Monday, March 23, 2015

Phenomenal Education

Finland, surprisingly
Finland  has one of the best education systems in the world. It regularly ranks at or near the top in mathematics, reading, and science in the PISA rankings, despite the fact that the Finns are generally unimpressed with ranking systems. People flock to learn how the Finns do it - their kids  don't start school until they are seven and stay in the same school environment throughout their school career - there s no such thing as primary and secondary school. Teaching is a very high-status profession, teaching universities are very hard to get in to and attract the best and sometimes but not always the brightest across the board; nevertheless most of the teachers are a lot smarter than their cleverest students. Most teachers have a postgraduate qualification, they are called by their first names and the kids wear slippers indoors. The Finns have constructed a publicly funded comprehensive system without selecting, tracking, or streaming students during their common basic education and the school network has been spread so that there is a school near home whenever possible or, if in rural areas, free transportation is provided to more widely dispersed schools. Their national curriculum is very fluid, locally adaptable to differing circumstances and students will, from 2016, be able to have a hand in its construction. Inclusive special education within the classroom and instructional efforts to minimize low achievement are also typical of Nordic educational strategy. But this alone does not guarantee the kind of success they enjoy and the country is not resting on its laurels, instead pushing the envelope of more radical ideas. In some schools they are considering abandoning teaching by subject for teaching ‘by phenomenon’. Traditional lessons such as Eng.Lit and even physics are already being phased out among 16-year-olds in schools in Helsinki. We used to call it ‘cross-curricular studies’ and everybody hated it (except me) because they felt expert in their own field but out of their depth in areas into which students might stray out of curiosity. The Finns are reworking this idea by teaching "phenomena" - such as the European Union, which encompasses learning languages, history, politics, and geography. No more of an hour of history followed by an hour of maths. The idea aims to eliminate one of the biggest protests of students everywhere: “What is the point of learning this?” Now, each subject can be anchored to the reason for learning it. A teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of food science, math, languages - to help serve foreign customers - writing skills and communication skills. For the more academically able, reading Dickens as a part of understanding the social fabric of Victorian England and Empire with history, fashion, art, furniture design, and music seems quite a sensible way of doing things since many of the old ways of teaching have no practical purpose. Years ago, we did what was called ‘group work’ round octagonal tables which was supposed to improve students’ communication skills. It didn’t work because discipline became almost impossible to maintain and over half of the participants just wanted to do something else. It’s quite clear that educational practices have to change – the Snapchat generation are unimpressed with books and the chorus of protest gets more strident every year. My solution is threefold. Firstly and most importantly, there has to be deep rooted and permanent paradigm shifts in societal norms about child/parent roles to roll back the job of discipline, or better, training, squarely back where it has always belonged – at the feet of the parents. Second, provide and pay for very highly qualified, naturally able teachers or facilitators who have the approach of a polymath and the skill and enthusiasm to foster it in others, thus earning societal respect. (Note – are there enough of such people and will defence cuts raise the tenfold increase in revenue required?)  Third, tiny class or ‘cluster’ sizes. People learn from people they like, know and respect. A bearded autocrat droning on at the front of a lecture hall won’t engage thirty fourteen-year-olds, whereas one person around a table with eight of them might do rather better. However, as we become more adept at tracking what students can do and how they learn, the days of whole classes learning the same thing look numbered. The way we do things in fifty years is going to make today’s methods look as antiquated as learning Virgil’s Georgics, although, ironically, their study was of itself a cross-curricular kaleidoscope of ideas.
Reading this back to myself, it's dismaying to reflect on the fact that there isn't a single original thought here at all. It is quite appalling, unnecessary and wilfully wasteful of talent to have to watch four out of every ten newly qualified teachers in the UK  leave the profession, mostly in defeat when it is quite clear that the lion's share of blame lies not with their expertise, their training or willingness, but in target-based systems enforced by what amounts to a secret police of overseers, managers and inspectors, all of whom are looking over their shoulders and have a different agenda when it comes down to turning the spreadsheet numbers green. It seems that the more people try and play Mr Fixit either with education, politics or social change the more people have to resort to just muddling through, dodging the land mines and hoping for the best.

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