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More on Finnish Schools

Not just The New York Times but also BBC has had a look at Finnish schools, and its report is worth examining both for what it says and for what it leaves unexamined.

Two things the report notes should be seen as in tandem: that a Finnish classroom has students of different abilities, and that it has not one but three teachers present in order to help them with what they need to learn. Edspeak refers to “differentiated instruction,” which means “attending to students’ particular needs”—an excellent goal when approached realistically.If students have widely different needs, more than one teacher will more effectively meet them. By contrast, looking at a poor non-Finnish teacher confronted alone by a roomful of variety, I think of those statues of four-armed gods dancing in a circle of flames. All that work, and none of the worship!

No, I don’t require worship. Respect will do. A Finnish head teacher (principal) interviewed by BBC stresses the element of trust in the schools there: trust of teachers by principals, and trust of schools by politicians. To the objection that trust and respect must be earned I would counter that they are part of the working capital of a functional system, not one of its dividends.

The interview with the teacher Marjaana Arovaara-Heikkinen confirmed something from my own experience: keeping the same students for a number of years is extra­ordinarily beneficial for both student and teacher. When on the first day of class I look at a roomful of known students, I recognize that from the first minute I can teach to each student’s needs because I already know what they are. No days or weeks of singing “Getting to Know You,” though that is a good tune in its time and place.

The Nokia executive interviewed for this report expresses satisfaction with the quality of scientific and technical education that Finnish schools provide to Nokia’s future employees. This kind of praise from this kind of source is not often heard about, say, California’s public schools, but it is not the only kind of praise I would like to hear. How about an interview with a professor of history at the University of Finland commenting on that country’s budding historians?

And to get back to the main point of my last posting: in her interview the Education Minister says of Finnish schools’ success that “the key behind it is our good teachers.” In Finland teaching is popular, and getting a place as a teacher is competitive. Desire and competence are marvelous guarantors of trustworthiness.

As for what it leaves unexamined: that will be for another posting.

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What Is Important in Teaching?

The New York Times recently printed an article discussing the single most important contributing factor in students’ success at learning. After years of fruitless research, some advanced centers of teacher education have discovered that it depends on which teachers they have.

The shock of this report is that there could have been any doubt about the finding or delay in recognizing it. People outside the Ed Biz will wonder what other influence could possibly be so important. I should say the American Ed Biz: another article The Times published some years ago was on to the secret. Finnish schools, the world’s best, started their students at seven years old, spent $5,000 per pupil, had classes of thirty, and did without “gifted” programs. Asked how they do it, a teacher replied, “The teacher is no. 1.”

So the teacher is. We know it when we look into the past, admiring the teaching of Socrates rather than regretting the lost secrets of Platonic curriculum mapping. And how could we have forgotten it in our own school days? We remember that exquisite geometry class with Mrs. Lee or speech with Mr. Barlow. We remember our time in college, when we told each other not that “I’m taking ‘modern poetry,’” “I’m taking ‘Jane Austen,’” “I’m taking ‘recent European history,’” or “I’m taking ‘American history,’” but that “I’m taking Koch,” “I’m taking Trilling,” “I’m taking Stern,” or “I’m taking Hofstadter,” How could educationists have come to forget those people and the influence they had on us?

Part of the explanation may lie in a view of teaching that Richard Hofstadter found prevalent in the U. S. till fairly recently. He said that teachers were widely viewed as “drifters and misfits.” This belief created its own widespread reality, particularly as teachers tended to be so poorly paid that often only the extremely dedicated or those under perpetual vows of poverty—and drifters and misfits—would take the jobs.

The pay problem has been nudged in the right direction since the 1960’s, though there is a way to go before American teachers reach levels of pay achieved by Finnish teachers, who earn 60% of what Finnish doctors make. The image problem is still a problem. I told some students of mine about a former colleague who got a perfect SAT score when he was in high school. One student asked, “If he’s so smart, why is he a teacher?” Teachers of such students might well ask themselves that question.

What do excellent teachers do? The teacher education program I enrolled in didn’t know and never said, so I still had a lot to learn as I faced my first classes on my first day of teaching. How did I learn it? I heard the names students mentioned as the best teachers, and I spent a lot of my free periods in their classrooms watching them.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, teacher educationists were saying that nothing the teacher says or does in class makes much difference in how students learn. It would be nice to think that they are finally revising that view.