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.