Walking About In Your Socks and Calling Teachers By Their First Names

I received my last payment from the IB yesterday for marking the Higher Level Physics paper. It was an instructive exercise, particularly in the light of comparing the questions set with the responses. Compared to A levels, IB is more challenging, more thoughtful and more attuned to a critical, thinking-based educational model. I also had occasion to look in a French bookshop at some of the Bac’ papers, the results of which have just been released. It struck me that having been an educator for over thirty years, my thinking was almost set in concrete as far as learning was concerned. In Kuwait, ‘teaching to the test’ is the way things are done and people are supposed to learn from grindingly repetitive, unimaginative tasks which seek to present an intellectually trivial problem in as many different ways as possible. It’s hardly surprising that students- and indeed, some of their teachers –  lose interest so fast. For some, science is an irrelevance, best left to others and the thinking patterns required to ‘do well’, in other words, pass the test seem strange and bizarre to them. 

In many of  Kuwait’s best schools there’s stunningly mediocre teaching with a vast extracurricular tutoring market. Testing is often primarily factual recall and memorisation which students can pass with determination and effort, but this approach will teach them none of the skills that are necessary in the global knowledge economy. Because the profit motive drives most private systems here, it’s risky economically to expend the considerable sums required to properly resource a school with personnel and infrastructure.
This train of thought arose because an article crossed my path about education in Finland, which for the last decade has been recognised as one of the finest systems in the world and people are beginning to wake up to some of the reasons why.
Firstly, teachers are highly qualified, with a Masters degree in their subject – not a silly, education-theorist qualification, but something valuable which drives their intellectual preparation. Secondly, society and hence, one supposes, its children, esteems them highly. Thirdly, curricula have not been devised without the input of educators at the highest level and finally, the professional milieu is such that teachers can and do work together as professionals without feeling under scrutiny all the time.
In addition, students  rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night – I actually approve of this, since doing homework does no more than teach students about retribution. They have short classes and days, no school uniforms, no ‘honor societies’, no ‘valedictorians’, no late bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardised testing, few parents agonise over college because it’s free and and kids don’t start school until they are seven. But, Finnish kids are encouraged from early years to read and develop an independent approach to what they think and do. Work is OK, but doesn’t necessarily have to have maximal entertainment value. Teaching methods used for the gifted and able are routinely used for all in Finnish schools.
The Finns have defined what is excellent teaching, not just reasonable teaching, and they have a standard for it. Furthermore, they’ve defined what is most important to learn, and it’s not a memorisation-based curriculum, but a thinking-based curriculum. There is no domestic testing except a very quiet auditing program to test demographic samples of kids; not for accountability, not for public consumption, and not for comparison across schools. The fascinating thing is that because they have created such a high level of professionalism; they can trust their teachers. Their motto is “Trust Through Professionalism.”  What a breath of fresh air. In the US, where an increasing number of peole believe education has lost its way, came the memorable line from a student video “You can’t create my future with the tools of your past.” They’re right. We’re using a 20th-century measuring stick to measure a 21st-century learner. No wonder businesses are yelling that education is getting worse: We’re using the wrong stick. Students should graduate with portfolios of work ready for a world that will value them on their ability to create.
The title of this post came from the CBBC’s report on Finnish schools. Kids often ski to school – hence walk around school in their socks – and are expected to get there often in the dark by themselves. No maid to help to do up the bindings…

One thought on “Walking About In Your Socks and Calling Teachers By Their First Names

  1. “Education in Finland” is a lot like homeschooling in Canada – at least the sort of homeschooling with which I was associated. I always did believe that this sort of environment (and result)was possible on a larger scale. Sadly, I'm in the minority.


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