Published originally in http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-ochshorn/fishing-naked-in-finland-_b_1119626.html by Susan Ochshorn
Fishing Naked in Finland: What've PISA Scores Got to Do With It?
Finland is the mecca of education reformers across the globe. Just before we all gorged on our turkeys and stuffing, Michael Mulgrew, head of the United Federation of Teachers, turned down an invitation for a free, but politically imprudent, pilgrimage from Manhattan Media CEO and mayoral hopeful Tom Allon. Diane Ravitch, of course, had already been there and done that, waxing poetic on the virtues of Finnish education, earlier this fall, in her Education Week blog, "Bridging Differences," with Deborah Meier. Since 2001, when the PISA (Program for International Student Assessments) results went public, this Nordic nation's 15-year-olds have ranked at or near the top of all industrialized nations in reading, science, and mathematics. And we haven't yet stopped talking about it.
Why Finland? Everyone's been in the business of deconstruction, including the Finns, who originally expressed some puzzlement about the ingredients of their success, and then in the spirit of 21st century innovation, launched a web site to meet the world's demand for answers. Here are a few to chew on. First, teachers are highly qualified. Second, they have tremendous autonomy. Third, the teaching profession commands respect, with only one in ten aspiring educators snagging a coveted spot in what are generally regarded as rigorous teacher preparation programs. Next, when teachers do meet their students, in formal school, they're older than most of their primary peers in industrialized countries, and little emphasis on grades is the norm in the early years of schooling. Finally, standardized tests don't make an appearance until very late in the game.
But, wait, there's more.
Recently, I listened and watched, as Judith Wagner, a preschool director and professor of child development at California's Whittier College, did a nifty bit of cultural exporting at "Nordic Perspectives on Caring and Teaching in Early Childhood," a symposium convened by the American-Scandinavian Foundation and the Child Development Institute of Sarah Lawrence. What if I told you that preschoolers have been known to cast a rod into the water, in their birthday suits. That four-year-olds climb trees -- sometimes with eyes closed -- out of the sight of adults. That toddlers eat with knives and forks. Or that preschools are filled with art, and spaces, known as pillow rooms, to which little ones may retreat, alone, for some quiet time.
Shocking, isn't it? And nearly impossible to imagine in our homeland, where three-year-olds ride their scooters encased in armor, where climbers -- not of the arboreal variety -- are made of plastic and grounded in rubber, where a law suit is always a motion away, where parents of college students, not to mention preschoolers, hover, like helicopters, over their progeny, and where teachers, partners in anxiety, hardly dare to leave a child unsupervised, lest some horrific calamity ensue.
The Finns share with their fellow Nordic people a strong commitment to children and a childhood based on egalitarianism, freedom, compromise, and democracy -- the bedrock of the Scandinavian ethos. Reverence for childhood, as a discrete period of development, not as a mere prelude to adulthood, runs deep. Respect for children's views and thinking is paramount. Early childhood, especially, is seen as a time for play and exploration, a vision enshrined in policy as well. Here's a tidbit, courtesy of Pentti Hakkarainen, of the
University of Oulu, from the National Curriculum Guidelines on Early Childhood Education and Care in Finland:
Children play for the sake of playing, and at best, play can give them deep satisfaction. Although children do not play in order to learn, they learn through play....Children use everything they see, hear, and experience as elements in their play. When they play, they imitate and create new things...
In early childhood, certain kinds of free play are linked to high creativity. A white paper from the Alliance for Childhood, an advocacy group based in Maryland, highlights the research of Kyung Hee Kim, who analyzed nearly 300,000 scores, of children and adults, on the Torrance creativity test, known as a predictor of future innovation among students. Creativity scores in the United States, Kim told Newsweek, in 2010, had been declining since 1990, with the dip most "serious" from kindergartners through sixth-graders. An ill omen for a society dead set on fostering innovation.
As the U.S. adopts its own national Common Core Standards, with their lack of attunement to young children's unique developmental needs, a look at the Land of the Midnight Sun might prove enlightening. A few years ago, the Danes witnessed a slippage of their 4th graders' PISA math scores. Ever communal and democratic, a group of stakeholders in one of the nation's school districts called a meeting to discuss strategy. The consensus: let the children play more. Wouldn't you know that the scores went up?
The 15 year old Finns were again on the top among their peers in 57 countries. What is their secret, and has it had any impact of the progress of the country? The American students got the C grade among all the students - this is not so glorious as one would expect for a leading country in the world.
And by any measure at finish line Finnish teenagers are consistently among the smartest in the world. But then by ninth grade they're way ahead in math, science and reading -- perfectly on track to keeping Finns among the world's most productive workers. The Finns won attention with their performances in triennial tests sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group funded by 30 countries that monitors social and economic trends. In the most recent test, which focused on science, Finland's students placed first in science and near the top in math and reading, according to results released late last year. An unofficial tally of Finland's combined scores put it in first place overall.
About 400,000 students around the world answered multiple-choice questions and essays on the test that measured critical thinking and the application of knowledge. A typical subject: Discuss the artistic value of graffiti.
One of the major differences compared to US is in how the money is used for students. The US uses about 16% more money per student and each school year, the U.S. spends an average of $8,700 per student, while the Finns spend $7,500. Finland's high-tax government provides roughly equal per-pupil funding, unlike the disparities between Beverly Hills public schools, for example, and schools in poorer districts in states like Louisiana and Mississippi. The gap between Finland's best- and worst-performing schools was the smallest of any country in the PISA testing. The U.S. ranks about average. This is one of the major factors in creating an even playing field.
The Finnish students don't start the school until, they are 7.
Even the high school children do not need more than perhaps half an hour to finish all their homework.
They have no school uniforms.
They have no honor societies.
They have no Valedictorians.
They have no classes for the gifted.
They have no Marching Bands nor Proms.
They have no tardy bells.
There is no Internet filter in the school library.
There is very little standardized testing and parents do not worry and agonize if their kids are college bound or not.
However, to finish the high school they all must pass a standard test that covers up to 6 elective subjects and include 4 compulsory subjects one being one of the two major native languages spoken in Finland.
The Finnish children spend their time on all the same things like all children in the countries of the developed world.
The waste countless hours online.
They dye their hair
They are sarcastic
And they listen heavy rap and metal
The academic prowess of Finland's students has lured educators from more than 50 countries in recent years to learn the country's secret, including an official from the U.S. Department of Education. What they find is simple but not easy: well-trained teachers and responsible children. Early on, kids do a lot without adults hovering. And teachers create lessons to fit their students. "We don't have oil or other riches. Knowledge is the thing Finnish people have," says Hannele Frantsi, a school principal.
Visitors and teacher trainees can peek at how it's done from a viewing balcony perched over a classroom at the Norssi School in Jyväskylä, a city in central Finland. What they see is a relaxed, back-to-basics approach.
A few almost unnoticed little things are hidden in the curriculum and those are the issues that impact the students most after they leave the high school:
Note that the teacher will not move forward in the subjects before the slowest ones will "gets it" too - the are no advanced classes for the fast ones.
This simple fact is enormously valuable to all parties. Early on the students notice to which fields they are drawn to and the school offers an opportunity later on to switch to classes that offer more math and science or languages as per students natural abilities and talents - but still no advanced classes.
The classes are regrouped internally whenever there is a need and the fastest will get to show the slower ones the why's and how's.
To be able to teach a solution one must first know the subject throughout - the fast ones are actually forced to get it all and with that they will also remember it for a long time to come.
All students learn how to communicate with each others and what it takes to learn from others and also to teach them too. The "teachers" and "students" just keep on changing.
When out of high school these students do not need more training to know how to interact at work.
They all have learned the power and problems of a consensus and what type of skills and differences they all will have.
To illustrate it all Ms Ellen Gamerman trailed a 15-year-old Fanny Salo at Norssi for a while to get point of her no-frills curriculum:
"Fanny, a bubbly ninth-grader loves "Gossip Girl" books, the TV show "Desperate Housewives" and digging through the clothing racks at H&M stores with her friends. Fanny earns straight A's, and with no gifted classes she sometimes doodles in her journal while waiting for others to catch up. She often helps lagging classmates. "It's fun to have time to relax a little in the middle of class," Fanny says. Finnish educators believe they get better overall results by concentrating on weaker students rather than by pushing gifted students ahead of everyone else. The idea is that bright students can help average ones without harming their own progress. At lunch, Fanny and her friends leave campus to buy salmiakki, a salty licorice. They return for physics, where class starts when everyone quiets down. Teachers and students address each other by first names. About the only classroom rules are no cellphones, no iPods and no hats."
"Fanny's more rebellious classmates dye their blond hair black or sport pink dreadlocks. Others wear tank tops and stilettos to look tough in the chilly climate. Tanning lotions are popular in one clique. Teens sift by style, including "fruittari," or preppies; "hoppari," or hip-hop, or the confounding "fruittari-hoppari," which fuses both. Ask an obvious question and you may hear "KVG," short for "Check it on Google, you idiot." Heavy-metal fans listen to Nightwish, a Finnish band, and teens socialize online at irc-galleria.net. The Norssi School is run like a teaching hospital, with about 800 teacher trainees each year. Graduate students work with kids while instructors evaluate from the sidelines."
Teachers must hold master's degrees, and the profession is highly competitive: More than 40 people may apply for a single job. Their salaries are similar to those of U.S. teachers, but they generally have more freedom. Finnish teachers pick books and customize lessons as they shape students to national standards. "In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs," says Mr. Schleicher, of the Paris-based OECD, which began the international student test in 2000.
One explanation for the Finns' success is their love of reading. Parents of newborns receive a government-paid gift pack that includes a picture book. Some libraries are attached to shopping malls, and a book bus travels to more remote neighborhoods like a Good Humor truck. Finland shares its language with no other country, and even the most popular English- language books are translated here long after they are first published. Many children struggled to read the last Harry Potter book in English because they feared they would hear about the ending before it arrived in Finnish. Movies and TV shows have Finnish subtitles instead of dubbing.
One college student says she became a fast reader as a child because she was hooked on the 1990s show "Beverly Hills, 90210." In November, a U.S. delegation visited, hoping to learn how Scandinavian educators used technology. Officials from the Education Department, the National Education Association and the American Association of School Librarians saw Finnish teachers with chalkboards instead of whiteboards, and lessons shown on overhead projectors instead of PowerPoint.
Keith Krueger was less impressed by the technology than by the good teaching he saw. "You kind of wonder how could our country get to that?" says Mr. Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, an association of school technology officers that organized the trip. Finnish high-school senior Elina Lamponen saw the differences firsthand. She spent a year at Colon High School in Colon, Mich., where strict rules didn't translate into tougher lessons or dedicated students, Ms. Lamponen says. She would ask students whether they did their homework. They would reply: " 'Nah. So what'd you do last night?'" she recalls.
History tests were often multiple choice. The rare essay question, she says, allowed very little space in which to write. In-class projects were largely "glue this to the poster for an hour," she says. Her Finnish high school forced Ms. Lamponen, a spiky-haired 19-year-old, to repeat the year when she returned. Lloyd Kirby, superintendent of Colon Community Schools in southern Michigan, says foreign students are told to ask for extra work if they find classes too easy. He says he is trying to make his schools more rigorous by asking parents to demand more from their children. Despite the apparent simplicity of Finnish education, it would be tough to replicate in the U.S. With a largely homogeneous population, teachers have few students who don't speak Finnish.
In the U.S., about 8% of students are learning English, according to the Education Department. There are fewer disparities in education and income levels among Finns. Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades; 53% continue and the rest enter vocational school. (All 15-year-old students took the PISA test.) Finland has a high-school dropout rate of about 4% -- or 10% at vocational schools -- compared with roughly 25% in the U.S., according to their respective education departments.
Finnish students have little angstata -- or teen angst -- about getting into the best university, and no worries about paying for it. College is free. There is competition for college based on academic specialties -- medical school, for instance. But even the best universities don't have the elite status of a Harvard. Taking away the competition of getting into the "right schools" allows Finnish children to enjoy a less-pressured childhood. While many U.S. parents worry about enrolling their toddlers in academically oriented preschools, the Finns don't begin school until age 7, a year later than most U.S. first-graders. Once school starts, the Finns are more self-reliant. While some U.S. parents fuss over accompanying their children to and from school, and arrange every play date and outing, young Finns do much more on their own.
At the Ymmersta School in a nearby Helsinki suburb, some first-grade students trudge to school through a stand of evergreens in near darkness. At lunch, they pick out their own meals, which all schools give free, and carry the trays to lunch tables. They can walk in their socks during class, but at home even the very young are expected to lace up their own skates or put on their own skis. The Finns enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, but they, too, worry about falling behind in the shifting global economy. They rely on electronics and telecommunications companies, such as Finnish cellphone giant Nokia, along with forest-products and mining industries for jobs. Some educators say Finland needs to fast-track its brightest students the way the U.S. does, with gifted programs aimed at producing more go-getters. Parents also are getting pushier about special attention for their children, says Tapio Erma, principal of the suburban Olari School. "We are more and more aware of American-style parents," he says. Mr. Erma's school is a showcase campus. Last summer, at a conference in Peru, he spoke about adopting Finnish teaching methods. During a recent afternoon in one of his school's advanced math courses, a high-school boy fell asleep at his desk. The teacher didn't disturb him, instead calling on others. While napping in class isn't condoned, Mr. Erma says, "We just have to accept the fact that they're kids and they're learning how to live."
Is there a connection as the US dollar has been slipping steadily since the WW II? What is wrong in the US system?
(Modified from WSJ's Ellen Gamerman's article http://online.wsj.com/public/article_print/SB120425355065601997.html 2/29/2008).
It is not an accident that all the small counties in the Northern Europe have always maximized the education of their populations as broadly and deeply as possible by reaching far beyond the current needs of their societies. These countries learned already long before the Vikings that a genuine cooperation and knowledge distribution is the key for survival in their unforgiving environment. Genghis Khan grew in similar environment and accordingly he powered the Meritocracy instead of his military commanders to run his empire. This was his secret for success in building the largest empire ever on the planet earth. Unfortunately, soon after his death the Meritocracy was pushed aside. The corruption, infighting and the misleading use of consensus - sealed the death for this huge empire.
Management by consensus is extremely efficient but the same time it is also dangerous whenever it is practiced with groups that who understand nothing of the topic of the consensus. And of course Emperors in all democracies love management by consensus as they have the media under their control and with that they hammer in the right answers to their mostly uneducated voters - with this done the result of any consensus seeking is secured.
This is a good question and the facts are on the ground appear support this. This special inventiveness supports also Judaism and has made many converted to believing that the Jews / Zionists are a special breed sanctioned by the God. However, when this righteous God is the same God as the Christians and Muslims believe, why would this be the case? All Jewish Torahs jubilantly support this as a "fact", but so do the other religious writings support the equal "facts" for their followers.
With some analysis we find a different more plausible answer.that evens the field.
The resettlement of Israel started already about 100 years earlier when the Jews living around Europe started grasping the reality that as they could not give up their identity protection, sticking together behind their leaders in all communal affairs and maintaining visible signs like having their visibly religious "Sunday" already on Saturday enforced by their different dressing code that associated them in the minds of local populations to some king of different sect or even military or commando movement. This was bound to irritate the local populations anywhere in their host countries. With increase of pre-democratic and democratic processes in their host countries they tended to gain excessive political power over the more divided local populations as the Jewish voted ended up being a block of votes instead of individual votes. That block vote was suddenly a tradable "commodity" that started bringing them benefits. This practice continues even today.
When Israel was established in 1946 the leaders knew that they had to be better than anyone around them to survive on their own in this new environment, their ancient lands. For some this was true while for the great majority had no family lineage to connect them to these Palestinian lands in Levant.
The Israeli answer to this puzzle was education. This solution had a natural support from all the Jews / Zionists around the world looking who were looking for an escape from places like the communist Russia and the Eastern Block nations where the vast majority of all Zionists lived. The higher the education the easier it is to move to live somewhere else where the living standards would be better compared to the existing ones. It also requires knowledge and understanding with some financing capability to navigate through the hurdles of the host country to get out and then courage to leave everything behind and jump to the unknown future even if that unknown is said to be OK. Here the support from the west and especially from the USA played a major role.
As a summary the population that has been moving back into Israel was initially much better educated than the population at large is in any country. This was bound to reflect positively in the development of Israel through their education system all the way through the Universities. That was the key to achieve all the scientific and technological advances that the country is enjoying right now.
The top scientific world is very small. Until very recent years the high quality scientists in the world looked also for Israel as one of their options to continue their research as it had financing readily available to advance almost all scientific fields. The financing is the key here as it allows the scientist both to live properly and also to concentrate on the scientific problems that are dear to him/ her. This lucrative and liberal financing has been the only reason why Israel has become one of the leading technology developers in the world if looked on as per capita basis.
This all has come to an end on recent years as the financing to universities has actually been falling rapidly since 1973. This is illustrated best by numbers covering Hebrew and Tel Aviv Universities where the number of senior staff has fallen 14% and 21% while the population of Israel has more than doubled during that time period. With this the scientific high time for Israel is over while the impact of this all will still take a decade or more to become clear to her citizens. Today they still enjoy it all but the moment: "Mom, the King has no clothes!" is rapidly approaching..
Comparing to the other similar cases from the Nordic countries Finland was revelry damaged by the second world war and especially the heavy reparations that the Communist Russia demanded to be paid to them. It is the country where the women were the first in the world to get the right to vote in 1906. The education system was fully established during the autonomy period with the Tsarist Russia 1809-1917. In 1809 in settlement ending the war between Sweden and Russia the Finns traded the Swedish King against full autonomy as a grand duchy of Russia from the Tsar Alexander I. This autonomy meant own language, own education, own currency and own everything else for a promise of loyalty to the Tsars of Russia. This ended in 1917 to independence of Finland. After the WW II the reparations to Russia made it chrytal clear that education and especially engineering and sciences must get all attention of the country as the industries that did not exist had to be invented and built. The country had a good starting point as during the autonomy the now Lutheran Church had made mandatory that before marrying a couple the future husband had to show that he can read - that secured virtually 100% literacy rate for the country,