Education
7:00 am
Sat September 22, 2012

IdeaFestival: The Finland School Phenomenon

Thanks to bloggers and Twitter users with nationwide followings at last year’s IdeaFestival, students from DuPont Manual high school in Louisville garnered national acclaim for their questions for and engagement with IdeaFestival presenters. This year, their performance has been no less noteworthy. The Q&A session following Harvard Innovation Education Fellow Tony Wagner’s presentation was dominated by curious students.

Tony Wagner has become an expert on Finland’s education system, which is consistently ranked among the best in the world. Four years ago he wrote a book called The Global Achievement Gap, which highlights the gap between the skills kids need and what's taught in schools—even the best schools.

Thirty-five years ago, said Wagner,  Finland was an agrarian culture with one product—trees. After doing an intensive study on the then-failing academic system in 1975, officials in Finland came to a number of realizations, then acted on them.

First, they determined that school systems must abolish all tracking. Classes should be heterogeneous groupings of students of different abilities. The result of this: in 2011, the average difference between the highest and lowest performing students was less than four percent.

Officials also concluded that administrations must abolish most teacher accreditation processes. Now, every teacher must have a Master’s degree. This is a far more rigorous program than a Master’s degree in the United States. Each student must spend a year in residency working with a master teacher, much like medical residencies in America. Teaching is now among the most prestigious professions in Finland, despite the fact that they are only paid slightly better than American teachers. Only one in ten applicants is accepted to teacher prep programs in Finland.

To allow for more teacher autonomy and creativity, Finland pared down the national curriculum. Now the K-8 national math curriculum is ten pages long.

Students have shorter school days and a shorter school year. When a student in Finland says that they have three hours of homework, they mean three hours a week. There is no formal testing until students are ready to graduate. Students then get to choose what subjects for which they will test. Students can go to school as long as they want to to prepare for these exams, and if they don’t pass, they can take them again.

In ninth grade, Finnish students choose their tracks and 45 percent choose the vocational/technical track. This is not a shameful decision; Finland values its blue collar workers and sends them to post-secondary school.

“Did you know that 40 percent of Harvard students are medicated in some way?” said Wagner in his presentation, adding that the nature of the American education system is stress-producing and full of contractions.

Wagner echoed several earlier presenters when he said innovation and entrepreneurship are “team sport[s].” But the American education system values and celebrates individual achievements.

We also value people who exhibit “expertise,” even though we know that most problems are best solved through interdisciplinary solutions.

As Peter Sims pointed out Thursday and Wagner repeated, in schools, we penalize failure, even small failures.

“We've created a risk-averse academic culture,” said Wagner.

The world of innovation is a world of risk and there is no innovation without some trial and error. Wagner mentioned talking to a student at Los Angeles’ groundbreaking High Tech High who said, "We don't talk about failure here. We talk about iterations."

American schools give students a passive experience. In Finland, after every 75-minute class block there is a 15-minute recess. Finland emphasizes the importance of “play” for all age groups. All preschools in Finland are “playschools” with very little academic structure. Wagner cited Montessori schools as an example of schools in America that have embraced this ideal.

The culture of American schooling relies on extrinsic motivation. We ply students with a carrot and stick model—test scores, achievement exams, highly competitive colleges, individual awards. In Finland, Wagner said, kids are more intrinsically motivated.

“We’re born with the innate capacity to innovate, but that gets schooled and parented out of us,” he said. "We can’t rely on cheap multiple choice tests anymore. We need to bring human judgement back into education.”

During the Q&A, Wagner took questions from educators and students alike about what schools and administrations can do to make changes to the system. His answers were thoughtful and practical.

But a Manual student named Zoe asked a question that provoked the most compelling answer of the evening and illustrated that something is going terribly right at that school. She asked, “What can students do to improve their own educational experience?”

“Incremental change is great, if you’re a glacier,” said Kris Kimel in response. “Sometimes you just have to refuse to do things.”

He concluded his message to Zoe with the following Steve Jobs quote, “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy.”

Wagner’s most recent book is called Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.