I was about to post right after our first day in Finland, but hesitated because the two observations I was noting seemed to have some obvious link that was eluding my tired brain. I’m glad I did because first thing next morning Olli-Pekka Heinonen, General Director, Finnish National Agency for Education, made the link for me.
The two anecdotes, from our visit at Olari High School, were:
1-We met with a group of obviously very successful and enthusiastic high school teachers. They told us they sought student input on how they taught and what projects were pursued. When we asked them how they as teachers were assessed, they looked at one another confused, and finally said they weren’t. They finally did note that from time to time they met with the principal to review how things were going, but that was the extent of “assessment.” If clear problems arose they were addressed, but no regular system of teacher accountability existed.
2-We were also fortunate to run into a rather reflective student who had spent the past year as an exchange student in Des Moines Iowa. His exchange year in the US was at the same level as his previous year in Finland. So he was returning for his final year after his classmates had already graduated. On one hand he said he was struck by just how similar what he was studying in Iowa was to what he had previously studied in Finland. On the other hand he noted, a very different approach by his teachers in the two countries. His US teachers were more directional and on top of how each student was learning. His Finnish teachers treated students as empowered and independent. His conclusion was that Finnish teachers were very good at challenging students to be responsible and autonomous, but that his US teachers probably saved some kids from falling between the cracks. He conceded he probably was the kind of student who benefitted from a bit of prodding from from his US teachers. ( I must admit his capacity for candid self-reflection did seem part of his Finnish education)
General Director Heinonen’s presentation focused on the missing link in these two anecdotes and the glue that holds the whole Finnish system together-trust. The national government trusts municipalities to run good schools and meet national curricular goals, but how they do it is up to them. Municipalities trust principals to run schools effectively and don’t intervene unless a major problem arises. Principals trust teachers to have autonomy in their classrooms, and perhaps most importantly, teacher challenge students to be partners in the learning process and to take responsibility for their own education and academic achievement.
While all this has deep pedagogical implications, its roots probably lie in cultural perspective. Finland relies on trust. The US just as deeply believes in measurable accountability. (My personal bias is that at times in the US we believe the wrong indicators are better than none, and that measurement is always the path to improvement.) These approaches reflect the populations and expectations of their societies. On the other hand, it seems that both cultures could gain from flexing a bit out of their comfort zones and learning from one another.