Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Finland - more myths on teachers, class sizes and selection

Finland - more myths
My last post on 'Why Finland is finished as a role model in education' generated some great contributions from people who do teach in Finland. Their comments were welcome and I don’t want to repeat them here. But I do want to include some other voices, with views on Finnish teachers, class sizes and selection, that run counter to that great Finnish saga, which presented Finland as an educational paradise. They largely blame PISA, as it was PISA that sparked off the mythology, exaggeration and cherry-picking. Finland is not to blame for this, indeed many I speak to seem a little embarrassed by the attention – it is not in the Finnish character to puff your chest out in public. Indeed, many Finnish voices have been drowned out by the evangelist Pasi Sahlberg. Note that this is not his fault, as he's quite realistic in seeing the Finnish system as non-transferable to other countries.
General myths
I mean people like myth-buster Fred Durvin, Professor of Multicultural Education at the University of Helsinki, who points to‘Mythologies’ (1957) by Barthes, to expose the process where myths (such as the Finnish educational myth) easily slip into being ideologies. That's exactly what is happening here, for example, with the UK government's adherence to PISA as the standard against which our education system will be judged. He does not see PISA as a good tool for assessing ability and claims, counter to the mythology, that the Finnish system is highly competitive, with children generally starting school at age two, not seven. He also points towards the lack of reporting around violence and major gun massacres, as a typical example of the selectivity of the evidence and mythologising. I had never heard of the school massacres at Rauma (2 dead), Jokela (9 dead) and Kauhajoki (11 dead) before reading Durvin.
Finnish teachers – the myths
The problems come when positions are exaggerated. Finnish teachers are NOT paid the same as Doctors. Indeed many, many teachers are paid more in other European countries and countries around the world (see OECD stats). The statistics are also skewed by the fact that teachers in Finland take 20 years to climb the salary ladder, compared to 12 in England and 6 in Scotland. Oh and they do have a National Core Curriculum and the country does teach to set textbooks.
Class size

Class size is also misrepresented. Finland has small class sizes, as they have a very low population density. This point was made in 'Finland’s PISA success: Myth and transferability' by Johann C. Fuhrmann and Norbert Beckmann-Dierkes, who showed that Finland, which is marginally smaller than Germany, has a population density of only 17 per square kilometre, compared to 230 in Germany. This is why 70% of Finnish schools have fewer than 7 teachers, with a quarter of all schools having less than 50 students and only 3% with more than 500 students. This is why the Finnish government has just announced a 260 million Euro cut to the schools budget. The stagnating economy can no longer afford to keep so many small schools open.
Local schools
Do Finns send their kids to the local school? Are they free from the pressures on parents in the UK to choose a school for their children? In fact, the usual sharp elbows of the middle class do select into certain schools. You may be surprised to learn that parents in Finland have had that choice since 1999, and that many do exercise that choice. In fact, in Turku and Helsinki, about 40% go to schools that are NOT the nearest. The exercise of that choice seems to be correlated with wealth and social class. This has caused problems for politicians who espouse a local schools policy, with no option to choose, then choose to send their own children to non-local schools. It may also surprise many, it did me, that pre-school education is NOT free but means tested and Finland DOES have many dozens of private schools.
A lot of the so-called evidence comes from fleeting visits by observers who see what they want to see. In practice, the Finnish school system is far from being bad and, as Mark Cuchner explains, there is much to admire. However, it is far from being the utopia we have been sold. The problem is that the word ‘Finland’ has launched more ‘agendas’ than Viking ships. That agenda is either right-wing politicians getting obsessed with maths and PISA, teachers getting obsessed with higher pay and status or teacher-trainer organisations demanding higher and higher qualifications for teachers.
The truth is more prosaic. Finland has become a political football, where admirers cherry-pick the things they want to hear and ignore the rest. In an interesting experiment, Finland has been reported as scrapping cursive writing lessons in favour of keyboard skills and touch typing – it will be fascinating how both the right and left react to that one! Guess what, neither have jumped on that bandwagon – as it’s on no one’s agenda.


Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karo said...

Hi Donald,

I fear I have the same problem as Mark did with his previous comments, so I'm going to post this in a couple of parts. Consider this Part 1.

As I said in Mark's Facebook status, I really liked your previous post, although I didn't agree with all of it. I think Mark and others said most of what I was thinking anyway, especially about the suicide rate (which I doubt has nothing to do with education, at least not much). And even though I don't think Finnish education system is perfect, quite far from it, it's still something I'd want for my kids, some day.

I think it's fair to say a few words about myself: I'm Finnish, I've done nearly all my studies in Finland (I did some exchange studies for my BSc. in Wales) but I live in the UK now and hope to get my Master's from an UK university, in the field of education. I'm in e-learning and mostly interested in teacher education (especially in the field of e-learning), and I am a qualified teacher. I've done studies in the fields of pedagogy and leadership, and I've also received an entrepreneur's qualification in Finland. I think it's fair to say I've seen quite a few aspects of education in Finland.

I agree, PISA is not a measure of how good an education system is. I read an interesting example a couple of years back about how the native language itself can also influence the results (the article was in Finnish and I can't remember where it was, which is a shame). The Finnish language has a lot of words which are easy to understand, if you're a native, even if you don't know the word originally. An example mentioned in the article was the shape hexagon. In Finnish it's "kuusikulmio", which roughly translates into "a shape with six corners". A Finnish child will be able to understand the meaning of the word without actually knowing it beforehand. An English speaking child would need to know the history of Greek, they should know that "hexa" means six, coming from Ancient Greek word "hex" etc. Geometric shapes are not the only examples of this, even medical words can be easier to understand if you're fluent in Finnish rather than in English!

The article also raised an interesting point: When comparing the results of Finnish speaking people and the Finnish Swedish speaking people, the Finnish speaking people did better at PISA! The Estonian language is very close to Finnish (where as Swedish isn't) and they had similar results to Finland!

Now, I'm not saying language is the reason Finland has done well in PISA, but it does give an interesting twist to the whole conversation. I do think differences in languages will influence the results, even if it's ever so slightly. This is something I think we might need to investigate a bit further before drawing any conclusions, though, and I have no idea how to resolve the problem, if there is one, but it's an interesting hypothesis anyway.

Karo said...

Part 2:

As for the school shopping, I know it's being done in Finland. There has been political discussion if it should be banned. What it would mean is that middle-class and especially upper middle-class (based on income, there aren't really classes in Finland as such) would actually just move to live closer to the schools they want to have their kids go to. This would, most likely, result in more differences between the income rates of living areas. In a way, I like the UK system where you must have a certain amount of social welfare housing at each area. It gives the area more diversity and, I feel, it lowers the problems poor people have when put together. Finland has a history of putting "similar groups" to live together, starting from the Vietnamese refugees. This has ended up in the refugees not really becoming part of the Finnish society, and I think it has lead to problems.

Having said that, I actually went to school (from 3rd grade up) to the other side of the city, because I chose to. We lived in East Tampere and my school was on the western side of the centre. I chose that school, because it offered me Swedish as a second language (I had spent my early ears at an English speaking kindergarten, making me want to study something else instead). Of course, this is not "school shopping" as such, it was a decision based on the fact that only 10-15 kids in Tampere wanted to study Swedish as a second language. Had they offered my Swedish at the closest school to me, I would've gone to that school instead. A lot of my schoolmates were actually living very close to the school. I think they chose Swedish, because it was easy for them, as they lived so near anyway.

I feel one of the biggest problems with the Finnish basic education is that there are no opportunities for gifted children. In a way, I love the idea of having a school system which supports kids who might not learn as fast as others. It supports equality. But Finland should be able to support the gifted kids, too. I think that is the only way for Finland to become economically more stable, because the gifted children will grow up to be gifted adults, who will come up with innovations and inventions Finland needs to pull itself from the depression. So far the gifted kids, who get bored at school, are being labelled as bullies or kids with attention deficit or other problems. My husband used to be like that, he was really bored at school, and ended up trying to climb out of the school window, etc. I don't think he's a genius, but he's a fast learner and, if given the opportunity, he could've gone far (I'm not saying he hasn't, but perhaps slower than he could've).

Another problem in Finnish education is promoting learning, not creativity and working life skills, which are both a must when entering the working life. I feel a lot of the teachers are too set in their ways when it comes to teaching. The idea of a teacher not being in front of the class, but actually facilitating learning and promoting creativity (think of Sugata Mitra's School in the Cloud thinking), is still very foreign to a lot of teachers. This can be seen at teacher education, too, when even young people feel the teacher's place is in front of the class, sharing information! During my year doing my teacher qualification, I got a lot of nasty looks when I said the idea of a teacher standing in front of the classroom and being the "highest authority" is outdated and should be changed. Kids have all the information in the world in their fingertips, why not teach them how to use it and how to connect the dots in a completely new way!

I think there is a lot of potential for the Finnish education, and I like the fact that you (and others) bring to discussion about the problems to the attention of people. I think after people start admitting the problems, there will be a change.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Karo. Well researched area, particularly in comparing Chinese and English. Karen Fuson, Professor emerita of education and social at Northwestern University and Yeping Li, Professor at Texas A&M University, have studied this for many years.
Chinese (Japanese & Korean similar) has just nine number names compared to English, which has more than two dozen unique number words.
They say Ten-one, Ten-two, rather than the unique eleven and twelve and the English language reverses mathematical place: six-teen rather than ten-six. This causes problems when dealing with double-digit calculations. English puts more load on working memory and that leads to more errors.

Mark said...

Another interesting and well researched post about Finnish education from Donald Clark. I think there is less sensationalism to this one and thus less to ‘pick at’ in debate! (smile – but that won’t stop me trying eh?) In broad terms I would not argue with much that is there and the excellent comments from people like Karo who know and understand the system much better than I do.

There is some devil in the detail and I will pick up on that later.

At the macro level I guess I would say that the biggest myth of all is the idea that one education system ever can be better overall than others in every single way. Context is everything. Even within a small country (in terms of population) like Finland, what is best for one group will not be for another and the idea that whole systems are transferable or can be ‘exported’ is laughable. But that is not to say that there are not some elements that might benefit another system.

I honestly think that there is a lot of consensus amoung educationalists (rather than education managers and policy makers) about the value (or lack of thereof) of PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS – and now the latest from Horace Mann League that ranks Finland top. The problem is surely two fold, first policy makers always want to justify their decisions to the electorate (or other stakeholders if not a democracy) and secondly the introduction of market forces into education requires by default that information about the ‘market’ be available to enable decisions.

The first means that any scrap of evidence will always be selectively grabbed and highlighted and other aspects ignored. I think this will always be the case and this is why the ability to question and critically evaluate is as essential part of all education systems. Of course people cherry pick from whoever comes top of whatever measure we use. Always have and always will. The good news Donald is that this means there will always be myths for you to bust (wink).

The second problem (market system) requires measures, rankings and so on for the so called 'consumers' of education to base their choices.

(Perhaps we should organize a debate or panel on this at a conference Donald?)

The rest of my comments are to be found here.

Donald Clark said...

Good and measured response Mark. What has been interesting here is the general consensus about Finland having a good and fair education system. On the other hand, everone seems to agrees that PISA has been hyped and a distorting influence. I'd like to see more bottom up communiactions between teachers from different countries, separate from the distorting lens of politics. Tom Bennett does something interseting here in the UK with ReasearchED. Not sure if you're familiar with this Mark. It encouarges the sort of level-headed debate we're seeing here, when people are being honest about the positives and negatives, and not just showboating, like many politicians. I really do want to thank everyone for their contributions here, I feel that I'm genuinely learning a lot about the Finnish system.