I once read a report describing the quality of education in a variety of countries which concluded that the best curriculum in the world is the one used in New Zealand. I spat my tea. Poppycock. The one used in New Zealand is simply the best in New Zealand. It cannot be compared with the Singaporean ethic or the Australian or Jordanian curriculum or that of the Croats. The attributes I need to succeed in Osaka are wildly different from those I would need in Bahrain or Barbados.
To be fair to the report, the training I received to become a teacher in New Zealand was and remains excellent. Today, organisations in the field of education are making a killing running Professional Development courses which teach today’s teachers what was taught to me as standard practice long before the Macarena was cool.
There is some very poor practice going on in schools around the world. Children spend a very long time sitting quietly on carpets and in desks. Children are made to listen and then regurgitate. Repeat ad nauseam. There are very few systems which are actually preparing children for the future, with the skills, attitudes and knowledge they will need (and I’d be interested to hear what you think those might be). Most programmes I have seen are worringly out-dated, airy-fairy, dull and ineffective. So, I return to my first point from a few weeks back – the responsibility of educating children lies primarily and heavily with the parents of those children. It would be folly to expect schools to complete these duties and childish to blame them when they don’t.
But then there is Finland. Having only spent three or four days there myself, I wonder why I was asked for my thoughts on a recent graphic on a certain site. Nonetheless, off we go.
As a reminder, here’s the infographic posted the other week:
Try as I might, I cannot produce a convincing list of famous and significant Finnish people or products apart from Nokia and Finnair. They did win the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006 and ranked sixtieth equal with Armenia at the 2012 Olympic Games. Martti Ahtisaari’s efforts should not be treated lightly as he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008, joining the ranks alongside Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Yasser Arafat, Barack Obama and Mother Teresa.
It’s lovely that their test scores were so much higher than everyone else’s in 2006, though. I achieved a similar result myself last year by hammering the poor blighters in my class with a heavy revision programme in Maths, week after week. I was commended for my good work.
That every teacher must have a (state-funded) Masters Degree could be terrific. It depends on the person, what they studied and how skilled they are at putting into practice what they learnt. I know enough people with Masters Degrees in Education or other higher qualification who can’t even maintain a conversation with a child or colour inside the lines properly themselves. What I am trying to say is what Ernest Rutherford already said:
If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment.
Where is the fruit? I’d be even more impressed with the Finnish education system if the graphic provided for us the names of Finns who had led the world in medicine, peace-making (if there is such a thing), charity, and upholding the dignity of the poor, the elderly and the alien. Basically, what has this mid-blowing education done to benefit their own and other societies? How many significant Finnish people can we name in 30 seconds? (I don’t mean pronounce, I mean name!)
Cynicism aside, I would love to teach in a class with less than fifteen children and where testing was kept to a minimum. I would love for my own children to have less or no homework (although I would probably find something for them to do anyway) and more break time during the day. I’m not too worried about how esteemed my profession is. It’s a good job, and I know it.
I did work for a couple of years at a school where I could take my class outside for an extra 10 minute break in the middle of the day. I simply knocked five minutes off both Maths and English lessons. The benefits were noticeable within days. Children remained focused for longer periods of time. They were able to take drinks and toilet stops without interrupting their ‘lesson’. The extra fresh air and exercise speaks for itself, as does the time to catch up with friends briefly and clear their head between classes. It cost a mere jot of my day but I would say it gave me an extra hour of productivity from the children. Good quality learning time.
Breaks are good. Imagine learning to drive over two consecutive days, 10 hours a day. No. We take a couple of lessons a week over a couple of months. As my father taught me, we learn more in the spaces between the lessons than in the lessons themselves (whatever that means).
Small class sizes are also good (depending on the teacher). Children need to spend time with their teacher every single day. One to one. Face to face. Ask your child’s teacher if this happens. In a smaller class, relationships are more intense, more personal, more unavoidable, more lifelike. This is a rich environment, where children can learn to share, contribute, deal with conflict and be appreciated. Try that in a class of thirty. It is also harder for a child to goof in a smaller group. What are class sizes like in your part of the world?
For argument’s sake, could we agree that daily reading and possibly learning some spelling words do not count as homework (www.spellingcity.com makes this easy, anyway)? The benefits of homework, in paper form, are negligible. I’m not popular when I say this, but I am certain. Despite being called homework, it is often just more schoolwork. Fill this in. Colour that bit. Sort these bits into groups. Fill in the missing number/word/colour/headache remedy. I am well aware that there are varying and valid views on this so please post yours in the comments section.
It is clear that Finnish educators are doing a lot of things well. Scandinavians in general are happy, peaceful, forward-thinking people. If the internet is to be believed though, they are decidedly ungenerous (with regards to their giving of time and money), 45th in the world in fact, well behind the Sri Lankans, the Danes and the Nigerians.
I am a big believer that it is a child’s class teacher who makes more difference that the curriculum itself, for better or worse. Some systems are better than others, certainly, but it would be a stretch to say one in particular was the best.
Soon I will post a list of some simple things you could do to help build and develop a strong relationship with your child’s class teacher. Maybe you could pre-empt this by adding your ideas below.
Michael is a primary-school teacher, famous for letting children in his class read in a bathtub full of cushions as a treat. He’s also a skateboarding legend. He is contributing guest posts for this series. Please ask him your questions and let us know what you want to hear about.