A Fish out of Water

“Fish don’t know they’re in water.
If you tried to explain it, they’d say, “Water? What’s water?”
They’re so surrounded by it, that it’s impossible to see.
They can’t see it until they get outside of it.
This is how I feel about culture.
We’re so surrounded by people who think like us, that it’s impossible to see that what we think are universal truths are just our local culture.
We can’t see it until we get outside of it.” Derek Sivers

Recently, I’ve been talking with other educators, posing the question “how would you reimagine schools for the future?” and hoping that together we could do some truly out of the box thinking. To make that more likely, we’ve been reading two books on Finnish education together, Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? and How to Create the School of the Future — Revolutionary thinking and design from Finland, by Pasi Mattila and Pasi Silander (eds.) [free pdf.].

A Good Starting Point for Reconsidering U.S. Education

The more we explore the question, the more it seems to me that we have all been swimming in our current school waters for so many years that the very nature of those schools is partially invisible to us and so are the possibilities that lie just beyond our fish bowl. We have so many assumptions about teaching and learning, about students, about the purposes of education, and so many memories of school experiences, that seeing our schools for what they are and what they aren’t and seeing what they could be instead are just a bit beyond our reach, at least at the outset of our attempt to answer that question.

Certainly, we can point out some fairly obvious things we aren’t happy about in the current system: standardized tests; little autonomy for teachers; not enough resources; rigid schedules; developmentally inappropriate mandates, particularly in the primary and early elementary grades; over-reliance on textbooks; unequal resources depending on SES; too narrow a range of subjects, limited by what is tested, and so forth. But for the most part, school just is. And that’s why we often resort to tweaking rather than radically reinventing them.

So question the very water we swim in? That’s not very easy. It would require we go back to first principles at the same time that we are considering futures beyond our wildest imagining.

Finland offers some clues.

You, of course, remember the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, all 449 pages of it in its current iteration with all the subsequent amendments; the original act was only 32 pages long. The current reauthorization of that act goes by the happy sounding name of “Every Child Succeeds,” and weighs in at a measly 391 riveting pages — just kidding about riveting. By comparison, Finland’s 1998 Basic Education Act is a mere 24 pages. But let’s take a look at some of the differences between our two countries when we come to defining the purpose of our education enterprise.

Section 2 of the Finnish blueprint for education, for example, lists the 3 objectives of education.

“1. The purpose of education referred to in this Act is to support pupils’ growth into humanity and into ethically responsible membership of society and to provide them with knowledge and skills needed in life. Furthermore, the aim of pre-primary education, as part of early childhood education, is to improve children’s capacity for learning.

2. Education shall promote civilization and equality in society and pupil’s prerequisites for participating in education and otherwise developing themselves during their lives.

3. The aims of education shall further be to secure adequate equity in education throughout the country.”

Our blueprint is somewhat different, given that our focus was primarily on addressing issues of poverty.

It is “to provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education and to close the education achievement gap.” Notice we don’t define how we hope that education will impact the individuals who receive it or the society to which they belong. We don’t suggest that one fundamental purpose of basic education is to help individuals become life-long learners. Thankfully, we do speak of closing the education achievement gap, but how assiduously do we set about resourcing that goal? Finland provides all children with “the necessary textbooks and other learning materials, and school equipment and materials … free of charge for the pupil.” That means paper, pencils, notebooks, EVERYTHING! Plus a free meal at school that is balanced, nutritious, and delicious! (This assessment is based on personal experience at two Finnish schools.)

The Best Vegetable Soup I’ve Ever Had! (This was the vegetarian option school lunch. Chicken soup was also on offer.)

In our education acts, we say a lot about data and testing. They don’t. They do say this about assessment: “The aim of pupil assessment is to guide and encourage learning and to develop the pupil’s capacity for self-assessment.” They don’t do standardized tests (well, not until age 16), trusting teachers to formatively and summatively assess their students. And, as a matter of policy, they care a lot about the happiness and wellbeing of students. “The pupil’s work load in basic education must be such as to allow him or her enough time for rest, recreation and hobbies over and above the time spent in school, school travel (almost entirely neighborhood schools) and homework.” Plus they provide guidance counseling for every child as a matter of right. We say, “Children First,” but how often do we actually put them this much first? And when do we bring up “JOY” as an emotion we want children to experience as an essential part of their schooling? The Finns do.

In listing core subjects, the Finns include: “mother tongue and literature (there are 3 languages commonly spoken in Finland as mother tongue though this is changing with immigration), the second national language (Swedish or Finnish, depending on the child), foreign languages (English for all, plus others), environmental studies (right after language in the list!) health education, religious education or ethics (parents/students have a choice), history, social studies, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geography (yes, geography!), physical education, music, art, crafts, and home economics (because everyone should know how to take care of the tasks of basic daily living).

I’m sure you know ours, a much shorter list, and, therefore, where our priorities lie.

With respect to STEM education, Finland has launched a massive effort to improve teaching and student engagement with STEM subjects. As a press release announced:

“The programme is scheduled to take place between 2014 and 2019. Initiated by the Minister of Education, Ms Krista Kiuru, the national quest to improve STEM skills forms a part of a programme to develop the future of basic education in Finland. ‘According to the latest national and international surveys the STEM skills of Finnish youth are declining. This trend is alarming because mathematical thinking and logical problem solving skills form an essential part of the foundations of learning. It is necessary to take action to improve students’ engagement and joy in learning,’ minister Kiuru emphasized.”

And by the way, students in Finland already outscore American students in science and math on the PISA and outscore American students on the TIMMS science. In the 8th grade, for instance, Finland scored 552, compared with 525 for the United States. Measured another way, 53 percent of Finnish 8th graders reached either the “high” or the “advanced” level, the top two categories, compared with 40 percent of their peers in the United States. Just sayin’.

To begin making the water we swim in more visible to us all, I want to leave you with a short TED video by architect Trung Le, positing that the way things are all over the world today in schools, isn’t the way they need to be. We can break out of existing paradigms and forge something that is far more engaging for students and that far better prepares them for the future.

In closing, here are several questions for your consideration:

  • What difference would it make if we were to be very intentional about making joy part of our planning in schools and equity our primary touchstone? How would we go about doing that?
  • How would increasing the emphasis on STEM and using an inquiry-based instructional approach change the culture and climate of American schools? How might these become a natural segue into a more future oriented schooling?
  • Are there better school designs and configurations than the current ones for doing effective STEM education, and what might they be?

As always, I welcome your comments.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.


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Filed under Finland, Finnish education, STEM education, Trung Le, Uncategorized

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