Lessons from most successful schools abroad
Education trends from other nations are gaining cachet as political and educational leaders strive to bring American schools in line with the demands of the 21st-century global economy.
(Page 4 of 4)
While many American teachers have been chafing under the accountability systems of the federal No Child Left Behind law in recent years, autonomy is a hallmark of the teaching profession in Finland. "There's nobody who supervises if we follow [the curriculum]," says Marja Asikainen, a longtime English teacher at the Länsimäki School. "They trust us that we'll follow it, and Finnish teachers are rather free ... to do it in their own way."Skip to next paragraph
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Finnish teaching places a strong emphasis on helping students become independent thinkers. "We don't want to give only ready answers," says Liisa Norvanto, a primary teacher at the school. "We want to teach them to explore their surroundings.... We try to teach them how to compare knowledge ... and be critical."
American teachers share such goals, but some reformers say curriculum and testing need to be revised to encourage more critical thinking and problem solving.
Because teachers in Finland are thoroughly educated in the subjects they teach, as well as in child development and research strategies, they're expected to be able to address many individual learning needs. Students are not separated into different classes based on ability level, except when children go to special-education classes for part of the day if they have significant difficulties.
But the egalitarian approach and autonomy have downsides, too, Ms. Asikainen says. This has been particularly true as the numbers of special-education students and immigrants have increased. (About 30 percent of the students at this school come from immigrant families.) "We have some support, but I think it's not enough," she says. "We can discuss with each other [somewhat], but we have lots of problems, and we have to deal with them ourselves. Some of the teachers are very much alone."
More collaborative planning time is one priority of the national teachers union, which has nearly 120,000 members. Teachers get about three hours a week of paid planning time, and in this school, just one hour is required to be done with other teachers. The principal wishes the budget would allow for more. This is a desire shared by many US teachers, who typically get three to five hours a week for mostly individual planning time.
Another worry that's shared among Finnish and US teachers is what shrinking budgets in this down economy will do to class sizes. So far, Riitta Ufacik has managed to keep her Finnish-as-a-second-language classes to just five to 10 students (other subjects are typically 20 to 25). Small classes are key "so I can see a person, not only the group," she says. Today, for instance, her students include a 17-year-old from Kosovo and a younger teen who was born in Finland but whose parents speak Somali, and they're working on different skills.
In summing up why she loves teaching, Ms. Ufacik puts her finger on a source of satisfaction for educators around the world – something that policymakers can't force: "They honor my work," she says of her students.
• Part 3 will appear Friday.