Every child has special needs: “secrets” of Finnish education

Finland education outlookToday’s post is by Janet English. Janet was awarded the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. She holds a masters degree in education, and teaches in southern California.

In 2013 I moved to Finland on a Fulbright Award to learn the “secrets” of Finnish education. For the next six months I traveled by train, on bus, on bike and on foot to observe classrooms, document Finnish educational practice, and interview teachers, administrators and students. I began this journey to find out what makes Finnish students successful problem solvers in PISA, but along the way I learned much, much more. Finns have been combining high quality educational research with classroom practice for more than twenty-five years and they’ve designed an educational system to optimize learning for every child, regardless of a student’s educational needs. The rest of us need to be paying attention. There are many aspects of Finnish education that can and should be incorporated into schools systems abroad.

The Finnish Way” to Optimize Student Learning is a free e-book that takes readers on this educational journey through Finnish schools. The “secrets” are revealed through in-depth storytelling, video interviews, and compelling images that illustrate the design and practice of the Finnish education system. Finnish teachers talk about the importance of taking time to optimize student learning, how they incorporate problem solving into almost every lesson, how the pace of teaching is determined by the rate of student learning, and how they approach student assessment. An administrator from the Finnish National Board of Education talks about educational design, Pasi Sahlberg from Harvard University discusses equity, and Andreas Schleicher from the OECD reflects on the need for education systems to evolve.

The Finnish Way” to Optimize Student Learning is a valuable resource for anyone wanting to design an education system where all students have a chance to succeed and reach their full potential. The chapters are short, those interviewed are insightful, and the stories are sparking vibrant discussions about the policy and practice of education.

Last year I used these Finnish methods to teach conceptual biology to second language learners, those with significant learning challenges, and many who have struggled or have been unsuccessful in traditional American high schools. (Some of these classes were as large as thirty-eight students.) This year I’m using a blended Finnish/American approach to teach college preparatory biology to high achieving students and low achieving students. The learning results of both groups have been remarkably positive.

Ninety-four percent of the students I polled said this Finnish/American method of teaching is more intellectually stimulating than they’ve experienced in prior science classes. Six percent asked for more structure (by taking traditional vocabulary tests and answering multiple-choice questions) to help them feel like they are achieving in ways that are familiar with what they’ve done in the past.

One student told me, “This teaching style helps both high achieving and low achieving students achieve their best. We actually get to learn much more and we’re not limited by what’s in the textbook. It lets us go as far as we want to go. The teacher is not just a babysitter to make sure we learn what’s in the textbook.”

I hope that The Finnish Way” to Optimize Student Learning (ages 3-18) will be useful for policymakers, teachers, teacher trainers, administrators, parents, and anyone whose goal is to optimize student learning.

Useful links

Finland featured in a video series produced by the Pearson Foundation profiling policies and practices of education systems that demonstrate high or improving performance in the PISA tests. See the video and other material from the OECD here.

US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 2

FlagsToday we publish the second of a two-part article by Janet English on her experience as a teacher in the US and Finnish education systems. Janet was awarded the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. She holds a masters degree in education, teaches in southern California, and is the author of a blog called Finland from a teacher’s perspective.

I observed good teachers, some not so good teachers, and some great teachers in Finland – about the same quality I’ve observed in US schools; teacher quality is comparable.  What is dramatically different is how our education systems are structured and what they are designed to achieve. We know that Finland consistently scores at or near the top of PISA results and we know that it’s partly because of their small class sizes and homogenous society, but their success can largely be attributed to the design of their educational system and how they implement their ideas to ensure each child’s success.

To help children realize their full potential, the Finnish education system employs the following strategies:

  1. The pace of student learning determines the pace of the curriculum.
  2. The child and his or her learning needs are the center of the educational process – everything else is considered support. If a student has trouble learning – even if it’s because the child can’t focus or if they are distracted because of family issues – that student is now considered to have “special needs.”  Any Finnish child who is not successfully learning in school is considered to have “special needs” and that child will be given additional support. (It is expected that most students will require additional support at some time in their educational career.)
  3. Young children are provided an environment with a minimum of stress so their minds can be open to learning and taking intellectual “risks.”
  4. Play is a natural way for children to learn. For every 45 minutes of work in elementary school, children are given 15 minutes of play.
  5. Expectations are high and individual progress is nurtured.
  6. Schools across Finland are funded in an equitable manner and the system is funded so that every Finnish student will receive a good education at a good school, no matter where he or she lives.
  7. Teachers monitor student learning on a continuous basis so that assessment adds to student progress rather than detracting from it; students may have to evaluate discrepant events in science, evaluate convergent patterns in history, or compose a musical composition. Tests are not the main method of assessment so students do not spend substantial time taking tests or reviewing for them. Multiple-choice tests are generally not given because having students pick an answer from a list is not considered the best way to assess learning.
  8. National, sample-based assessments are used to ensure the education system is performing as needed, whereas teachers are responsible for assessing individual student progress in the classroom. The only compulsory national exam is given at the end of secondary school when students are approximately 18 years old.
  9. Most classroom lessons include problem-solving components and teachers purposely “leave something out” of lessons so students will have to solve the problem. (For example, one Finnish teacher asked her third grade students to make a painting of a Finnish forest in the moonlight.  What did the teacher leave out? Brown paint.  She provided the students with primary colors but her students had to figure out how to mix the paints to make brown.)
  10. Teachers strive to connect students emotionally and intellectually with the content so that students will be engaged in their lessons.
  11. Teachers are given the freedom to teach students in ways that best serve their students.  Teacher professionalism includes knowing how children learn and then shaping that educational environment for optimal success.  National education goals are determined by the needs of the society but the work of teaching and learning – and the pace and design of that process – is the work of the teachers.
  12. Students are given very little homework. (Three to six problems per night, on average.) Quality is more important than quantity.
  13. Compulsory education ends at age 15 and students have the choice to attend upper secondary school (high school), vocational school, or nothing at all (this last option is not advised).  Vocational students can earn a professional certificate and be employable at the age of 18. Finnish citizens have the right to be re-educated and/or change their course of study at any point in their lives.

Finnish classrooms are typically quiet and, at a glance, remarkable only due to their small class sizes and well-behaved students. One has to spend many hours in Finnish classrooms to understand the teachers’ methods for helping students on their long road of intellectual progress. The beauty of the Finnish system lies hidden; their success has to be heard in the room’s silence and in the voice of the lessons as the teachers and students work together in their intellectual “dance.”  By contrast, my American school seems to generate creative energy, excitement for learning, and optimism for the future; our classrooms are generally loud and full of discussion, activity, and commotion. American culture inspires creative thought and innovation and I see this being encouraged by many American teachers – especially the science and technology teachers.

Every child is unique – they don’t look the same, act the same, nor do they come to school with identical backgrounds or abilities; it’s not reasonable to believe they will process information at identical speeds or have identical learning needs.  An education system is not about holding a competition where few students succeed, it’s about ensuring that all children are nurtured and inspired during their basic education and are prepared for further training and/or higher education. There are many paths to success but with more than 500,000 American students dropping out of high school per year, we clearly have to rethink our educational design for students who struggle and don’t fit into this poorly shaped mold we’ve created.

I’m now back in the U.S. and teaching in my high school classroom; once again, I’ve fallen in love with teaching.  The students in my conceptual biology class are intelligent, compassionate, and they want to learn and be successful.  But learning is difficult for them – it always has been – they’re the ones who typically don’t do well in this competitive American environment and I worry about their future. Will they graduate high school?  Will they reach adulthood with the skills they need to be employable? Many of these students would be more productive if given a vocational school option at the age of 15 or 16 because technical schools are more aligned with their natural abilities; unfortunately, this full-time option is not available for them.

I’ve also noticed something remarkable; the students in my broadcast journalism class exhibit creativity beyond what I was able to see in any of the Finnish students I observed. Is this creative expression a mirror of American society? These students are, by any measure in the American system, highly successful students, but imagine what all students could achieve if America slowed down the pace of instruction and adopted the Finnish methods for optimizing students’ potential (as listed above), minimized memorization, and allowed students a broader field for their minds to create, “play,” and solve problems?

This is my dream – that every child is valued and needed for their ability to contribute to society and that our learning environments are constructed to help each child reach their full potential.

Americans have some important work to do – and to make a “play” on the competitive American spirit – the Finns already know how to do it and they are well on their way.

Useful links

Finland from a teacher’s perspective Janet English’s blog

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators

OECD educationtodayblog

US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 1

FlagsToday we publish the first of a two-part article by Janet English on her experience as a teacher in the US and Finnish education systems. Janet was awarded the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. She holds a masters degree in education, teaches in southern California, and is the author of a blog called Finland from a teacher’s perspective.

Finland and the United States strive to provide meaningful and appropriate education for students but their methods for achieving this goal are quite different. I live and work in the United States but a Fulbright Program allowed me to visit Finnish schools for six months to learn how Finnish teachers teach problem solving skills; this newfound perspective gives me insight into how the educational systems of these two nations are structured and what helps children succeed (or not) within their boundaries.

America loves professional sports teams and Friday night football games, we compete at family picnics and our children play in afterschool sports. We love competing and we love winning.  Education in the United States has come to mirror these competitive values – students are pushed to work until they’re exhausted, they struggle through hours of homework, and they compete for top academic honors. School curriculum proceeds rapidly because teachers follow pacing guides to ensure they’re on track for mandatory state tests. Students read a lot, write a lot, fill out worksheets, memorize vocabulary words, conduct labs, and oftentimes take weekly tests. Young children feel the pressure to perform and they can spend hours every night doing homework — even to the point of exhaustion and tears.  Americans tend to believe that pushing students harder, making them do more work, and persevering for longer hours will somehow make them more successful in school, in business, and in life.

The American education system has become a form of, “survival of the fittest,” and this system does not serve all children well. Students who read well, learn quickly, and reproduce information without notes can be successful, but for every child who is successful, there may be five or more who struggle. A student who is two weeks behind in mastering math concepts, for example, will continue to fall behind as the teacher “keeps the pace” to cover new concepts, and there is little time for teachers to re-teach the material. Schools have tutoring sessions to assist struggling students but as students strive to catch up, their classes move forward to cover new concepts.  How can struggling students learn old math concepts and master new concepts at the same time and at such a rapid pace?

“When you turn education into a race, which is essentially what we do [in the United States], you have to have many more losers than winners.” (John Holt, author of How Children Fail)

I recall a conversation with a Finnish teacher who asked me, “Do you find it interesting that America prides itself on the value of the individual but educates its children to be the same?” She found it strange that the educational system of a country that so values individuality would treat its children as interchangeable parts.

For illustration purposes, imagine a math class as a group of students learning how to clear a high jump – and the bar is moved upward at intervals predetermined by someone not working with these particular students. American teachers have very little flexibility for adapting the lessons for student progress because they have a predetermined schedule to ensure the curriculum is completed by the end of the year. Day after day, more and more students are unable to “clear the bar” but the bar keeps getting higher. If students can’t keep to this predetermined pace, should they be considered failures? (How can any child be considered a failure?)

Teachers know that children’s learning needs and academic potential are unique, and Finnish educational objectives are written to accommodate these differences. If the Finns had an objective for students to learn how to high jump (which they do not have), their objective would not specify that all students clear 1.8 meters, but would say something to the effect of, “Have students participate in track and field by learning to clear the high jump.” Teachers would then help students develop their full abilities for that objective.  Finns have high expectations – but their expectations are based upon helping each child become their “best.”

The Finnish education system moves slowly because teachers know that developing young minds takes time and rushing that development is counter-productive.  I asked teacher after teacher in Finland how they know when to proceed to the next topic and I was looked at with curiosity and told, “When the students have learned what they need to learn,” as if to say, “How can it be any other way?  That wouldn’t make any sense.”

Tiina Tähkä from the Finnish National Board of Education told me, “I like [how] the core curriculum gives structure to the teachers [for] what things are expected but it doesn’t actually hinder the teachers to use their own ideas. Teachers have a lot of good ideas and when they process those ideas and share those with others they can create an even better school than we can here at the Board of Education.”

The Finnish education system is exemplary; it is gentle, forgiving, and nurturing for children, but it also holds high expectations for academic achievement. Students are continually monitored and lessons are optimized for student learning. Students are taught that it is their responsibility to learn in school. I asked a high school student how she knew when she was successful in class because student work is infrequently “graded,” and she looked at me as if I were asking a ridiculous question.  “I know I’m learning when I’ve learned the material,” she said. “If I don’t learn it, it’s my own shame.” Finnish students are taught from a very early age to be responsible for their own learning and to ask questions when they need help.

Children in the American system have to learn quickly, but Finnish children progress slowly.  Where American teachers frequently administer multiple-choice tests for assessment, Finnish teachers require students to produce something that reflects their learning. Where American students and parents want (and expect) frequent grade updates, Finns are patient for students to learn and families receive grade updates about every seven weeks.  (I didn’t find any online grading programs in Finland.) Where American schools are not equitable, Finnish schools are designed and supported so that each child has a good school, can develop to the best of their abilities, and can be employable when they reach adulthood.

Click here for Part 2 of Janet’s article.

Useful links

Finland from a teacher’s perspective Janet English’s blog

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators

OECD educationtodayblog

Immigrants take the brunt of the jobs crisis

Immigrants were key drivers behind the economic boom, as they added skills and productivity to lift performance. Now, almost everywhere migrants are feeling the brunt of the crisis. Immigrants are particularly vulnerable during prolonged economic downturns, and this crisis has had the effect of throwing many immigrant workers out of work at a higher rate than for native-born workers. One reason is that immigrants tend to work in sectors which are sensitive to swings in the economic climate, that is, where demand for workers rises sharply in good times and drops fast during bad. (more…)