But nothing riled them up more than the documentary I showed them on the school systems in Finland. (The link is to part 1, but you can access it all from there -- the entire thing is an hour long but is well worth the time.) The documentary was the brainchild of Dr. Tony Wagner of Harvard University, who went to Finland to see if he could find out why Finnish schools routinely rank at the top of any measure you want to apply to them -- whether it's test scores, rigor, success of students in college or career after graduation, innovation, breadth, or depth -- and why we, in a word, don't.
Finnish students at an outdoor celebration in Helsinki [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]
- little to no homework
- few tests; the only major exam is the exit exam administered before graduation, which is highly rigorous
- long class periods, and fewer classes per day than typical American schools
- work centering on projects, application, and synthesis rather than memorization of facts
- a lot of projects that require meaningful collaboration (not just the much-hated "group projects" often found in American schools, where typically one or two members of the group do all the work)
- small class size
- informality (teachers are called by their first names)
- an intense and rigorous vocational track that students can enter in tenth grade
- flexibility of choice; students in the vocational track can take classes in the academic track, and vice versa -- and high school can take either three or four years depending on student choice
- a huge amount of trust. Administrators trust teachers to do their jobs, and rarely do formal evaluations; teachers trust students to do their work, whether supervised or not
Which makes me wonder if the success we do have is mostly due to the resilience of the students, the dedication of the teachers to rise above adverse circumstances, and a heaping measure of dumb luck.
The one that struck me the most was trust. Dr. Wagner was talking to one of the teachers over lunch, and walked back with him to his class -- and was astonished to find out that the teacher was twenty minutes late to his own class. The teacher, for his part, was a little surprised at Wagner's reaction. "They know what they have to do," the teacher said. "I don't have to stand over them and force them."
And sure enough, he walked back into the room -- and everyone was busily working.
In American schools, one of the first things that will jump out at you is the lack of trust. Rules and regulations abound for what you can and can't do, every minute of the day. Teachers are of the opinion that as soon as they turn their backs, students will stop working. Administrators feel like they have to micromanage the teachers to make sure they're doing their job. The state education departments increasingly add evaluations and observations and "quantitative measures" of principals and teachers, so that everything they do is turned into numbers and used as a tool for reward or censure. The implication is that no one can be trusted, and the more you watch, the more you control, the better the results will be.
It's been long established, of course, that no one works well while being micromanaged -- not children, not adults. Dan Pink and others who analyze the corporate world have found incontrovertible evidence that when our every move is scrutinized, when it is evident that there is no trust, our productivity decreases -- as does our job satisfaction.
Why, then, do we think that children would thrive in such an environment?
The Finnish administrators whom Wagner interviewed were adamant that the most important piece in their success was trust -- but that it wasn't easy to achieve, because it meant letting go of the fear that when you stop watching, people will stop working. But if you couple that letting go with making sure that what you are expecting students to do is meaningful, engaging, and interesting, the results are nothing short of spectacular.
The students in my Critical Thinking classes spoke with one voice after watching this documentary: Why on earth do we not try this here? I didn't have a good answer for that except that we've all become so suspicious of each other -- teachers of students, principals of teachers, state and federal oversight administration of everyone -- that we've become locked into the system even though it demonstrably doesn't work. Instead of decreasing testing, we've increased it -- and not in any kind of meaningful way. Just last week poet Sara Holbrook found out that some of her poems were used on the Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, and when she read the questions, she couldn't answer them.
You read that right. The students were being presented with questions about her poems and expected to select one right answer when the poet herself had no idea how to determine what the right answer was. We have become so stuck on a linear, one-right-answer mode that we now do everything that way -- even though it clearly kills creativity, destroys enthusiasm, and (as Holbrook's example shows) isn't reflective of anything meaningful or even real.
It's easy to come up with excuses. "Finland is wealthier than we are." "Finns are a more homogeneous society than we are." The documentary dismisses those out of hand -- actually, we spend more per capita on students than Finland does, and 16% of Finnish students learn Finnish as a second language.
But even if those were true -- even if the hurdles we face are higher than the Finns faced in reconstructing their schools back in the 1970s -- so what? What, exactly, do we have to lose? What we have now is only marginally successful, and in many inner cities is a demonstrable failure. Our dropout rates are on the rise, and our increasing reliance on trivia-dense "quantitative assessments" do nothing but alienate students and further convince them that school is boring, pointless, and has no connection to real life.
It's time to try something different.
And, after all, the Finns have demonstrated that what they do is successful. Why not try their model? Okay, maybe it won't work exactly as it's done in Finland, maybe it'll need some fine tuning and adjustment to meet the different needs of students in our country. But why not try -- and why wait? As the adage goes, "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got."