Thursday, August 23, 2012

Finnish Teacher Training: Masterful and Commanding

Today I had the opportunity to immerse myself in Finland's teacher training programs (and even teach a little lesson myself!).

Our host, Olli Maatta Principal & University of Helsinki teacher preparation instructor, gave us a comprehensive background, arranged for us to view the lessons of the master teachers who serve as yearlong hosts to their student teachers, and also challenged us with some closing, provocative questions.

He began with, "Teaching is not just about being a master of your content. It is being in touch with parents...putting into practice the knowledge you learned in your training."

Potential teachers are chosen after two or three years of undergraduate preparation through grade point average, test scores and a make-it-or-break-it interview. Ultimately it is the interview that is used to choose people to study to become teachers. The interview is conducted with content teachers, content-area professors, and an education professor. This group is looking for a virtual single-minded motivation to be with children as the priority.

Olli stressed that the role of teachers and teacher education are important to the now famous Finnish success that we are here to study.

Once chosen, these potential teachers are paired with master teachers at a teacher training school, like the secondary school I visited. To be a master teacher you must have at least two years of experience but Olli said the reality was that these teachers had much more than two years and a tremendous amount of value was placed in finding master teachers who had advanced degrees beyond the initial, mandatory Masters degree required to enter the profession.

The yearlong school-based placement (sound familiar CareerTeacher fans?!) included simulations on how to deal with a comprehensive list of issues, concerns and situations such as bullying, students who skip school and more to assure that practicing teachers get a wide range of experiences before earning the teaching credential.

In short, like everything else I have experienced this week in Finland, nothing is left to chance. It seems there is no such thing as "sink or swim" in Finnish education for the students or the teachers. Everything is intentional.

Olli explained that "Finnish teachers are called 'passionate pragmatists'" and I saw evidence of that in the 8th grade English lesson I observed. The teaching felt familiar. This master teacher was using the same techniques I have seen in countless St. Paul classrooms: an ambitious teaching pace, constant spiraling up of expectations building toward mastery in each new activity, checking for understanding, turn and talk, and discipline while conveying care for students and their learning.

It was good to sit in on a grade level with which I have so much experience to put the "Finnish students must just be better behaved and THAT'S why they do better on PISA" myth to rest. They are typical students who will draw on their Converse, pick at their nail polish, interrupt with video game stories and roll their eyes if you let them. This teacher clearly had taught them classroom rituals because redirecting them (constantly redirecting them--this is middle school)was swift and successful.

It was an absolute privilege to be able to share a small verb tense lesson alongside her at the end of my stay in her classroom.

When we got back together Olli shared the intentional work behind constructing this universal teacher preparation program with us. It was both affirming and challenging to be able to see behind the curtain so-to-speak of such a successful teacher training program.

It starts with the philosophy that the teacher is the expert in planning, implementing, and evaluating teaching and learning. With this as the beginning, everything is developed to support that.

Teachers must be taught to talk to each other constantly.
Teachers must design the curriculum so they can define what students should know and do at their grade level like no one else.
Teachers must be comfortable with autonomy so they feel responsible for executing this work.

Olli has hosted countless international delegations, all looking for the Finnish silver bullet. He works tirelessly to prevent Finland from being infected by GERM, the term coined by Pasi Sahlberg that stands for the Global Education Reform Movement. He has witnessed many people walking away disturbed that their education reform worldview was challenged rather than reinforced. As a man in a country with the PISA scores we envy and nothing to lose, he ended with three questions for our American delegation:

Can passion/engagement be emulated and scaled?
What does your society celebrate?
Are you able to see the harbor? which was his metaphor for "Are you actually sailing toward a destination or are you just wandering around lost and hoping you find a port?"


I have my gut reaction to those questions, but I feel very strongly that we must answer these questions thoughtfully and together in order to accomplish something.

Your thoughts?

6 comments:

Joe Nathan said...

Great post. Thanks very much. I just did a facebook post agreeing and wondering why a number of Mn teacher prep institutions are not using "Beat the Odds" district & charters to train a new generation of teachers. Another great option is what SPFT has developed - using master teachers to help. Thanks for your reports.

Anthony Cody said...

Mary Catherine,

This is a great question:
"Can passion/engagement be emulated and scaled?"

One of the central drivers of modern education "reform" is the idea that in order for reform to occur we must find things that work and also can be replicated on a broad scale. So whenever we find success, it is analyzed and reduced to a series of steps, a method, a formula, which is then packaged and re-applied on a larger scale. But very often the original dynamism that drove the model to success is lost in the translation, and instead of a great set of ideas, we have deadly top-down transformations. Instead of being inspired, we feel controlled and condescended to.

Nonetheless, I would answer "yes" to the question above. I just don't think we understand how to do it yet. I think passion and engagement can be INSPIRED. They can be MODELED. They can be ENCOURAGED. But these qualities are DESTROYED when we think we can mandate them, control them, or coerce them through top-down reform strategies.

Engagement and passion are closely linked to the sense of agency and autonomy that we feel. In my work with teachers, I have found a huge difference in the level of enthusiasm and energy they have when professional development is centered on investigating their practice, and answering the real challenges they identify. In the context of teacher inquiry, lesson study or other processes like this that honor their expertise and make them the authors of their own growth, they have a lot of excitement. But when these same teachers go to PD sessions and are fed the latest and greatest recipes from on high, they slump in their seats and become like recalcitrant 9th graders.

We cannot "scale" the way we are accustomed to. We need to think of our professional growth as an organic process that each teacher needs to be challenged to guide for him or herself. Working together, teachers inspire one another and help each other see where there is room to grow. That is how we build passion and engagement, from the ground up, not from the top down.

Nina Smith said...

Very nice post, thank you. From what you write and from my own experience I think one of the main problems is the unnecessary use of power applied over teachers and students. Teachers don't have to be taught to talk to each other, but they must be allowed to do so, without the thought of someone playing them against each other during the next evaluation period. The same applies to students. Less competition more cooperation is a good start. Yet, Finnish education is not a formula that can be replicated, because it is deeply rooted in the society, starting from granting mothers a 10 month long paid maternity leave.
What we CAN do is to pay more attention to learning than teaching, and that helps learning become more meaningful and more individual. This applies both to students and teachers in their PD sessions.

adam kevin said...

They have so many Grammar exercises, activities, dialogues, and you can have their newsletter in your email for free. It's been a long time I've been using them, and I guess you can also learn a lot just using them.

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Entranci said...

Brilliant. One of the very best I have read. Well written, with style and intelligence. I have spent hours looking for erotica like this. Resorting to writing it myself.
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gene apolinares said...

Thank you for this useful post!

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