Reflecting on Finland

It’s been a few months since I last contributed to the ODI blog, and boy, a lot has happened in my blogging hiatus! We had leaks, hacks, an election, and the Cubs finally won the World Series (though I’m still not convinced this last one isn’t “fake news”). Through it all, the ODI team has been hard at work making new connections and continuing our efforts to better prepare K-16 students with the data literacy skills required to navigate the aforementioned rapidly changing world. Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for any of the great work the ODI team has done these past few months. During my blogging hiatus, I also took an ODI hiatus, as I traveled across the “pond,” and up to Helsinki, Finland for four months of study.

Those in education circles have likely heard the stories of the “Finnish Miracle”—an education system that promotes play and learner autonomy, is FREE for all students, places value on the teaching profession, and does not use standardized testing or excessive amounts of homework. Somehow, Finnish students have consistently found themselves amongst the world’s highest achieving students as measured by the international PISA exam, while the US has remained remarkably average during this same time period. Hyperbole aside, the stark contrast between the pedagogical practices and education system found in Finland, as compared to those in other high achieving (and maybe some not-so-high achieving) countries is interesting. To learn more, I enrolled in courses at the University of Helsinki to study alongside the next set of great Finnish teachers, packed my bags, and off I went to Finland in search of those hidden secrets that have led to the success of the Finnish education system.

In the months since I returned, I feel I still have not been able to fully “unpack” all that I learned and experienced. On a personal level, fully immersing myself in semester of coursework in education, and spending time in a local school, was a great exercise in reflective practice. Applying the methodologies and theories I was studying to my own experience as a learner was incredibly informative, but also mentally exhausting. I found myself hyper-aware of my own learning, classroom dynamics, certain moves professors made, and the interplay among the three. It’s easy to focus on expanding our knowledge within our own content domains or areas of research, but I found that taking a step back and reflecting on the nature of learning, key patterns of thought, and habits of mind to be of equal importance for my growth as an educator and for my work at ODI.
As I look back, I’m unsure what I expected to discover when I departed for the semester. I know I was not naïve enough to expect to come back with some magic cure-all pill, but I did enter Finland with very high expectations from the many articles and presentations I viewed back in the States. There were things I observed in Finnish schools that I really loved: young students, full of energy, deeply engaged in and excited about the interdisciplinary project they were working on; while the care for each student’s intellectual and emotional well-being was truly evident in their teacher. But there were some things that didn’t seem so foreign from your “traditional” classroom: desks neatly aligned in rows, tired students furiously jotting down what is being written on the board in front of them or what is explained in their textbook. Much like the United States, in Finland there are pockets of schools that do exceptional work, that implement the “new” pedagogical practices we read about. At the same time, there are schools that still do exceptional work, but follow much more tried and true educational practices.

My major takeaway, and this is probably not news to many, is that education is complex and has many moving, interrelated parts. From national policy all the way down to individual classrooms, there are many factors that influence the outcomes of students. One factor is what the government is expected to provide to its citizens. It is here that I was able to draw the clearest distinction between Finland and the US. In Finland, free access to education and healthcare are seen as a right. A child is entitled to a free, nourishing meal every day at school. Paid paternity leave and access to Pre-K is thought to have great impacts on later intellectual, emotional, and social development. Public schools are the overwhelming majority, and each school is treated as its own autonomous agent, free to interpret how to implement the guidelines of the national curriculum to best meet the needs of their students, without the looming threat of standardized testing and accountability measures. This autonomy means that Finnish schools can differ greatly from one another. Although the national curriculum provides a strong framework and healthy language for which to talk about education, it is ultimately up to the individual schools and teachers to decide how implement this framework. In Finland, the implementation of the educational practices we commonly hear linked to the success of the Finnish education system depends on the comfort level and preparation of the teachers.

As I think about our current and future work at ODI, this last takeaway on adequate teacher preparation and comfort level with new practices is of utmost importance. As we think about the knowledge and skills required for students to meet the demands of a data intensive world, care must be taken to reduce the cognitive load of extraneous information. The learning curve associated with new curriculum and tools should be related directly to the knowledge and skills those curricula and tools seek to foster, rather than the acquisition of technical skills needed to operate a particular program (for example). Like the use of progressive pedagogy in Finland, if new curriculum isn’t accessible and teachers aren’t adequately prepared, we can’t expect to see broad implementation of data intensive coursework.

I returned from Finland invigorated and excited to continue making an impact on education through my work with ODI, and through whatever other opportunities present themselves in the years that lie ahead.

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