Let teachers be teachers

I offer my thanks to a former Headmistress of Ascham School in Sydney who pointed me in the direction of The New York Review of Books and a recent review by Diane Ravitch of a book by Pasi Sahlberg, ‘Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?’. Finland, of course, which rises high in the PISA international education league tables, is much vaunted in UK educational circles as a paragon of educational virtue – although it is not always widely known why; it is interesting not only to see that a similar awareness-raising process is happening in the States, but also to understand, through a closer analysis of the Finnish system, why this should be.

Ravitch’s review situates Sahlberg’s exposition of education in Finland within the wider context of educational reform in the US. The landscape of this reform is deeply concerning, and echoes can be felt in the UK too – an ever greater focus on standardised testing, and the judging of teachers by the results of these tests. No-one doubts the intention of educational policy-makers who seek to ensure that ‘no child is left behind’; tempting though it may be to apply mechanistic processes of accountability to the problem, however, there is an inherent absurdity and a blindness to the realities of this ‘science’ at play. As Ravitch puts it,

‘The reformers don’t care that standardized tests are prone to measurement error, sampling error and other statistical errors. They don’t seem to care that experts have warned about a misuse of standardized tests to hold individual teachers accountable with rewards and sanctions. Nor do they see the absurdity of gauging the quality of a teacher by the results of a multiple-choice test given to students on one day of the year.’

In Finland, on the other hand, standardized tests are sat only at the end of a student’s high school career, and ‘the central aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person‘.

The American focus on ‘accountability’ of teachers is replaced by a stronger inner sense of ‘responsibility’, as Sahlberg put it in a conversation he had with Diane Ravitch in December 2010. Finnish teachers are highly respected, and highly valued; only eight universities run teacher-preparation programmes, and places on these programmes are highly prized, with only one in ten applicants successful. As a result, Finnish teachers are extremely well-prepared, and – most encouraging of all – they have, so Sahlberg writes, a ‘sense of moral mission’.

The relationships that our children build with their teachers are among the most powerful in their lives. An outstanding teacher will guide, nurture and direct the children in his or her care, and will have a positive and lasting impact. Therein lies the success of Finland’s education system.

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