Tag Archives: Finland

Doing it by the numbers

I am very puzzled by the debate surrounding the release of the PIRLS Report and Australia’s poor performance in grade 4 reading. Two years ago the PISA Report showed Australia firmly in the top 10% of OECD nations, although we had declined since the previous round of testing. the USA performance was lack luster and well below that of Australia and New Zealand. Now, two years later, the positions have been reversed. The USA is respectable and Australia is appalling – according to this new set of numbers.

So what happened in two years? Did Aussie kids suddenly forget everything they knew two years earlier? I know that the PISA tests look at 15 year olds, but they were fourth graders before they became fifteen year olds.

Finland and the usual suspects among the Asian Tigers are still up the top. But what’s going on in the USA and Australia/NZ?

Can someone help me here?

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A teacher? You can do so much better.

In San Francisco today, i overheard a conversation between two women on the train. One was discussing her daughter, who she described as studying environmental science, loving every minute of it and being very successful in her studies.

She then commented that her daughter had suggested teaching as a career.

“Teaching? You can do so much better than that” she had told her daughter.

Her mother’s friend added her perspective. “Why would she want to be a teacher when she could be a real scientist? Teaching is something she could always go into later, when she is older.”

I bristled when I heard the words “Teaching? She could do so much better.”

Therein lie our problems. Teaching is seen as a career for those who can’t do any better.

I refuse to mention F#*^%nd again so soon. The place where it is harder to be a teacher than to be a doctor.

Until we fix this perception of teachers we will never fix our educational system.

Fixing this problem is complex and it will take a very long time. When will someone have the courage to start?

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“Thank God that’s over!

From yesterday’s Huffington Post we learn that “Five states were to announce Monday that they will add at least 300 hours of learning time to the calendar in some schools starting in 2013.”

And so we will fix the problems with our schools by doing what hasn’t been working for even longer.

My greatest fear as an educator was always that kids would leave school thinking “Thank God that’s over!”

Looks like five states are even closer to that target.

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OK. It’s Finland again.

 

The more I read about the successes of the Finnish school system the more convinced I become that the key is in its teachers. You can check it out here.

http://thelearningcurve.pearson.com/

In Finland the length of the school day is shorter – that’s because great teachers know how to make the most of every minute. Many studies have revealed the enormous amount of time devoted to non-learning tasks in the classroom. Good teachers know how to organize a school day and a group of kids so that time is never wasted.

Time is provided in the school day for professional learning. Good teachers understand they are lifelong learners and are eager to build on their skills. They are committed to learning in their own lives.

There is no strict curriculum, no pacing guides, just broad outlines of areas to be covered. This is because the community and the authorities know they can trust teachers to do what is best. They believe they have the knowledge, the training and the intellectual discipline needed to make the best choices about what kids need to learn and when they need to learn it.

There is no ‘payment by results’ because there is a proven belief that all the teachers are good teachers. They do not gain entry to the profession until they have demonstrated that.

Children have around 75 minutes of free play each day because teachers understand that ‘the work of childhood is play’ and they understand how to integrate the things children learn in the playground with the things going on in the classroom.

Teacher candidates are selected from the top 10% of high school graduates. No one becomes a teacher in Finland because they couldn’t get into another course and because of good pay or long  holidays.

The profession is held in high regard and much is expected of teachers. It is more difficult to enter university to become a primary teacher in Finland than it is to enter medical school in some universities.

There is no whole scale testing of children until they are 16. Teachers are trusted to know what is needed and then to provided it.

30% of primary school aged children receive some form of additional learning support as soon as their teachers deem it necessary. Learning problems are addressed as they are revealed and noticed by highly skilled teachers.

93.2% of students graduate from high school in Finland compared with 76.82% in the USA. And in the USA we need to keep in mind the reality that this percentage is inflated by the “credit recovery’ programs that allow for a D graduation after the completion of a short summer course for failing students. Finnish students stay at school and succeed because they have had a history of quality teaching.

In other words the quality of the Finnish education system rests on the quality of the teachers.

The quality of the teachers is ensured by a demanding initial selection system and a lengthy period of professional preparation during which the ongoing suitability for teaching is constantly monitored.

You don’t get into a classroom in Finland if you are anything other than a highly skilled teacher.

 

Sir Ken Robinson (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY) has commented that all over the world nations are tinkering with education. Mostly they look at rewriting standards and curriculum and then they work at designing tests.

What they fail to do, and the single thing that they MUST do, is look at the teachers.

Finland began reforming its education in the 1960s.

There are no magic bullets.

There are no short cuts.

If we don’t begin the hard work now, when will we?

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Filed under Behavior management, Language and literacy, Teacher education, Testing, Thinking

How Bad Can It Get?

Let me tell you just how bad it can get – this relentless striving towards the ‘benchmark’. It reaches a pinnacle in the creation of the Pacing Guide. This nightmarish document becomes the focus of everything the teacher does in the classroom.

How is it created? Not by evil trolls beavering away in subterranean caves, lit by the flickering fires of hell. No. It is created by well-meaning souls who believe they are doing Something Good for education.

And it’s done more or less like this.

A careful examination of past standardized tests reveals the sections of the mandated curriculum that have been tested most frequently as well as the number of questions that relate to each area of the curriculum.

Each section of the curriculum is given a loading based largely on the proportion of questions it attracted in these past tests. This analysis will form the basis of the content and timing of the Pacing Guide.

A curriculum is developed for each grade level based on this analysis, making sure that previously untested areas of the curriculum are not left out entirely, but ensuring that the topics attracting the biggest number of questions also get the most time.

The school year is broken up into, for example, nine week units. The curriculum is similarly divided.

A test is devised for the end of each nine week period. Its format will closely resemble the high stakes test to be taken at the end of the school year. It will test exactly what was in the nine week curriculum and its questions will reflect the same priorities that went into the decisions about the content focus – the more likely it is to be tested, the more we focus on it.

The data obtained from these nine week tests will be provided to principals quickly so that they can call to account every teacher whose students are not meeting expectations. There will be an accountability meeting with each of these teachers in the principal’s office.

We now have a system in place that provides a ‘laser-like’ focus on the material to be tested by the State. From time to time an Assistant Superintendent will visit the school and pop into classrooms. Her task is to make sure that on this particular Tuesday, or Friday, or whenever, every teacher is teaching exactly what is expected according to the Pacing Guide. The teachers know better than to deviate from the Pacing Guide because its content will be tested at the end of the nine weeks and they will be held to account.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE KIDS?

Let’s get something very clear here and now.

The role of the kids is to pass the tests so the schools are accredited and the district isn’t penalized.

The students’ task is to make sure the district doesn’t look bad.

This is how bad it can and has become.

It doesn’t matter if there is a violent thunder storm rolling about over the top of the school, fascinating the kids. We can’t talk or read or write about that. It’s Wednesday and the Pacing Guide says we should be learning about Mali.

It doesn’t matter that James has just come back from a holiday in Mexico and saw a parade on the Day of the Dead. He has photos, and a head full of questions. But it’s Monday and the Pacing Guide says we need to work hard on understanding the water cycle.

It doesn’t matter that Timmy still doesn’t understand the multiplication of fractions. He has to move on or he won’t have covered the rest of the topics by the end of the nine weeks. He can come back after school, at the weekend, in the summer … to plug the gaps in his understanding. We know that the building of mathematical understanding is a cumulative process and a misunderstanding now will undermine everything that comes next, but we just have to move on.

Yes, this is how bad it gets.

Perhaps the greatest evil of high stakes standardized testing is that it takes our eyes away from the children and focuses them instead on the tests themselves.

Children become sources of data.

Learning becomes something that is cut, sliced, packaged and weighed.

Until we rid ourselves of this impediment to education and find valid, humane, child centred forms of assessment, testing will continue to STOP our children from learning.

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It’s new and it’s shiny. The ADHD of educational policy

When will our educational policy makers learn to think in the deep end? It’s as though there is a kind of systemic ADHD at work where attention is grabbed by every bright and shiny new thing.

Let’s look at Finland again. I know, we keep doing this, but they have got a lot of things right!

Having highly qualified teachers is correlated with successful educational outcomes in nations such as Finland. So let’s sprinkle our schools with sparkling, academically gifted graduates, sit back and watch the transformation. That’s the idea behind Teach For America and Teach for Australia.

After six weeks intensive training these bright and shiny exceptional graduates are sent to some of our most disadvantaged schools where they will work with teacher mentors for around two years, transforming themselves and their students into educational successes.

Of course, the teacher mentors in these highly challenging schools have plenty of time to devote to their new chums, supporting them, guiding them, and providing them with the wisdom and strategies needed to survive and prosper in these environments. They have plenty of spare time for this.

The shallowness of this thinking is distressing. Teachers in Finland are highly qualified because of the selection processes BEFORE they graduate, not after. This is no crude “My word, you got a high GPA/ straight A/High Distinction degree, you will make a great teacher” decision.

“It’s more difficult to get into primary school teacher education in Finnish universities than medicine”

according to Dr Pasi Sahlberg (ABC Lateline, February 28th, 2012.)

Dr Sahlberg describes one student with aspirations to be a primary school teacher. She was a straight A student. She had read the required books on pedagogy before going through the application process. Yep. You heard it right. She was assumed to have thoughtfully completed required reading as a part of the application process. She took the entrance exam based on these books. Next she was required to engage in an observed clinical activity, replicating a school setting and focusing on social and communication skills.

Finally, she was invited to an interview where the most challenging question she was asked was “Why do you want to become a teacher when you could become a lawyer or a doctor?” Notice that there was no suggestion at all that she might be choosing teaching because she couldn’t get into law or medical schools. They would have been realistic options for her – maybe easier options!

She didn’t make it.

Dr Sahlberg tells us that in Finland they have practically no unsatisfactory teachers. I think you can see why.

If we continue to believe that we can take the high achievers from one environment (academic learning) and think they will continue to shine in a completely different environment (teaching) we will never improve educational outcomes for our kids.

It’s all about the teaching, and the teaching is all about the teachers.

Fiddling with curriculum, fiddling with assessments – these are all just fiddling while Rome burns if we don’t do something to ensure that we have selected the best potential teachers and given them the best pedagogical preparation we can provide. Only then are they ready to go into classrooms and educate our children.

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What if testing is STOPPING our kids from learning?

Our schools continue to be run as if they were nineteenth century factories. We focus on standardization and its measurement. We process in batches. We talk about ‘value added’ assessment as if we viewed our children as raw material to be processed in some kind of assembly line. We focus on eliminating outputs that do not meet our predetermined standards of quality for the end product.

We do our best to standardize the inputs in the only way we know how – by original date of manufacture or birth date. We then develop processing techniques that we try hard to standardize across every factory/school . These are the curricula and teaching practices that are required in each school district in order for the process workers/ teachers, to get positive evaluations. We design cheaply administered tests to ensure that every end product/child meets the same criteria of successful processing/schooling. At the end of each processing year every module/child submits to the same test to determine the value added to the raw material. Faulty modules/children who do not meet the standard are reprocessed through either the repetition of the previous processing system or some form of modified processing, until they do meet the standard.

The core of the assembly line factory, the practice on which its products would stand or fall, was standardized measurement of quality. It is precisely this practice permeating current education systems, that will destroy education and ensure that our children fail in the 21st century.

Why? Because our children are not widgets and learning does not work like that.

Real, transformational learning takes place when we are fascinated by something, when we develop a passion for a subject. Our strength as a species comes from our diversity not our uniformity. Every child has the capacity to be fascinated by something different and our schools, with their standardized curricula and testing, do everything they can to stifle this diversity, to ensure that every kid learns exactly the same thing.

We learn best when we take risks, when we chance failure because even though it is really difficult material, it fascinates us enough to make the risks and the hard work worthwhile. I recall my horror when I was informed by a group of young women in the final year of their undergraduate degree that they were withdrawing from my subject because they felt they would not get an A and that would have a negative effect on their Grade Point Average. Our testing regime, our relentless focus on end of manufacture measurement, is stopping our kids from learning.

Seth Godin, in a recent TED talk (http://getideas.org/resource/seth-godin-stop-stealing-dreams/?v=1352307111) uses a powerful analogy.  He says that we are focused on getting our kids to collect dots and we measure success by how many dots they have accumulated by the end of the school year. Instead, we should be teaching them to connect the dots, and this we are failing to do.

There is only one thing we need to focus on in education – thinking. Google has made the belief that there is some set of facts that is somehow mandatory learning for every student an archaic notion. You cannot think without something to think about. The content of any curriculum should be determined and judged by one fundamental criterion – how does it advance the students’ ability to think?

We need more brave schools, prepared to turn their backs on the factory model and actually encourage kids to try to do things that are too hard. We need more people in positions of influence to say, “Our kids want to come to school every day. They are intrigued by the things we do every day. They create new ideas, they innovate, they take risks, they are excited about the things they have already learned and they want more. And I don’t care if they can’t pass your standardized test. We are doing something much more important. We are educating.”

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