Interesting questions at the Finnish Embassy

I attended the Best School in the World seminar this past Friday.  There was video equipment making a recording in the room,  so maybe a video of the event will be posted soon or otherwise available.  If not, I might make another post about the event generally.  During the question and answer period, there were two questions that I want to write about.

First, someone asked about the nature of assessment in education: “Pasi said earlier that ‘in Finland, if we want to know if children are learning, it’s very simple – we ask the teacher.’  Do we trust our teachers enough for that to be our sole measure of whether children are learning or not?”  I’m paraphrasing, and the question was directed to Roberto Rodriguez, who is (was?) an education advisor to the current administration.  The short answer to this question from Mr. Rodriguez was “no.”  He didn’t say that though.  He said that we need a trust but validate approach, which sounds a lot like “trust but verify.”  I think I have a better answer to this question.

The preservice education of Finnish teachers leads to a high confidence in their professional opinions.  This is fitting, and we don’t do as good a job of that here in the US.  But matters are worse.  Tying student achievement to compensation only serves to increase the unreliability of teachers’ opinions.  See Freakonomics for why that is.  So, Mr. Rodriguez’s concerns about validity and reliability have some basis.  Who doesn’t like supporting information, after all? But if that’s a concern, you’d think that we’d want to increase the validity and reliability associated with teachers. Dr. Sahlberg added that in Finland, when they want to know how the system is doing, they take a sample rather than collect exhaustive data on all students.  That doesn’t seem to be how Maryland does it (comparable population to Finland, and where I live.)  When they (in Finland) want to know about an individual student, they ask the teacher.  This isn’t so different from what we do here.  The choice, as presented by “trust but validate” is between improving the data systems and building professional capacity. I will leave it to the reader to speculate on which direction we’re going here in the US.  In fact, I don’t see why we can’t do both.  I guess that’s not good ROI.

The other question that interested me was from someone at the National Center on Time & Learning.  He asked how it was possible that Finland was doing so well when their children start school at a later age (7) and are in school for fewer hours and for fewer days and fewer years.  What they call “day care” in Finland is basically what we call preschool here.  So, while it’s not part of the same system, it’s not completely separate either.  Dr. Sahlberg began by saying that in Finland, their general principle is to keep children out of formal institutions for as long as possible. The school day ends for younger children around noon or 1 PM and there is a “third sector” in Finland that has lots of things for kids to do.  It sounded like Parks and Recreation on steroids.  Friday was the first time I had heard the phrase “third sector” and I welcome any recommendations on learning more about the concept.  The phrase “third sector” makes intuitive sense, but who doesn’t like supporting data after all?  Finnish schools don’t have interscholastic sports or school bands or orchestras, but they do allow kids enough time to pursue those interests on their own, outside of a formal setting.

I think this is (part of) the key to getting people to be lifelong learners.

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