Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Angry Birds, Happy People

"Finland is a place where you have angry birds and happy people..."
-Pasi Sahlberg,Director General of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture.

I must give someone else in the delegation credit for noticing the  deep consensus in Finland around happiness, keeping it simple and acting with intention and meaning. As I've been reflecting on her observation, I realize that much of what I admired about what I saw so far has fit into one of those categories.

Yesterday was our day to spend time in primary or comprehensive schools. I had the chance to spend the day in a neighborhood school that was also a magnet for students with diagnosed special needs before our afternoon with out-of-schooltime groups and a parent advocacy organization in the afternoon.

In the special needs/neighborhood school we visited, the headmaster summed up their consensus as to what made Finnish schools so good:

->High educational standards for all teachers (no shortcuts for some)
->Equal quality of schools
->Systems to support students not to drop out
->Municipalities and schools can consider local conditions when organizing education
->No private schools so children can learn to be will different kinds of people
->The idea of learning, not teaching. i.e. teachers have a great deal of autonomy and are expected to use several different methods of teaching and the focus is on giving students the tools they can use their whole life.

In another school, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards' President and CEO Ron Thorpe reported back that the principal answered "Because they have big freedom" when asked why people in Finland become teachers.

Ron said that the principal went on to describe the school by saying, "This school is a rose garden and these children are our roses."

This last point, in particular, was reinforced in the afternoon by the parent advocate who said one of the biggest concerns parents have is over-testing. "Finland has been very wise in not adopting all this testing. I'm proud of my child's teacher--now that's test enough."

He explained that the most important job of teachers and parents is to work together and, despite describing some concerns that I have seen first-hand in middle schools I've taught in, too--parents not being as involved as in elementary school, wanting better attendance at parent/teacher conferences--he stated, [we have to] "do the sort of community-building where we have trust or we [Finland] won't get the kind of results we've been getting."

Across all the representative groups: sports leagues, out-of-school-time organizations, parent and youth groups happiness and well-being was the common goal of all.


Today we spent the day in post-secondary institutions and talking to business leaders. One business leader in particular summed up his impression of Finnish educational success with:
Equality is opportunity
We trust our teachers
Less is more.

He went on to tell a story of how the headmaster of his child's school had the chance to tell Howard Gardner, of Harvard University that "We want to make good citizens," when asked what the purpose of Finnish public education was.

He also took some pride in pointing out in clear, clipped English that Finland takes care of its children, so "we've had 'no child left behind' for 150 years." With comprehensive, universal access to high quality health care, preschool, and a lifetime of free education, indeed.

Pasi went on to joke that in other places they have happy birds and angry people. Will we be able to learn these Finnish lessons, or will we be the angry people in Pasi's joke?


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