The Truth About Finnish Schools – a Commentary

A promotion site of Finland, called this is FINLAND, just published a nice article about Finnish schools, going through some common claims and myths along the way. The article aims especially at the upcoming curriculum, set to kick in starting August 2016.

Truth

Many of the points I agree with 100%, such as debunking the persistent misunderstanding that in Finnish schools there is no homework. This of course has never been true, nor will be in the new curriculum

I feel that some points deserve further analysis and commentary. Let’s start from the beginning. Ninni Lehtniemi, the author of the article, starts by treating the following claim

Claim 1: Students will no longer study in their classes at all. Teaching will be “phenomenon-based”, meaning that teachers will work “experimentally” with schoolchildren outside the conventional school setting.

and responds, with the help of Anneli Rautiainen, head of the Basic Education Unit of the National Board of Education: “yes and no”.

I think two things get mixed up here. Phenomenon-based learning (or project-based learning, which is more commonly used term in English), is more about crossing traditional subject boundaries than being in or out the classroom.

School projects are not new but they will indeed be more explicitly stated in the upcoming curriculum than they have been before. If the project benefits from going outside, of course it makes sense to do so. But in principle, projects can be conducted and phenomena studied also inside a classroom, with proper learning materials and technology.

The next claim:

Claim 2: Classrooms will be abandoned and replaced by open marketplaces where children will “buy” the subjects and courses they feel are suitable for them.

Response: “yes and no”. There are two things blended in this claim: abandoning the physical classrooms and making subjects & courses optional. Either can be done with or without the other one.

First the classrooms: they are already now a lot more flexible and modular than they used to be, so I don’t think that they will be altogether abandoned. Rather, we will see more innovative use of classrooms and technology in them.

Then the “buying” of subjects: this is a question which divides opinions. On one hand, we want to allow pupils & students to follow their passion and concentrate on the things they are truly interested in. On the other, we would of course like to preserve the general level of education across subjects. As the children progress to upper grade levels, they naturally get more choices to specialize.

Claim 3: Schoolchildren will make “bad” choices that will affect them into adulthood – for instance if they opt for more mathematics instead of a language course, or vice versa.

Response: “no”. I agree here totally with Ninni and Pasi Sahlberg, who commented on this claim. Although it might sound a bit idealistic to state that “here in Finland we treat all subjects as equally important”, there is a fair point to this.

My own justification to this stems from the life after school. Worklife and the skills needed in it changes so fast that no basic education can keep up. That is why we should give a broad education and organize careers so that people can engage in lifelong learning and professional development.

Claim 4: Pupils will themselves decide which level of achievement they want to aim for, and they will be set assignments enabling them to achieve such grades. There is a risk that students capable of high grades will only aim for low grades, so they can have an easy time.

Response: “no”. Agree completely. Let’s again divide this claim into two. First, regarding who sets the “level of achievement”: as Anneli Rautiainen points out, learning goals are stated in the curriculum, not by the pupils.

Secondly, about the risk that the smart students would only aim at low grades and lay back after they’ve done. This can happen no matter who sets the goals. Some smart students want to go citius, altius, fortius, whereas others are happy with their minimum acceptable performance. And all the shades of gray in between.

It is the question of motivating pupils to give their best, not about who sets the goals.

Claim 5: Schoolchildren will no longer be divided into conventional groups of learners, but will instead hang out in their own cliques according to their interests.

Response: “no”. Agree and this is important. Differentiation takes place within a class. The classroom has a heterogeneous set of pupils with varying interests and skill levels. We want to unite rather than separate. This of course demands a lot from the teachers and learning materials, but it is something we just have to do.

Claim 6: The brightest students will no longer fare so well, because cramming will be neglected.

Response: “yes and no”. This is partly related to Claim 4 above, regarding what will happen to the smartest students after the curriculum reform. Again: “brightest students” is not a homogeneous group of people; some of them (like to) learn by cramming, whereas others use other methods.

Naturally, knowing things by heart becomes less and less important since information is at our fingertips. However, core information structures, causal relationships, and general knowledge are still needed for critical thinking, media literacy and other relevant skills.

Claim 7: All provenly effective teaching methods will be abandoned, and schoolchildren will end up just messing around.

Response: “no”. Of course they won’t, this is a weird claim. This is not a revolution where all good methods will be forgotten. It is rather an evolution, where old means will be complemented with new ones to produce the best ends.

Claim 8: Homework will not be set at all.

Response: “no”. Yep, mentioned this already in the beginning of this post. Homework has always played a role in Finnish education and will continue to do so.

Claim 9: There will be no more tests and exams.

Response: “no”. Yes, there will be tests and exams also in the future. But it is important to clarify just what kinds of tests. Matriculation examination at the end of upper secondary education (highschool) is the only large-scale national standardized test in Finland. Has been and will continue.

However, teachers conduct tests all the time while they teach. A test is a tool for learning as much as it is a tool for assessing. Teacher has a lot of freedom running her class. She can choose to test often or rarely, inform about an exam in advance or surprise the pupils, use ready-made tests or create her own, etc.

Claim 10: Teachers will have to be super-adapters, able to teach from this autumn onwards using completely different methods, and dealing with new subjects like coding.

Response: “no”. At the expense of repeating myself: this is evolution, not revolution. Nothing will be completely different. Still, there are plenty of new skills also the teachers have to adopt. But the change won’t happen overnight and resources must be allocated to train the teachers to keep them on top of their game.

Edit: I had missed the last two claims when I first published this post. You can find them below.

Claim 11: Learning difficulties will not be found, because pupils will be responsible for their own achievements.

Response: “no”. Of course in the end it is up to the pupil whether or not she decides to study. However, the role of the teacher is very important. The teacher, equipped with appropriate learning materials and tools, is capable of assessing the pupils and noticing potential learning difficulties.

Claim 12: The new curriculum will consign Finland’s excellent results in the international Pisa ratings for education systems to the dustbin of history.

Response: “maybe, but so what?” I’ve been in this business for five years now. One thing that has still amazes me is how different local curricula are. That is why I am not a big proponent of measuring children across countries in the first place.

Flickr image CC credits: Simon Doggett

 

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#brexit – a Unique Phenomenon for Project-based Learning

Unsettling as Britain leaving the EU is, it is bound to provide interesting material and themes for all sorts of educational projects. Not very often get the students to live amidst a societal change this big.

Big Ben

What’s unique about Brexit is that it’s future events can be plotted to a timeline with a certain probability. This separates it from say a war or other conflict, which can have some cease-fires and eventually ends, but the “schedule” cannot be known in advance, nor can the state-of-affairs when the peace finally arrives.

Although the details are still open to a large extent, we already know that the Brexit will take years to complete, requiring a plethora of negotiations and reviews both in Brussels and London. Lots and lots of things to be done before EU’s second biggest economy and a member for 40+ years can leave in a controlled manner.

Brexit opens up all kinds of possibilities for projects and online learning. Typically projects are only about the past or the present, but this time speculations and calculations can indeed be made about the future: how will the British and EU economies develop, what happens to trade and immigration between the UK and the EU, how about UK’s internal tensions, etc.

As a broad phenomenon Brexit has elements belonging in several classic school subjects, such as social studies, history, geography, mathematics, foreign languages, and economics. In addition, it opens up interesting opportunities for assessment. The students can for example make estimations on the stock market development for the upcoming months and later on they can be assessed on how close to reality they predicted and how accurate was their reasoning.

Flickr image CC credits: Natesh Ramasamy

 

Scratch: Learning by Remixing

Scratchcat

I came across an interesting Medium post about the visual programming language and framework Scratch. The post said that some 30% of pupil projects in Scratch are remixes. In other words, three in ten projects build on top of existing ones.

There’s nothing surprising here. First of all, reusing and -mixing existing projects is made easy in Scratch. Secondly, building on top of existing code is an age-old tradition and a common way of working in the programming community. The rest of the world has a lot to learn from developers on how to avoid reinventing the wheel.

What’s interesting, instead, is that remixing actually teaches new concepts. The writers of the above-mentioned Medium post had done research on Scratch community and found out that kids started to use concepts they had never used before but were exposed through remixing.

What to make of this? To me it means that remixing and reusing is not brainless copying & pasting. No, it is an active process of taking existing material, investigating it, enriching with own additions, and releasing for others to remix even further. Standing on the shoulders of giants, paying forward, adding value, etc. There are many ways to describe this process.

How about expanding this beyond programming projects? Are there “traditional” school subjects or activities where remix culture would fit? I am thinking for example written essays. Remixing essays could create an interesting Wikipedia-like network of written content.

This is against the grain; plagiarism is a known problem in this day and age, when stealing answers from the web is ever so easy. Dealing with this comes down to assessment. In addition to the essay, maybe the student could at least be assessed with additional questions to verify how well she understands the core topics in her essay. If she could answer to such questions, then it wouldn’t matter if she had used someone else’s content in her writing. Because she had learned, right?

 

 

Science Center as an Ecosystem Hub

This is the third and (at least for now) final part of my science center blog post trilogy. Previous posts were about interactivity and  project-based learning.

ecosystem

In my first post I emphasized interactivity and how that separates science museums from traditional ones. Museum goers not only passively look at exhibits. Instead, they become active subjects by operating the exhibits.

Maker movement brings the interactivity phenomenon even further. Rather than allowing the visitors to interact with ready-made exhibits, why not give them components, modules, and tools to tamper with? They can then build their own exhibits for themselves and other visitors to enjoy.

Maker culture is connected with robotics startups. Hardware components are becoming cheaper and more powerful, creating new opportunities for all kinds of gadget creators. For example, who would’ve thought ten or even five years ago that you could buy a computer with $35? This is nevertheless the case currently with Raspberry Pi. My point? A science center can partner with startups to provide broader offering than it could alone.

In modern business the mantra goes that you should focus on your core strength and do the rest via partnering. This applies to science centers, too. Decades ago centers built their own factories and operated in a somewhat self-contained fashion. These days it is possible to leave the large scale manufacturing to subcontractors, and concentrate on innovating and maybe building the first prototypes.

To sum up: science centers are including other players in their ecosystem. They let visitors to interact with their exhibits and this can be boosted with allowing them to make, tweak, and tune the exhibits. They can partner with technology startups to expand offering and create mutual value. Finally, they can streamline their processes via subcontracting.

Flickr image CC credits: USFWS – Pacific Region

Class Charts to Boost its International Expansion

Class Charts

Great news today from my Class Charts friends Duncan and Gintas: their company Edukey just announced an investment round from TES Global! I once wrote about five edtech startups and claimed that you are going to hear about them in the future. Well, today is that future for one of them.

TES is a UK-based provider of various services to teachers. Class Charts being a seating chart tool for teachers fits their portfolio perfectly. The same goes for Edykey’s other major product, Provision Map, which addresses special education needs.

Edukey will utilize this investment to expand internationally, expecting to grow its current user base of 350k teachers and 4m students significantly. I wish the best of luck to Duncan and Gintas, the hardest working men on edtech!

 

Science Exhibitions Can Explain Complex Phenomena

This is the second post in my series of posts about science centers. Read the first one about science centers and interactivity here.

Glasgow science centre*

Glasgow science centre*

In the upcoming Finnish K-12 curriculum, set to launch August 2016, project-based learning (or phenomenon-based learning) is going to have more emphasis than it has in the current curriculum.

Project-based learning is often juxtaposed with “traditional” learning consisting of subjects such as mathematics, geography, foreign languages, etc. In project-based learning, instead of absorbing chunks from isolated subject silos, the students address larger real world problems. Solving such problems calls for interdisciplinary knowledge and skills.

My educated guess is that project-based learning will not take over the entire K-12 education. Most lessons will remain subject-specific. Subject is a great common demoninator for grouping certain kinds of things together. School subjects were not invented by accident, they actually make sense!

However, trying to understand complex phenomena is great for enriching the knowledge learned via individual subjects. Working on large problems is great for applying the knowledge, refining it into a set of skills. This is the case for project-based learning.

Organizing project-based learning at school is not trivial. It calls for flexible learning materials, co-operation among teachers, and new ways of assessment, among other things. Could science centers and exhibitions help in this?

Like art museums, science centers often have temporary exhibitions to complement permanent ones. A temporary exhibition addresses a certain theme and is typically open for a couple of months or even years.

Having a quick look at some of worlds most visited science centers, I can find for example the following temporary exhibitions:

Without going into details of the above exhibitions, it is relatively easy to think of them as starting points for learning projects. They address large and multi-level phenomena; you can approach for example cats, dogs and other animals from several angles, putting knowledge from many disciplines and subjects to use.

Taking the class to a science center can spark project-based learning. As it will be more relevant in the new curriculum, maybe science centers and the government’s education officials could even work together in planning exhibitions?

* Flickr image CC credits: Graeme Maclean