August 17, 2013

A Finnish interlude

Finnish schoolchildren have been acing the PISA exam for a decade. Recently, Finnish schools have been getting a lot of attention for this successful record.

Their educational system gains strength from "one of the world's most generous -- and successful -- welfare states." That kind of support seems sadly impossible to imagine in the United States. 

Social infrastructure aside, the Finns also approach education far differently than we do. Take a moment to glance at this Smithsonian article, and marvel at how distant the following practices sound from NCLB/Race-to-the-Top/Gates pressure felt by American public schools:

There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. . . .

We emulate at least a bit of the Finnish approach in our ongoing Odyssey project:

• Our guide, Elizabeth Turner, has genuine subject knowledge (a major in Visual Communication with a minor in Studio Art from Loyola University Chicago) as well as ongoing reflection on pedagogy (progress towards a Master's in Teaching).

• She assigns no homework, and "engage[s] children in more creative play."

• "Classrooms tend to be understated, free of the high-tech gadgetry of their schools back home," just as our Odyssey is about reading, discussing stories, and creating inspired artwork, rather than staring at a computer screen.

• "In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility." While we wish we could pay Elizabeth more, we certainly hope she feels she has a great deal of autonomy in how she conducts her sessions with the crew.

• Our group remains deliberately small (6-8 children), so that close learning can take place under the teacher's attention.

It's no wonder that educational advocate Diane Ravitch praises Finland for "schools we can envy."

Maybe the next Odyssey project should explore the Kalevala!