, Finnish education continued to struggle in both what students learned in school and how the school system was able to serve children with widening range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. PISA 2015 and 2018 raised more questions in international forums and also in local debates about the real state of Finnish education. My publisher and I had a conversation about having yet another edition of Finnish Lessons that would take a more detailed stock of the state of education in Finland. It was a good decision – in the middle of the writing process the global coronavirus crisis hit the world and offered an additional question to be answered: How did Finnish schools cope with remote learning and disruption that caused so much confusion and troubles elsewhere?

What did you learn in working on 3.0 that you didn’t know before?

When the going gets tough, you need well-prepared educators whom you can trust in finding the best way forward.

Researching the unknown and writing about it is always a learning experience. Since Finnish Lessons 2.0 was published I have resided in the U.S., Finland and Australia and that gave me a unique opportunity to take a closer look at Finnish education from outside and inside. Conversations with educators and colleagues in these three locations over the years have been particularly helpful in understanding the power and the challenges of Finnish schools. For example, I learned to appreciate the flexibility and creativity that are embedded in the Finnish way of education. This became particularly evident in early 2020 when all education systems unexpectedly went into remote learning mode when most school buildings were closed for several weeks due to the global coronavirus pandemic. I have always spoken to foreign visitors about these system characteristics in Finland but it was that tiny ugly virus that made that concretely visible. When the going gets tough, you need well-prepared educators whom you can trust in finding the best way forward. This is exactly what flexible management, lack of rigid external standards, and collaborative problem solving were able to do in Finland where students and teachers were able to navigate through the hard times with less damage than most others. I have included these stories in my new book.

What’s happened in Finland since you wrote the book? 

This I explain in detail in this third edition. Many things have changed. On one hand, there are some interesting new developments, such as the new curricula for all levels of school education that aims at making teaching and learning more engaging and interesting for both teachers and students. On the other hand, Finland has lost some of its most important educational assets it had earlier compared to other countries: Equity and quality of its educational outcomes. There are significantly more low-performing students, family background explain more of students success in school than before, and all young people spend much more time staring at digital screens that is time away from reading, playing and sleeping.

What’s next — what are you working on now?

I have a busy year ahead here in Sydney, Australia. I am leading a couple of large research projects at the university and working with half a dozen doctoral students. Besides that, there are two new book projects in the pipeline. I try to work a bit less and spend more time with my boys and family.

What’s your hope for the future and what do you hope the book will contribute to it? 

The main thread of Finnish Lessons is collectivism, collegiality, and collaboration at various levels of society.

My hope is in young people and their passion to change the course we live right now. Look at the issues like climate change, fight against racism and gender equality, for example. These global movements are strongly led by young people. This is really positive regarding what the future looks like. I hope that Finnish Lessons will continue to speak for better agency for teachers thereby stronger voice for students regarding their education and life. The main thread of Finnish Lessons is collectivism, collegiality, and collaboration at various levels of society. I hope that Finnish Lessons helps more people to understand that education is fundamentally a common good a bedrock of democracy that has been challenged recently in number of countries around the world.

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

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

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

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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