Thursday, December 15, 2011

Only dead fish follow the stream...

The title of this post is a Finnish expression that I came across while reading a fascinating article about education reform. The expression refers to the country's reluctance to simply follow what everyone else is doing - in this case, education reform. Finland's education system, considered to be one of the best in the world, has been under such scrutiny over the past decade that the 'crush of observers is considered a national distraction'. Gone are the traditional cakes and dances for visitors - the focus is on the learning taking place and figuring out the best ways to continue to allow it to happen in the future.

The article starts by examining the differences between senior students' desire to become teachers as their profession when they leave school. In the US school there were two (which was really only one and half) out of a class of 15 students. In Finland the average amount of students wishing to pursue teaching is over a quarter of the total graduates. Last year at the University of Helsinki there were 2400 applicants for 120 positions in a masters of education program. There is clearly a different view of education in the two countries. However, this shouldn't be limited to just a US comparison. I would confidently predict that the US level of interest in teaching matches several other countries.

Why is this? 

It isn't money. In 2008, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Finnish Primary school teachers earned an average initial starting salary of USD$29,386. This compares  to the US (USD$35,999); Australia (USD$33,153); England (USD$30,534) and Switzerland (USD$44, 308). It shows that paying teachers more money doesn't necessarily mean they'll produce better results or be more effective. This reminds me of a TED talk by Daniel Pink about motivation that I re-watched again recently.

I think one of the most interesting things about this video is the point that Pink makes is about companies giving time to their employees each week to work on whatever they want (provided they are prepared to share their work with their colleagues). This level of trust feeds the inspiration and motivation of workers and helps to produce better results.

While this exact model may not be followed in the Finnish education system, it seems that there is a related concept here: trust. Finnish educators aren't concerned too much with standardisation, intense tracking, test-based accountability or competition. Their teachers are trusted to do the job they are employed to do. They are given autonomy and this helps to motivate them further. More people want to be teachers because in Finland it is a highly respected profession, out-ranking medicine and law in terms of university applicants. There are, therefore, high prerequisites in order to be a teacher in Finland (a masters degree is mandatory) and this ensures that the people who truly want to be teachers are employed.

As highlighted in the article, critics are quick to point out that Finland has a very low percentage of it's population born outside of the country, so they are relatively homogenous. They are also a small economy and have a low poverty rate. So what works in Finland may not necessarily work in other countries. However, I think that's skirting the issue. There seems to be a genuine respect for the teaching profession in Finland - by governments, parents, students - everyone. This respect has helped to yield high results and countries that wish to match these should not look at replicating Finnish programs in their own schools but instead should seek to establish the same culture around teaching as Finland has. A total transformation may be required and, yes, this may be difficult - but it isn't impossible (see Finland circa the 1970's). People need to stop citing excuses about things that won't work in order to shirk the responsibility of fixing the things that aren't working. It's time for people to stop following the stream.

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