We’ve all heard Albert Einstein’s definition of madness: doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results.  It seems to me that we are stuck in this kind of endless loop when it comes to improving the educational outcomes of our students.

The stakes are high.  One read through a local newspaper or educational journal gives a bleak picture of student performance, achievement gaps and graduation rates.

The current round of debate is entrenched around standardized tests, disagreements over what they measure, and how test results reflect on the quality of the education we’re providing students.  It’s a system based on applying more discipline, more testing, more competition, stress and more accountability.

This same debate has raged in educational circles for over 25 years, yet student outcomes have not measurably improved during that time.  And in some cases they have diminished.

One might be tempted to conclude we’re focused on the wrong thing when it comes to student outcomes.  By extension, you might ask yourself what is working?

A recent article in The Hechinger Report points to Finland, and a very different educational system that was built by “breaking all the rules” as we know them in the U.S.  Some interesting differences include:

  1. Teachers are encouraged to experiment in their classrooms and aren’t bound by a rigid bureaucracy. They are expected to be the creative engine behind curriculum, not implementers of top-down policy decisions or standardized tests.
  2. Teachers are highly trained. No teacher is allowed to teach in a classroom without a master’s degree in education, with specialization in research and classroom practice.
  3. Teachers are respected professionals. They rank just behind doctors in community standing.
  4. Students are expected to be children first. Fidgeting and giggling are expected as part of the normal classroom experience and are not seen as failures of character or bad behavior.

The results are impressive.  While Finland had a “mediocre” educational system in the 1980s, today it boasts a system consistently ranked among the leaders in the world, according to many experts.

How did they do it?  Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons 2.0, claims Finland’s success was due to creating a new culture of education, at the center of which was the cultivation of trust between education authorities and schools.  He goes on to say, “Such trust, as we have witnessed, creates reform that is not only sustainable but is also owned by the teachers who implement it.”

There is obviously more to the story than culture.  Importantly, Sahlberg mentions an openness to looking outside the Finnish system for concepts and best practices that could be imported and adapted for use.

Many professionals in this country have dismissed the viability of much of the Finnish experience as being too specific to Finland and the Finnish culture.  This “not invented here” perspective is, in itself, symptomatic of the real barrier our students face.

We’ll be exploring the Finnish Lesson, and what other countries can teach us, more in future posts.  In the meantime, we should stop arguing about processes that are not delivering the results we need and step outside the box to find new ones that deliver.

Let’s not forget it’s our students’ future that is at stake, not our entrenched positions.