Lessons from Finland: A Play in Two Acts

Finland has long been regarded as having one of the leading educational systems in the world. Each year, educators from across the globe make the trek to Finland in search of the “secrets” to their success. Recently, I made the trip with as part of a contingent from EdLeader21. I did not find one overarching story of the “Finnish miracle”; I discovered a play in two acts.

The first act of the play opened in 2000 when Finland emerged onto the world stage with the release of the first round of the PISA  results (the Programme for International Student Assessment), an internationally benchmarked test that measures the knowledge and skills of 15-year olds in reading, math, and science. Since then Finland has consistently appeared as one of the top ranked educational systems in the world.

This part of their story is well documented by Pasi Sahlberg in his book, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland (and more recently in the revised edition, Finnish Lessons 2.0). In his book, Sahlberg locates the sources of success, not in market-driven, test-based accountability, but rather in Finland’s relentless focus on providing all students with a solid education, developing and supporting quality teaching, and fostering a culture of trust across the system.

When I arrived in Finland, this was the story I thought I would explore. However, as I listened and learned from educators across the system, a second, more compelling act of the play unfolded. The first act of the play grabbed my attention initially; the second act stayed with me long after I returned home. This part of the story inspires me and provides some important lessons to educators across the globe who are  working to make schools more relevant and meaningful for students.

Articulating a vision for student learning

The second act of the play opened earlier this year, when the Finnish National Board of Education announced that schools will be moving toward a new national curricular framework by 2016. The new framework focuses on broad cross-cutting competencies and a more student-focused, integrated approach learning known as “phenomenon-based learning” (hailed somewhat inaccurately by the international press as “scrapping subjects“).

transversal competencies

Now, you might be wondering, why would Finland undertake such a change when their schools have consistently ranked among the top in international comparisons? As Ms. Irmeli Halinen, Head of Curriculum Development with the Finnish National Board of Education articulated so clearly: because “the world is changing. We need to think and rethink everything connected to school.” (You can hear the full presentation by clicking here).

What is remarkable is that leaders throughout the Finnish system have not been content to rest on their laurels or obsessively focus on raising test scores (in response to more recent slippage of their rankings). Instead, they have taken a close look at their current reality and articulated a clear vision for the skills and competencies as well as the kinds of learning students will need to be prepared for work, life and citizenship in the 21st Century.

A key lesson that we can take away from the Finnish experience is that an exclusive emphasis on test scores alone is not enough. With the transition to new computer-adaptive assessments being implemented across the U.S., some educators are gearing up by preparing students for the “new tests.” As Finland’s example illustrates such an effort is misguided in that it focuses attention on a narrow range of skills. Our students will a need a broader set of competencies that includes not only academic skills but also habits of mind necessary for lifelong learning and future success. We would do well to put our energies into designing powerful learning and assessing on-going growth and mastery so that students are empowered to tackle the challenges ahead.

Building a Consensus for the Vision

Articulating a vision is one thing. Building a broad consensus around the vision is quite another. Enter the Sitra’s New Education Forum, that engaged thirty one representatives across different sectors in Finland (schools, universities, business, and community organizations), outside experts (including a partnership in the U.S.), and an open Facebook group of nearly 2,000 people in an extended dialogue over a six month period. Throughout the process, discussions focused on essential questions about how to transform education to respond to the needs of learners in an ever changing world characterized by growing inequality, globalization, and digitalization.

The culmination of the Forum’s work resulted in the publication of A Land of People who Love to Learn. The report lays out in clear, simple language a vision for the future of education in Finland, starting with the candid acknowledgement that “Finnish education focuses on meeting yesterday’s standards.” The introduction goes on:

The gap between life and education has widened due to the world changing more rapidly than the educational system. The amount and availability of information has exploded; new professions emerge and vanish at an ever-increasing pace; learning happens everywhere.

The report’s aim “…was to stimulate readers’ thoughts and passions and encourage more open and constructive dialogue on the change in learning — not to put the minds of those content with the status quo at ease.” This document is impressive in its effort to provoke an open and honest discussion about how education can be more responsive to the needs of students and their well-being.

A second key lesson that we can take away from Finland’s example is the commitment demonstrated by national and regional leaders as well as school site leaders (principals and teachers) to engage in such a deep, thought-provoking dialogue around what students need and what is at stake. It was inspiring to hear people from across the educational system articulating the same message regarding the need for change and the key elements of the goals and learning principles to realize the vision. If we are to make deeper, more authentic learning a reality for students, we would do well to apply this lesson.

You can check out these resources to find out more about Finland’s approach to educational change in the 21st Century.

New Education Forum, A Land of People Who Love to Learn (Sitra, 2015)

Phenomenal Learning: Rethinking from Finland (website includes materials, resources, tools for systemic development and creation of schools of the future)

Pasi Mattila and Pasi Silander (Eds.), How to Create the School of the Future: Revolutionary Thinking and Design from Finland (European Social Fund, 2015)

Pasi Sahlberg, “Finland’s School Reforms Won’t Scrap Subjects Altogether,” published in The Conversation on March 25, 2015 (accessed Pasi Sahlberg’s blog on June 30, 2015).

Valerie Strauss, “No, Finland isn’t Ditching Traditional School Subjects.Here’s What Really Happening,” The Washington Post, March 26, 2015

As always, please feel free to share your comments.

Design Thinking Bootcamp #SCOE21C #DTK12chat

What I Learned at Design Bootcamp

To rethink and redesign learning for students, we as educators need to practice new ways of thinking and approaching challenges. A few weeks ago, I participated in a Design Thinking Bootcamp facilitated by Greg Bamford (@gregbamford), Carla Silver (@carla_r_silver) and Alyssa Gallagher (@am_gallagher) from Leadership and Design. Powerful learning stretches us beyond our boundaries, pushes us out of comfort zone, and leads us to new insights. This is exactly what I experienced. Here are my top five take-aways from the Design Thinking Bootcamp: Continue reading

Growing a culture of innovation #SAVMP

culture of innovationphoto credit: Tanja FÖHR via photopin

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a round table discussion with George Couros, the Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning for Parkland School Division, at the Marin County Office of Education (@MCOEPD). George has been inspirational to me. He’s challenged me to take risks in my own professional learning and provided gentle nudges to stick with the process. I was delighted to be able to meet him in person and talk about his ideas about how to grow a culture of innovation.

With his personable style and passion, George focused our attention on a key question for educational leaders: How do we move from pockets of innovation to a culture of innovation?  He provide much food for thought that is summarized very well by Eric Saibel, Assistant Principal at Sir Francis Drake High School, in his post, Stepping Beyond the Cage of the Unknown. George has also outlined these ideas in the Leading Innovative Change series on his blog, The Principal of Change.

While I came away from the discussion and presentation with my head spinning — lots to think about — I’d like to focus on a few of the key ideas that resonate with my work. Continue reading

A gentle nudge…slowing down #SAVMP

slow downphoto credit: Loozrboy via photopin cc

Sometimes inspiration comes at just the right moment. Lately, I have been moving at warp speed.  At times, I get so caught up in the “doing” that it is difficult to slow down and reflect.

Earlier this school year, I signed up to participate in an innovative program launched by George Couros (@gcouros), the School Administrator Virtual Mentor Program (#SAVMP). I have been fortunate to connect and learn with committed educators who are sorting through how to lead the way forward to innovative learning in our schools and communities. And, I have had a tough time juggling the competing demands of doing the work and reflecting on the work. I tend to lean more in the direction of the “doing” part (the slowing down part, not so much).

So, this week when George provided a “gentle nudge” to program participants to take time to stop and reflect and share our learning through blogging and tweeting, I was inspired to take stock. In his blog post, You can Close the Door (Sometimes), George offers a timely reminder that it is “high priority work” for educational leaders to stop and reflect and share as a key component of creating an open culture of learning among educators.

At first his post struck me as an interesting counterpoint to my recent post on the power of connections by “opening our doors” by sharing our professional practices.  The juxtaposition of open and closed doors made me think — both are necessary to our continued growth and learning.

It is only by closing our door (sometimes) that we are able to truly reflect on not only what we’re doing, but why it is important to our larger purpose. Running on empty does not really promote deep thinking or learning. Without our best thinking, it is virtually impossible to focus our energy on taking the next right steps to move forward. Taking the time to reflect enhances our ability to engage more meaningfully with others. It seems to me that both are essential to building a collaborative culture that promotes deeper learning and purposeful action toward our common goal.

What are your thoughts on how to slow down and take time for deeper reflection?

A time for change…

small__8222922317photo credit: marsmet546 via photopin cc

I recently came across Tom Whitby’s insightful blog post, “Educator Fear and Discomfort.” His post provided me with some important perspective on how we approach integrating technology and learning.

Whitby highlights two counterproductive beliefs that stand in the way of fully integrating digital tools into the classroom: 1) that all kids are digital natives who know everything about technology and 2) that teachers cannot make mistakes in front of students. These beliefs coupled by a misguided notion that before a teachers can use technology with students they must know everything about the technology and all applications. Whitby correctly points out that this is simply impossible given the incredible pace of change.

The constant in education should be the learning and not the status quo. If society is moving to change at a rapid pace, then we need to develop in our children the skills and abilities to change as well, and that requires the same abilities in the educators who are charged with teaching our children.

Integrating digital tools into the learning process shifts “the learning dynamic for teachers and for students.” As he notes,”It requires a commitment to life long learning which goes beyond just the words.” In short, we must practice what preach.

He concludes by emphasizing that: “…we can better educate our students if we better educate their educators. We should never hold up our past as our children’s model for their future.”

Whitby’s post serves as an excellent reminder to educators who are focused on preparing children for their future, not our past.  Our work toward this goal needs to be focused on the learning first, not the devices. And, more importantly, bringing new digital tools into the classroom must be guided by a commitment to creating the conditions that make it possible through training, support, collaboration and encouragement for educators.

What are some ways that we can create the conditions that make this kind of transformation in teaching and learning a reality for students and educators?

Do we practice what we preach?

small__2980678175photo credit: Eric M Martin via photopin cc

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”

— William Butler Yeats

This week I had the opportunity to talk with a local business leader who passionately believes that to meet the challenges of our rapidly changing world, we need to “unleash our entrepreneurial spirit.”

As we talked, he described the capacities that are essential for successfully navigating an ever shifting terrain: embracing change, engaging in lifelong learning and growth, staying relevant, challenging assumptions, taking risks, considering multiple perspectives, and aligning our purpose and passion. He concluded by stating that educators need to “practice what you preach!”

Our conversation then turned toward the vital role educators play in helping young people develop these capacities. I found myself wondering how well we, as educators, model these critical habits of mind and practices? Do we engage in active, self-directed lifelong learning? Stay relevant? Take risks? I reflected on  our tendency to cling to what is known and avoid venturing into the unknown. Continue reading

Into the Stratosphere

stratosphere

I just finished reading Michael Fullan’s, Stratosphere.  In this book,  he outlines how: “the ideas embedded in the new technology, the new pedagogy, and the new change knowledge are converging to transform education for all” (p. 3).  Fullan’s book resonates with a driving question I have grappled with in my own work.  How do we create meaningful change throughout our system to truly innovate teaching and learning?

Fullan’s argument is something to consider as we work to make our schools and systems more responsive to the students we serve. In some ways, Fullan’s book treads familiar ground. In his earlier writing, Fullan has correctly warned that technology as the solution can be the “wrong driver” for school reform if it is not paired with “smart pedagogy.”

In Stratsophere, Fullan issues a similar warning.  I agree with him. We should not mistake the tools for actual student learning. Using upgraded technology will not automatically transform pedagogy. Continue reading