FULL HOUSE – The main hall at Harrigan Centennial Hall is packed for the first day of the Southeast Conference Wednesday. At the conclusion of the conference, state Rep. Dan Ortiz, Ketchikan independent; Rep. Sara Hannan, Juneau Democrat; and Sen. Jesse Kiehl, Juneau Democrat, spoke about the need to protect school and ferry systems from further budget reductions.  (Sentinel Photo)

Finnish Educator Stresses Play in Early Grades

By SHANNON HAUGLAND
and TOM HESSE
Sentinel Staff Writers
    Spend more on kids when they are younger, and give them time to play.
    More recreation time, and less time on homework.
    A focus on equity instead of excellence, and support for teachers.
    These ideas were among the “Finnish Lessons” that world-renowned education expert Pasi Sahlberg shared with more than 100 teachers, principals and other Sitkans Monday at the Sitka Performing Arts Center.
    Sahlberg, bestselling education author, was in Alaska to participate in the mayor’s education conference last week in Anchorage. Sahlberg and his cousin Juha Ignatius, descendants of Reinhold Sahlberg, arrived in Sitka Saturday, and are the first descendents of the Finnish doctor to visit Sitka since their great-great-grandfather traveled here with Uno Cygnaeus in 1840-41.
    Sahlberg and Ignatius gave the Sitka Historical Society some items from Reinhold Sahlberg at a ceremony on Sunday, and Sahlberg made a public presentation about the Finnish public school system on Monday.
    Sahlberg is director general of the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland. He holds a doctorate in educational services from the University of Jyvaskyla, as well as a master’s degree in mathematics, a teacher’s diploma, and bachelor’s degree in math and physics.
    He travels all over the world to share some of the secrets of success of the school system in Finland. He said he does it because he believes in public education.
    “I hope there is hope in the room,” Sahlberg said at the end of his presentation.
    The audience enthusiastically applauded at many of his messages, including the need for collaboration among teachers, administrators and business leaders, to focus on young children, and de-emphasize the importance the U.S. public education system places on standardized testing.
    He received laughs at his jokes about Finland, and when he questioned the wisdom of programs like “Teach for America,” in which educators work in tough neighborhoods after five weeks of training.
    The Finnish education system rose from the bottom to the top among developed nations during the span of about 40 years, with students from Finland today performing better than peers around the world. But it came not with a focus on “excellence,” as other nations have done, but on “equity,” with the hope of providing a great education for every child.
    “Finland has never aimed to be the best,” Sahlberg said. The goal instead is to provide a “great public school for every child” in a nation where there are no private schools.
    “Our people truly value the public school system,” he said.
    Sahlberg shared some of the key differences between the school system in Finland and developed nations around the world over the past 30 years. Most developed countries have embarked on the Global Education Reform Movement – a GERM, as Sahlberg calls it – which focuses on competition, more than collaboration, and does not focus on what is best for children. Further, he added, it has not led to higher achievement.
    He said the Finnish school system starts out differently from that in the U.S. by investing early in children, with full funding for preschool education. The Finns spend a high percentage of education dollars on younger kids and identify a higher percentage of them as needing help in their early years all the while spending less on education per student than the United States does. As a result of focusing the money toward crucial developmental years, the number of kids needing help in later years has gone down, Sahlberg said.
    “Too little money is going to young people, which needs to be fixed,” he said. “The older people get, the less return you get for your investment.”
    In preschool and elementary levels, more time is allotted for recreation, with breaks for the elementary level kids between classes to go outside to exercise and play. All schools also take a “whole child” approach to offer art, music and physical education in every school, in addition to math, language arts and science.
    In the U.S., offerings vary, since schools in poorer areas do not receive the same funding to provide the same offerings. Sahlberg said the property tax system for funding schools contributes to the disparity between good schools and bad schools, because poor neighborhoods can contribute less to local education coffers.
    Another major difference is the screening process for teachers in Finland. In the U.S. about 50 percent of teachers quit before they reach their fifth year and before they have become proficient teachers. In Finland, the competition for teaching programs is fierce, the requirements to become a teacher are tough, and the screening process is rigorous. As a result of the difficult entry process, the Finnish education system is not forced to rely on evaluating teachers with standardized testing because they have already selected the best candidates on the front end of the system. The process is therefore similar to the Finnish emphasis on funding early education because it acts as a preventative measure to challenges.
    Sahlberg said schools in Finland collaborate more and compete less in the academic arena, as educators work together to learn from each other. Standardized tests in the U.S. are used to measure children, schools and, in many cases, teachers, he said. Education is more customized in Finland, with an understanding that every child and school is different, and have different needs.
    “Standardization becomes particularly complicated when you speak for urban and rural schools or pupils,” he said in an interview. “That type of standard setting becomes extremely complicated if you say that different types of children have to learn things the same way if they live in different places. ... We are not allowed to standardize teaching and learning. We rely on customization. In Finland, for example, if you look at a school’s curriculum in a rural community it will be very different from a school in Helsinki.”
    He added that focusing on certain subjects for standardized testing cuts into the education of the “whole child”.
    Standardized testing in U.S. schools has become so prevalent, Sahlberg said, that many parts of the American education system – from standardized tests to classroom technology – is treated as a business.
    “Some estimate that there’s probably $20 billion worth of standardized testing in American schools,” Sahlberg said. “If you go to Washington you will see a lot of lobbies there for testing companies making sure that these policies somehow stay ... It’s the same with technology. Technology offers nothing to do with the learning of kids but it’s more often, you know, who can sell the software or hardware or these things.”
    But he pointed to signs of hope that influential educators are now turning against the idea that standardized testing as a measure of a student’s, teacher’s or school’s success. He pointed out that Diane Ravitch, one of the creators of the standardized testing movement in the U.S., is now strongly against it.
    “And there are many other people as well,” Sahlberg said.
    Sahlberg also pointed to the role of women, and women in leadership positions, in shaping the role of education today in Finland. He said if the demographic of Congress mirrored the actual proportion of women and men in the population, then education policies would improve. Today, women hold 48 percent of the positions in the Finnish parliament.
    “Let’s remember to ask, when these new education reforms come, is this really good for our children?” Sahlberg said. “Is this helping our children to be happy and to be well in this school? ... Finland is a good example. We have kept this question of whether this is good for us and our kids always when we are discussing education. That’s often because we have so many women in our politics. Forty-eight percent of our members in the Parliament are female and they remind us ‘is this helping our kids?’”
    One teacher in the auditorium asked about Finnish preschool programs, and what the kids learn in their early years. Sahlberg responded, “Children’s job is play, and we should give them time to play and do things not academic in nature. We highly underestimate the role of play in children’s life.”
    In an interview after the talk, Sahlberg said Finnish schools do test children in the schools.
    “It’s very important that people do not simply oppose these ideas,” he said. “We probably have more data than American schools have but we collect it in a very different way.”
    Sahlberg said it didn’t make sense to take an “either-or” approach to standardized testing, and that there are other alternatives for evaluating students.
    “People in America have to understand the alternatives that you have to offer (to testing) to the legislature and the people that are deciding these things,” he said. “Too often when I see these things it’s like either-or. You know, you’re either strongly against everything or you are in favor of them and in education that doesn’t lead anywhere.”

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