While teachers work with small groups in guided reading, the other students are expected to work independently, only disturbing the teacher in the case of the '3 Bs': bleeding, barfing or bathroom. If they get stuck or have questions, they are encouraged to ask their peers for help.
Students take it in turns to be monitors for the day, which means not only standing at the front of the line (which they love) but leading the 'calendar' session (talking through the day, date, and number of days through the month/left in the month) and choosing from their peers who gets to answer the questions. It was very cute to watch.
On my first day in Canada, I was surprised to hear my teacher host remark that due to her grade two class having birthdays late in the year, they didn't show much leadership. Grade two are mainly seven, turning eight. As the week went on, I realised I hadn't misheard or misunderstood; students are taught to take responsibility for themselves and for others right from the beginning of elementary school.
Everywhere I went in Canada, teachers and students were talking about assessment. And they were getting excited about it. A few of the schools I visited were piloting new ways of assessing students, but before I tell you about these exciting projects, I'll explain how it works at the moment so you have a frame of reference.
Teacher graded courses
Students in Canadian schools currently get a grade for each subject they take. These grades are assigned by the teacher, and are reached by weighting and combining marks from assignments and tests throughout the course. As a result, most assignments students do are for a mark.
Finland and Canada are the only two Western countries that score significantly above the UK in all three PISA tests (reading, Maths and Science) while at the same time having a more equitable education system than the UK. Several East Asian countries achieve this feat too, but the cultural differences between these countries and the UK are greater than between Finland and the UK, or Canada and the UK. It is therefore worth asking what Finland and Canada do to achieve this combination of high performance and equitability, and in particular whether they have any policies in common.
In reading tests carried out by the OECD in 2009, 18% of students tested in the UK failed to reach a Level 2, suggesting that they "lack the essential skills needed to participate effectively and productively in society". This is obviously a disaster economically and is socially unjust too, as socioeconomic background had a significant effect on test results, meaning a disproportionate number of those failing to meet this basic standard are from the poorest homes (14% of the variance in reading scores could be explained by SE background; the same as the OECD average).
In Finland by contrast, less than 10% of the students tested failed to reach a Level 2, and the effect of background was also smaller with only 8% of the variance being explained by background. So not only is Finland a top performer in all three subjects tested in PISA, they manage to do so while making schooling equitable. How they manage this was a question on my mind throughout my three weeks in Finnish schools. I asked, I watched and I listened, and I humbly suggest that the following factors contribute to this success.
Imagine an England with no external exams, no teacher observations, and no school inspection. Shut your eyes and think about it. Would the students be motivated to do any studying at all? Would the teachers put any effort into their lessons? Would the schools that need improving bother to make the necessary changes?
I explained in my last blog that Finland has few of these external accountability measures; a culture of trust runs throughout the system, and it works. But there are a number of other differences between the Finnish system and the English system which we mustn't overlook. There are other features of the Finnish system that make this trust viable, and make it more likely that students, teachers and schools remain motivated despite an absence of extrinsic motivation.
It is widely reported that teaching in Finland is highly selective, with only one person being accepted onto teacher training programmes for every ten applicants. This fact is often followed by the adage that this is because teaching is considered to be a highly prestigious profession in Finland, and it is implied that there's not much we in the UK can do to make teaching as desirable unless we undergo a seismic cultural shift. However, new research by the Varkey Gems foundation released last week suggests that teachers in the UK actually have a higher status compared to other professions than they do in Finland. So why are we at risk of a shortage of teacher applicants this year, while teaching continues to be competitive in Finland?
I've now been in Finland for almost two weeks. I've stayed with three teachers, visited four schools, interviewed six parents, taught eleven lessons and observed twenty more. I've been overwhelmed by how welcoming and generous the people here have been - not your stereotypical shy and reserved Finns. Here are the first five things that struck me about their education system.
1. They have a different approach to behaviour management.
Some students are a bit ’naughty’ in certain classes. Many of them talk over the teacher, some say mean things to one another, one stormed out of the classroom in a class I was watching, and I’ve heard stories of students punching teachers. This isn’t surprising as teenagers have the same hormones and problems all over the world (though perhaps a small part of me had hoped Finland would be a milk drinking, decorous utopia).
As I travel around the top performing systems I will be
I would welcome questions or suggestions from you (as a person interested in education, whoever you may be) as to what you would like me to find out and write about. It might be a specific question about a specific system (pick from Finland, BC Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Shanghai), or a general question you'd like asked/investigated in each place so you can compare countries. I can't promise to answer every question, but I'll do my best. Fire away.
Lucy Crehan - a teacher and education explorer.