Apr 27, 2011

The Finland Phenomenon

Near the Arctic Circle, Finland is ice cold. In educational circles, though, Finland is smoking hot, recently lauded by pundits as a model for reform in the United States. How did it get that way?

Harvard's Tony Wagner attempts to answer the question in an hourlong documentary titled The Finland Phenomenon. Weaving together interviews, classroom observations, and provocative factoids, Wagner tries to tease out the complex strands of cultural values, teacher training, and governmental initiatives that have made Finland a global educational vanguard.

In my favorite moments, Wagner sits down with with Finnish students, who are just as gangly, bright-eyed, and emo as their American counterparts, and listens as they share their hopes for the future.  He sits in on lectures by accomplished and rookie teachers, and holds court with educational leaders who sound like a lot of people I've been working with lately: realistic and optimistic, theoretically solid and practically focused.

It so happened that I watched the documentary after a day of leading Powerful Teaching and Learning observations in a local school, and I was struck by the similar approaches, both philosophically and pedagogically, between PTL and the Finnish system of teacher preparation. Roughly 10% of the Finnish university students who apply for training programs will make the cut; once they're in, they're entrusted with tenure in a relatively rapid timeframe, and given a large measure of control over their classrooms.

And that's where I think the strength of the Finnish system lies. It's culturally established that teachers are professionals ("knowledge workers," in trendy/clunky edu-jargon) who are academic leaders committed to continuous improvement. The best American reform initiatives-- among which I'd include the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Common Core Standards movement, Powerful Teaching and Learning, Professional Learning Communities, and Teach for America--share that reflective, collaborative focus. They bring teachers together, but their impact is fragmented, at least for now, because none is comprehensive in its adoption or reach.

And none is a cure-all.  Any successful educational reform has to change the culture of schools, which, in turn, changes the wider culture of the community. Our policymakers seem addicted to quick fixes and instant results, but in Finland, Wagner reports, the process has taken 25 years.

As Wagner points out, some of Finland's success may be due to its smaller schools and classes, its emphasis on vocational education (and concomitantly low dropout rate), and its curricular flexibility. There's at least one strand missing from Wagner's analysis, though: Finland's income equality. Socioeconomic status is a strong predictor of educational attainment, so, in my estimation, general equality in SES would not only reflect and influence a wider cultural consensus that education is valuable, but its opposite would reflect and influence a divergent value structure in which outcomes are similarly divergent.

For instance, Wagner compares Minnesota to Finland because of its similar population and demographics, noting that the Land of a Thousand Lakes, 17th globally in math, ranks well below Finland in achievement--but without mentioning the vast difference in, say, their Gini coefficients (mid-40s for Minnesota; mid-to-high 20s for Finland). The relationship between income inequality and educational attainment may be a mere correlation, but it's worth investigating.

My complaints about the film's production values are few and minor. A couple shots (especially of Wagner's "talking head" moments) look cheaply lit, while some action shots have annoying digital artifacts. However, for the most part, the film is well-paced, smoothly edited, and deftly scored.

The Finland Phenomenon premiered in D.C. back in April. At a time when education reform is both critical and in critical condition, its thought-provoking observations deserve wide viewing.

Full disclosure: Dittoe Public Relations sent me a free copy of the film for review. If you're interested in something similar, just send me an email.

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