Ten solutions for Finnish basic education

The Finnish basic education is not saved by putting more pressure on the individual teachers. Collaboration and sharing responsibility with the students are the ways forward.

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Couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post listing 10 strengths and 10 problems of the Finnish basic education. These are the problems I listed based on discussions with experts.

Problem 1. Transition from class 6 to class 7.

Problem 2. Young people do not like school/learning.

Problem 3. Last 10 percent is falling behind in learning results.

Problem 4. Young people do not have confidence in their skills.

Problem 5. Young people consider school to be an unpleasant place.

Problem 6. Digital environment is lacking behind.

Problem 7. The school is not developed as a community.

Problem 8. Rather fixed gender roles.

Problem 9. Most of teachers´ further education is pedagogically outdated.

Problem 10. Teachers work alone.

Yesterday the Finnish government killed the Social Democratic Party´s plan to continue compulsory schooling up to 17 years of age. I understand why. The solutions should be found by increasing engagement, voice, choice and  the sense of community, not by asking the ones about to drown to swim faster.

As the basic education curriculum is currently being revised and the school discussion seems to be heating up, I decided to share some ideas on how to fix those ten issues.

I do not envy the Finnish teachers at the moment. Simultaneously you are told to be the cause of all wonder and the cause of all evil. Teachers are told to be the solution and the problem. The school discussion is too much still driven by adults´ own memories of school, not by research and facts. Teachers feel a tremendous burden as the go-to answer for all problems in our society seems to be: the schools should take care of this.

Here are ten suggestions I feel would improve the Finnish school a lot without abandoning its core principles of universality and equality. Most of them are about change in mentality and pedagogy, not about putting more money into the system. I know many of these things happen already in many schools. But we should keep our focus on the big picture, i.e. make sure that they become the standard of teaching and learning.

Solution 1. Give students roles as mentors for younger students.

A student who struggles with his or her learning easily ends up in a vicious cycle of negative feedback. It is completely understandable that you end up causing problems and acting restless if you are convinced that you are behind everyone.
According to Professor Jacquelynne Eccles (UC Irvine), schools in general have ignored the students´ need for relevance. Experiments have shown highly positive results when older students who struggle with their learning are given responsibility to help younger students. For a 7th grader it boosts his or her self esteem when you feel like you make a real contribution to the learning of a 2nd grader. Experiments have shown that these programmes actually improve the learning curve of both students. This is something we in youth work have used for years: the most efficient way to tackle problematic behavior is to give responsibility.

Solution 2. Teach group behavior in teachers´ further education.
A number of professionals have told me that we need a dramatic reform in how we train our teachers. If these people should be the pioneers of new pedagogy, it is incomprehensible that their training is still too often a mass lecture on a Saturday for 200 teachers. How on earth do we expect the school to change if this is the way teachers are trained?
I am currently doing a eMBA degree at Aalto University. The most efficient module by now was on group behavior. An interactive exercise showed us all how we – experienced leaders – end up falling for the same competitive behaviors if we are pushed to work under a time constraint and without clear instructions.
Most of our teachers in grades 7–9 have a Master´s Degree in the field they teach. Grades 7–9 is the age when teenagers go through the worst turmoil probably in their lives. We need to invest in teachers´ capacities to steer and read a group if we expect them to be able to create a fruitful learning environment. And this should not be a one-day lecture on Social Psychology, it should be a set of real-life experiments in group behavior followed by workshops where teachers together develop ways to tackle the issues that came up. This is also a field where teachers could partner up with other professions like youth workers.

Solution 3. Bring the class structure back.
A teenager deserves to have a sense of community and at least one adult at school who knows their issues and their name. I am not sure if giving so much choice in grades 7–9 is a smart idea. Especially those teenagers who do not have a clear plan for the future need a sense of community. They need to feel that there are people who care for them and who want to see them flourish.

Solution 4. Bring participatory budgeting into schools.
It is very typical for the Finnish school discussion that it circles only around the teachers. I have attended many seminars where the student is never mentioned as an active, competent party. It is about time some people get over the traumas of school´s “politicisation” in the 1970s. We need stronger democratic behavior in schools.
In Helsinki´s Youth Department we have now tested for two years a participatory budgeting model. This means that we organise festivals where teenagers first share their wishes and concerns. This is followed by workshops where smaller groups of teenagers think of solutions to the issues mentioned. Then the proposals go into further development and a vote in schools. Based on the results the youth department carries out new ways of working in the neighbourhood.
The same model could be used when deciding on the school environment. We need models where everyone participates and where negotiation and participation rule over representation and voting. The representative models usually favour students who already have more confidence in themselves. Schools could be the hubs for deliberative and participatory democracy in Finland.

Solution 5. More phenomenon-based learning.
The real world is not divided into the world of science and the world of humanities, not into the world of geography and the world of arts. Questions like democracy, climate change, Europe, the Internet or forests do not limit into one subject. The modus operandi in schools should be phenomena-based learning, which is designed in collaboration of several teachers. This could bring many positive effects in schools. How cool it would be to combine sports and biology? How interesting could it be to do a programme on democracy combining arts, history and math? This would make learning more fun, open possibilities for collaboration with professionals outside schools and most importantly build a more holistic world view.

Solution 6. Every class should have a year-long project.
Projects are cool. They create room for different students to use different skills. They teach patience. They teach collaboration. They allow you to combine various subjects. Projects can be anything from robots to programming to musicals.

Solution 7. Collect and use feedback from students.
It was astonishing to hear that according to OECD, Finnish schools gather very little feedback. It is no wonder that teachers feel pressured and alone in their profession if their bosses have no tools or facts to help them develop. The students also deserve the right to develop their learning environments. The feedback should not be a tool for inside school competition but for development.

Solution 8. Bring the idea of service and duty into schools by doing community projects.
Going back to my first point, we have ignored the need for relevance. You can only learn empathy and volunteering if you are actually given a possibility to try it. You only know what you like if you actually try it out. All students deserve to have intergenerational contacts regardless where your grandparents live. All students deserve to learn the idea of duty towards your community. Schools should teach the difference between a citizen and a consumer.

Solution 9. Pay teachers by the month, not by the hour.
Schools need to be developed as a community. This means that the professionals in the schools need to have time for interaction and they need to feel responsible also for things happening in the hallways and on breaks. How do we expect teachers to plan their teaching together if they are paid by the hour?

Solution 10. Create cross-school mentoring programmes for teachers.
Schools are still very much their own islands. Teachers deserve more. Mentoring programmes would be a great way to cross pollinate. The mentoring programme should be a partnership of equals. Older teachers could share their experience, the lessons they have learned in the job. Younger teachers could share the latest discoveries in pedagogy or the free digital tools and materials which could be used in teaching.

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