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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

3 Reasons We May Never Be Like Finland

By Peter DeWitt — July 29, 2016 4 min read
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By allowing the debate to focus on what schools can do for us and not what we can do for schools, we create an argument that schools can only lose. John Hattie

Finland. For years it’s all we have heard about in the world of education. For good reason, because not only do they outperform us on international assessments, but more importantly their teachers are highly thought of in their country. Additionally, students seem to seamlessly walk in to Finnish classrooms and begin reading when they want to, and continue that love of reading throughout life.

After all, according to this Guardian article, Finland is ranked the most literate nation in the world. The article goes on to explain the ranking,

Rather than measuring a country's ability to read, the World's Most Literate Nations says it ranks nations on their "literate behaviours and their supporting resources". It set out to look at data from 200 countries, drawing from sources ranging from Unesco to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)."

In other rankings, such as this one by the World Atlas, Finland has a literacy rate of 100% and ranks at the top of 25 of the most literate countries. The United States doesn’t make the list of the top 25, which has made Finland a very desirable nation to learn about. For years it has made us wonder how we can be like them. What do they do to be at the top year after year? Scores of educators go over to visit the country every year to find out.

Many educators wonder what can we do to prove that we are just as good as they are in providing the best education to our students, and there are a plethora of books, articles and blogs on the topic. But we seem to read what we want to read and hear what we want to hear.

I worry we will never get to the top spot because we spend our time (politicians, leaders, educators) looking for easy fixes, and try to do too much at the surface level without ever going deep. If we want to be more like Finland and offer the educational opportunities they seem to offer to so many in their country, then we need to change the dialogue we are having around education in our own country, fund it with equity, and focus on the social-emotional aspect of learning as well.

We shame and blame when they seem to foster growth and stay positive.

If we want to be more like them, we have a few things we need to fix, and those are:

The way we talk about teachers - “Those who can...do, and those who can’t...teach.” We have all heard that statement over and over again. It has been used against us, and has led to the degradation of the teaching profession.

In this recent guest blog in the Huffington Post, international educational systems expert Andy Hargreaves writes,

Teaching will become more prestigious if it is publicly valued. It will attract more candidates if they can see this as a true profession where they will be supported to develop and grow over many years, rather than a version of the Peace Corps that puts them on the urban frontline to champion change all by themselves."

Who wants to enter into a profession where the rhetoric is focused on the negative? Teachers have the power to change minds and futures of students, and we should honor that. In John Hattie’s research, he found that teacher-student relationships have an effect size of .72 which is well over the hinge point of .40 that can lead to a year’s worth of growth in a year’s time.

However, we also know that there are teachers who have a low level of self-efficacy, which leads them to believe that they don’t have an impact on student learning. Creating as much positive dialogue around the benefits of being a teacher could go a long way to negate the negative rhetoric that has been out there.

The way we talk about students - We label students at the same time we tell them to have a growth mindset. That growth mindset seems to be needed more to combat the way we make students feel when they don’t learn something the first time around...or worse...when they don’t get a high enough score on a test that only politicians and policy makers seem to want to focus on.

In the Huffington Post article, Hargreaves goes on to write,

In Ontario, over 40% of students come from families born outside Canada, yet these students far outperform their counterparts in the US. As one of our US team members observed, when students in his former US turnaround district struggled in math, they were just drilled in more and more math until they couldn't bear math any longer. But in Canada, these struggling students also get support for their overall wellbeing so they are more ready and eager to learn math and everything else."

That support with their social-emotional health will help them with their growth mindset as they struggle through not learning something the first time. Additionally, maybe we need to look at why they aren’t learning it and reflect on whether it’s them or our teaching strategy.

The way we value (or don’t) education - This last one is sort of a culmination of the first two. And sadly, it’s very subtle how we devalue education. Take summer for example. We all love it and it’s been a time to refresh. Summer symbolizes freedom among many students and adults, but when school is around the corner we begin seeing television commercials that focus on how awful it is to go back to school.

In those commercials we see happy parents and frowning students. We seem to care more about what we wear and the backpacks we carry than we do about the excitement of school and the importance of getting a quality education. It wasn’t so long ago when President Obama received criticism for wanting to give a back to school speech in his first term as President and many people berated him for wanting to put out a positive message about school.

We need to have dialogue around how important education is, and less dialogue around what we wear and carry to school.

In the End
Sure, we want to be like Finland but we seem to want their results without putting in the work to get there. That work involves working collaboratively in our school communities. We need less drill, kill and bubble fill, and more of a focus on learning. We need to have a more authentic understanding of what we want out of our education system. Finland doesn’t get caught up in the test scores, as much as they focus on understanding what progress looks like, and creating a love for learning and a respect for education among their students and families.

That seems to be the thing we think of the least in the US.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (2012. Corwin Press) and the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.