Monday, July 25, 2011

How to win the "best schools" competition - don't play the game!

A week ago my knowledge of the education system of Finland was, to be honest,  almost non-existent.   I knew that they were consistently ranked number one of all “Western” countries in PISA testing but had no idea how they did it.  Then, last weekend, I attended a keynote address by Professor Teemu Leinonen, Professor of New Media Design and Learning at the Media Lab of Aalto University in Helsinki.   Teemu informed the audience that Finland is the source country of Nokia, of Linux, and perhaps even more importantly, the mobile app “Angry Birds”.  Almost as an aside he mentioned that Finland does not have any formal systemic educational testing until the final year of schooling.
My ears picked up – no formal testing?
Professor Leinonen indicated that there was evaluation – but this was left to the teachers for the purpose of assisting their teaching,  not for any evaluation or ranking of students or teachers or schools.  So here is a country with essentially no formal testing until the final year of schooling that is consistently outperforming every country in the Western world that is test driven.  This flies counter to one of the major pillars of conservative school reformists and system administrators in other parts of the world.   It should be said that educators such as Alfie Kohn have been lamenting the revered status of test scores for many years now – but sometimes it seems he is an almost lone voice against  a massed choir of test advocates.  Some further investigation was called for.
As it happened American  broadcaster and blogger David Sirota recently interviewed Harvard Professor Dr. Tony Wagner on his radio program – which, thanks to the wonders of the internet, is accessible to anyone in the world.  Wagner is the  the author of a book with the unwieldy title of “The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills our Children Need” .  He is also the narrator of the recently produced documentary “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the world’s most surprising school system”.  In the interview Wagner confirms Leinonen’s comments and makes some further observations:
·         There is no “high stakes” testing in schools in Finland.
·         Teachers must have a Masters degree.
·         Teaching is highly esteemed – only 10% of initial applicants make it through to teach in a classroom.
·         Teachers work collaboratively  - Wagner states that “...isolation is the enemy of innovation and improvement.”
·         The curriculum is designed to promote thinking – not memorisation.
·         The performance difference between the top and bottom schools in Finland is only 4%.

Much of the interview is spent addressing (and effectively debunking) the usual claims of “you can’t compare us to Finland...”

It is dangerous to make interpretations based on another’s observations – but, whilst acknowledging this,  there seem to be a number of implications for other education systems in the Finnish experience.     Obviously, large credit for the success of the Finish education system must go to the selection, preparation and performance of the teachers – and the collaboration embedded in their system. 

However, the absence of formal testing must be considered as a factor in their success.  Not only would this approach “free up” time for genuine teaching, but it would also remove the mindset of scores and test performance as indicators of student learning.  Mastery of concepts when performing authentic tasks in meaningful contexts would become the basis for student development.  We know that summative testing does not lead to sustained improvement in student performance – rather than cite Alfie Kohn yet again I will cite Dr. Dylan William of the University of London who claims that 4000 studies have confirmed that informative feedback consistently produces better student learning than  summative assessment – 4000 studies.  (To investigate this further click here to access the  Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow Today background document.   This should be compulsory reading for anyone involved in education.  The figure used here can be found on page 25.) 

As has been said, rather colourfully, by others, “You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.”  It would appear that, on the basis of Williams’s research and the Finnish experience,  if we want to improve our schools ... we need to concentrate on teaching well rather than to the test.

Sirota’s blog provides a summary of the interview here   and also link to the relevant audio archive.     (The interview is towards the end of the show – I recommend downloading the mp3 file rather than listening online, then use the slider to fast forward to the 24:03 mark and listen from there.  Don’t be put off by a section in the middle where Sirota advertises the next guest – he does return to the Wagner interview.)

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  1. I went to school for 12 years in Finland, and I am sorry to tell you that none of this is really true. There is constant testing and since college is free, the stakes are always hugely high. The Finnish baccalaureat, without which you can't enter university, is the hardest, highest stake test I've ever seen anyone take. People commit suicide because of it.

    I also had plenty of crappy teachers, witnessed and experienced cruel, violent bullying - some of it from teachers - and as far as I could tell, memorization was all that was required to do well in school. It may be that everything has changed completely since I was in school - but I rather doubt it. I think Finns are getting a little too happy to let Americans believe whatever they want about Finnish schools, because it's so flattering. Maybe Finnish schools are just good at producing obedient people who are willing to jump through whatever hoops are put in front of them. They also produce the highest rate of teen suicides in the world, but somehow that never enters the conversation.

  2. Sussu: You should still notice that the Finnish matriculation examination is still the only standard test you had to take and you wouldn't have had to take it if you had decided to go into a vocational school. This is much less than in many countries.

    I totally agree with you that the matriculation examination shouldn't be so high-stakes here. It's a sad thing that there is so much talk of making it count even more when choosing the people that can get into university programs.

  3. Sussu: the first questions is: when did you go to school in Finland?

    You are, however, right that there are exams in Finnish schools but no national summative standardized tests, as in most educational systems around the world.

    The baccalaureate exam in Finland (in the end of 12 years) is also rather different when compared to secondary exams in other counties. It is not a multiple-choice test but essays where you really need higher-level thinking skills to succeed. It is also not opening the doors of Universities - for most of the Faculties you still need to do an entrance exam, too.

    Mental health issues and suicides among teens is a huge problem in Finland, but there is no evidence of them related anyhow to schools.

    Many Finns have been "flattered" about the success in the comparative studies of quality of education. That is very Finnish and silly. For me the success in the international studies is a proof that continuos development of education system pays-off. This means that we should not be "flattered", but rather work even harder — continue developing the system.

    - Teemu Leinonen

  4. Sussu: And yet you wrote that in perfect English, better than an average American native would. It's not that Finnish schools are so good, they're just not hilariously bad like in some countries that shall not be named here.

  5. But what if I am in a online trade schooling program? Does my so called 'school' should also be the best one? :)

  6. Hi Anne.
    Thanks for your question.
    I’d suggest that on-line schools are a different model of education from that of mainstream schooling and so need to be considered differently. I’d also ask what does “best one” mean in the context of an on-line school. Again, do we evaluate an on-line school on the basis of grades achieved by students (which would require us to consider the moderation of such scores between on-line providers) or by other factors such as the speed and quality of the feedback given to students, the availability of additional support etc. My initial response would be that on-line schools may cater for the needs of certain students under certain conditions – but point out that there is a difference between learning and certification (for which “testing” seems to be the embedded mindset).

  7. When talked about the best schools, I cannot think of any better than online trade schools.

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