The Finland Phenomenon: Learning from the new Tony Wagner film

Step aside Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere.   For an up-close and analytical film about building a world-class education which thoroughly prepares all students for careers and citizenship in the 21st century, take the 62 minutes to view the new film from Tony Wagner and Bob Compton: The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System.

Whether it will be “surprising” for all is something I question: indeed, the lessons learned from Finland align themselves so closely with the best educational thinking of the past several decades, and to my mind most particularly Ted Sizer and Tony Wagner himself, that it is legitimate to wonder whether this film finds too much of what it was looking for and projects itself too greatly upon its own subject.

One genuine surprise in this film is that it comes from Bob Compton, the film-maker of 2 Million Minutes and 2 Million Minutes, the 21st century solution.    In his previous films, it seemed to this observer, the argument ran that in the fierce race for global competitiveness we must look to the East and, in order to compete effectively, imitate and adopt many elements of Chinese and Far Eastern educational systems to push our students to work harder and memorize more.  In his film the 21st century solution, Compton’s praise went to a charter school which specializes in the AP curriculum, with no recognition that many 21st century educators believe the AP curriculum prizes breadth over depth and memorization over thinking skills (My review and criticism of that film).    In 2008 and 2009, Compton engaged in several public debates about these contentious issues, including one with the Yong Zhao, author of Catching Up or Leading the Way and a renowned expert on and critic of the Chinese educational system.

So it is surprising to see this film arrive with a message that runs so strongly counter to Compton’s previous films.   In this film, the Finnish system is praised extraordinarily highly for its global success, and yet students don’t work terribly hard, have many choices, use technology creatively, enjoy the integration of the arts, and learn in a culture which emphasizes depth over breadth and less is more.

I am also delightfully surprised to see how rich this new film is in its depiction of classroom learning in action, in contrast to 2 Million Minutes, the 21st century solution.   That film, which had as its mission showing viewers a top-notch 21st century educational program, showed only a few seconds set in the classroom where you could actually view learning happening.   (My criticism about that film sparked a spirited debate with Bob Compton on my blog; if you are interested see that post and its comments section.)

Here now in this new film there are 20 minutes or more in the classroom, visually documenting Finnish learning first-hand. There is even a curious and slightly awkward, but entirely forgivable,  cinematography problem that is the result of the film’s determination to show learning in action: we often view Tony Wagner, talking in whispers and sometimes at awkward angles, , striving not to interrupt class,  explaining what he admires in the classroom, all in the purpose of showing us Finnish learning up-close and personal.

The classroom scenes vary widely.   There is a comfortable informality throughout, where teachers where T-shirts, student size fairly small, conversations are easy, students are often arrayed in circles or at work-tables, and Wagner reports that teachers are often addressed by their first-name.   In some scenes, such as the 8th grade math scene, the classroom runs in a sage on the stage mode, teacher at front teaching students facing him, and Tony Wagner himself points out that this approach is not ideal, but that it works because they are working to discover the pertinent theorem, not just understand it.

In another scene the teacher leads with a Socratic style, and Wagner points out that the teacher-talk time strikes him as far smaller than in US classrooms; 60% student talk compared to 75% teacher talk in the US.   We often see students working with materials, hands-0n, even at the high school level; we see students on computers working on research and the teacher advising students individually; we see students working in groups.   The film is to be commended for capturing so many scenes of effective learning.

Why Finland, and why should we view its education as so successful? Finland performs extremely well on its PISA scores, usually first or second in all areas, and its outstanding international educational testing success is reinforced by Finland’s high marks on quality of life, technology development, and innovation leadership, which the film provides evidence of in statistics and research from the UN, Newsweek, and elsewhere.   In an “extra’ on the film’s DVD, Wagner explains the importance of the PISA test, in contrast to say TIMMS and NAEP, because it is built to assess the application of thinking skills to new problems in an open-ended, authentic and non-multiple choice way.  At one point early in the film, Wagner argues that Finland can be seen as very similar to Minnesota in size, diversity, and income levels– but Minnesota is number 18 if rated individually on PISA, compared to Finland’s number 1 status.

Throughout the film, we return again and again to the status and professionalism of the teaching profession.   In the ’70s and ’80s, we are told, Finland seized the initiative to invest in education as the singular way to enhance its societal success, and it did so first by transforming the profession.   All teacher training was moved into the national universities, and a Masters degree was and is now required of all teachers.    In a way not explained to my satisfaction, the lure of teaching rose to greatly that the teacher training programs were able to select only the top ten percent of all applicants to their programs, and so the nation was able to cultivate teaching as a best and brightest profession.   Teacher training was reformatted to include observations of master teachers, and demonstration lessons with critiques, which sounds excellent but doesn’t strike me as dramatically different from what happens in many US teacher ed programs.  Teachers are deeply trusted, and there is little or no ongoing teacher evaluation and very little educational testing.    Finnish teachers spend only 600 hours a year, on average, in the classroom, compared to 1100 in teh US.   Whereas 50% of US teachers quite within five years of beginning their careers, the majority of Finnish teachers continue on to retirement.

Wagner then expands on this point to make the case that it is trust that is at the heart of the difference.    Finns have such a trusting society that they can accomplish excellence without heavy-handed monitoring and supervision.  Finns trust their schools to work with what is only a very succinct national core curriculum, and trusting schools and teachers to do the rest.   As the film draws toward its conclusion, trust becomes the central tenet in the argument: whereas we have a compliance based system for teaching and learning (what minimum do I need to do to get a B?, what minimum do I need to do to deliver the curricular standards), Finns have a trust -based system, and that is all the difference.

There are lessons to be learned from this– all of us who are educators and supporters of education should ask ourselves how we can better promote and facilitate a greater prestige for teaching and a more trusting culture in education, and we should act upon our answers.    Wagner acknowledges there are schools, a few, in the US, mostly small and many start-ups, that feature this “trust,” but he too wonders how we can possibly succeed in “scaling” up trust to a national level.   He passionately calls upon us to try to elevate teacher prestige and to seek a trust, rather than compliance-based national culture, but there are few clear steps by which we can accomplish such a dramatic transformation.

We also, however,  need more immediately actionable steps, which the film happily provides. A sampling:

  • Less is More: The Finnish national core curriculum is sharply reduced to the essentials, and the entire culture of education, Wagner explains, prioritizes thinking and applied problem-solving to broad curricular coverage.   This is even true in its homework, which students report takes only 4-5 hours a week at most.
  • Block schedule.  The Finnish preference for longer, block schedules comes up frequently; at the end Wagner emphasizes it in the less is more discussion: classes are longer, and there are fewer in a day, allowing students more time for projects and to pursue studies in greater depth.
  • Learning first, foremost, almost exclusively.  Sports and extracurriculars have far lower priority there than here.   This is something about which I have to say I am conflicted: it is hard for me to accept that we should diminish the significance of sports and extracurriculars, but I can’t ignore this important lesson from Finland.
  • Technology in schools is not best used for teachers to improve their presentations, as in the US, Wagner explains and argues, but instead far better, as in Finland, when it is there for students to use themselves in their learning.    Students are shown researching and collaborating online in their studies, and many classrooms are shown with a wide array of technological units, not just computers.   Students use wikipedia and facebook when researching very current topics, and Wagner explains that there is a culture of trust that is extended to students in their technology usage.
  • Integrate the arts throughout the education.
  • Provide students more choice in every aspect of learning, including in the general tracks of study they take, the courses they study, and the projects they prepare.
  • Projects, individually and collectively, are essential.   Throughout the film we see students working on projects both in groups and individually; in one case students had a five week project on which appeared to be expected to spend most of their class-time.  As students researched, posted to a shared classroom site, and received and provided feedback to each other, the teacher is shown circulating the room working with each student individually and powerfully.
  • Students in Finland are assigned and assume a high degree of personal responsibility in the classroom, and held accountable for their results; one result of this is that teachers have more time to provide one-on-0ne coaching.
  • In testing, take the lesson of PISA and assess the application of thinking to new situations, not the recall of curricular standards students have been assigned to learn.
  • Professionalizing the education profession entails respecting teachers as knowledge workers, with the opportunity and the obligation to be innovators in their teaching each and every day, Wagner says.

At the very end, Wagner asks whether there is anything the Finns have to learn from us, and answers the question with two suggestions.  Digital portfolios, by which students can publish their work, track their progress, and make their learning more transparent, and teacher lesson video recording and sharing, by which teachers can better reflect on their effectiveness, seek constructive feedback from their peers, and make their professional practice more transparent.   I appreciate greatly Wagner’s consistent philosophical emphasis on transforming educational culture toward one of ever-greater transparency.

A particularly inspiring moment comes when Wagner reports stumbling across a project at one school, the “Innovation Camp,” in which teams of students are given 26 hours to come up with a new product or service.    The students, with close teacher support, lock themselves into the school building and work overnight to develop and complete their project.   The students talk with gusto about the activity, and how much they learned about teamwork, creativity, and action in the course of this exciting and intense experience.

The exciting Innovation Camp project seems emblematic of or metonymic for Finland as a whole: this is a society that as a whole has teamed up for an intense and enthusiastic project, working overnight as it were, to develop an educational system that really does create an innovation society.   The Finland Phenomenon is indeed an inspiration and an exemplar, and we would do well to continue to study it closely and learn from it as wisely as we are able.   My appreciation goes to both Tony Wagner and Bob Compton for this important film.

 

4 Comments

  1. Sorry for the typos in Tony Wagner’s name and the word “suprised”, that one always catches me by suprise.

    May 9, 2011

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