A Finnish tragedy

The night before researchED Sydney, I was at a dinner for some of the speakers. As part of this event, there was a badly-run panel discussion in which Geoff Masters of the Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) made the point that rather than looking at the current performance of countries in tests such as PISA and TIMSS, we should look at the direction of travel; improving or declining. This would strip out the effect of cultural factors.

Unfortunately, this seemed to pass right over the heads of members of the audience who proceeded to enthuse over Finland. Finland is a favourite of progressive educators because they project on to it all sorts of things that they approve of whilst ignoring contrasting evidence from other countries that also do well in PISA and TIMSS. Perhaps these folks were simply unaware that Finland has been declining in its PISA performance over roughly the last ten years.

To perhaps address this decline, the powers that run Finnish education have decided to introduce a cutting edge approach known as ‘phenomenon-based learning’. It is pretty hard to distinguish this from William Heard Kilpatrick’s ‘Project Method’ which he first published in 1918.

A new episode of The Educators on BBC Radio 4 looks into this. Sarah Montague interviews Helsinki’s Education Manager, Marjo Kyllonen. We discover that cross-disciplinary phenomenon-based learning is all about ownership of the learning, that teachers have to give up control and that learning must be relevant and connected to the students’ lives. “We don’t want to change the child but we want to change the school,” she tells us. A student talks of qualified enthusiasm but comments that, “I wouldn’t want it to last a whole year… there’s still that traditional education that gets the message through.”

However, Kyllonen has wider ambitions. Even within disciplines she would like teachers to prioritise relevance and student exploration. To me, this sounds like inquiry learning. We hear that today’s students are somehow different from students in the past and that the new approach will enable them to learn marketable skills such as collaboration, social skills, critical thinking, creativity and cross-disciplinary thinking.

If you are familiar with my blog then you will know that I am sceptical that such attributes are ‘skills’ that can me improved through training. For instance, Dan Willingham has written about the fact that critical thinking can’t really be taught. And anyone can be creative; what society values is people who can be creative in interesting and useful ways. Newton was creative but his creativity stood at the apex of a growing body of knowledge of which he was an expert. “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” he wrote. Quite.

Lose the traditional disciplines that best represent what we know in a coherent way and you risk the discoveries and innovation of the future.

Creative Crap (own work)

Creative Crap (own work)

However, the BBC have done their research. In addition to talking to a concerned Finnish academic, they interview Tim Oates who has written a superb paper on Finnish educational performance. If we want to understand the performance of 15-year-olds in 2000 then we need to look at the education that led up to that and to a process of education reform that began in the 1960s. This was characterised by inspections, grade-level testing and state-sanctioned textbooks.

Sarah Montague challenges Kyllonen for the evidence to support phenomenon-based teaching. It doesn’t appear that there is much and Kyllonen is certainly not keen to use tests to measure the effects. If there were any evidence then it would have already shown up at some point since 1918. This is nothing new and it has been tried many times before.

It is odd that a country with a good track record, that has the answers to the problems that it wishes to solve in its own history, is so keen to strike out along a century-old, ideologically-driven dead-end. It’s a tragedy.


6 thoughts on “A Finnish tragedy

  1. Tunya Audain says:

    Counterproductive Progressivism Takes Another Twist

    “It is odd that a country with a good track record, that has the answers to the problems that it wishes to solve in its own history, is so keen to strike out along a century-old, ideologically-driven dead-end. It’s a tragedy.” — Greg Ashman, 2015, on Finland’s decision to adopt ”phenomenon-based learning”, a derivative of the family of Dewey-eyed “learning by doing” speculative education experiments, aka as “project method”, “inquiry learning”, “discovery learning”, “constructivism”, “meaning-making”, “developmentally appropriate practice”, etc.

    “This book is dedicated to the teachers and principals of Core Knowledge Schools and to the memory of two prophets, William C Bagley and Antonio Gramsci, who explained in the 1930s why the New Educational Ideas would lead to greater social injustice.” — E D Hirsch, 1996, in his book “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them” explains the standoff between the “two most distinguished educational theorists of the political Left—Gramsci and Freire”, contending that Gramsci’s suggestion to master the “tools of power and authority—read, write, and communicate”—would lead to greater social mobility and fairness.(p6,7)

    “School has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age.” ― Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, 1971

    “I am compelled to dissent from his [Dewey’s] substitution of ‘inquiry’ for ‘truth’ as the fundamental concept of logic and theory of knowledge . . . a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness—the intoxication of power . . . this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.” — Bertrand Russell, 1945, chapter on John Dewey, in “A History of Western Philosophy” (p820,828).

    I don’t know the ideological compass point for Ashman, but these three — Hirsch, Illich and Russell — are all lefties deploring the direction of progressive schooling and its failure to address the educational needs of the disadvantaged. Ashman joins them with his jeremiad (bitter lament or righteous prophecy of doom) about the new Finnish path in education.

    Thank you Greg for the alert. I am not a socialist, but if Finland wanted to sincerely help its citizens it would be better off following the Gramsci/Hirsch way instead of the Dewey/Freire way.

    Myself? Being a granny I would counsel parents to avoid the socialist public school systems altogether. Either go private, or home educate, or find a charter without all that socialist baggage.

    • I think it’s fair to say that Greg is of the left that despairs at the stupidity of the progressive education movement. In fact, I would say that the fiercest critics of progressivism are indeed those on the left who can see the damage it has/does to the poorest children. I think the point about power is hugely interesting. Instead of teaching children to eventually be able to exercise power, we are handing it to them at a time when they cannot use it wisely.

      I was fortunate to work with one of my old A-Level teachers recently (she has switched to primary education a few years back!). She understood why I hated progressivism and also reiterated what she had taught me all those years back. Where do these teachers send their own children? Who does this system benefit? Because it isn’t the poorest. As for her, she was trad, I got an A and was first in the year. I don’t think she could have taught me better if I had been her own child. Can we truly say that about progressive teachers?

  2. Finland is actually quite traditional in some ways – primary school children can be sat in rows facing the front (how often does this occur in the UK?!!!) and textbooks are used more than in the UK. Children can repeat a year if they get poor marks.

  3. Bart says:

    Funny I never found Illich as being against ‘progressive’ education, quite the reverse, but it has been quite a while since I studied ‘Deschooling’.
    I always find it interesting what we pick and choose from Finland. Pasi Sahlberg in ‘Finnish Lessons’ does describe Finnish schools as having a rather traditional pedagogical approach. Big external exams in senior secondary, early intervention in primary schools and streaming in secondary schools, and parents being almost completely uninvolved in their child’s education (presuming school will do the job). Although I must say Pasi has become much more ‘progressive’ of late and seems to be spending way too much time on the conference circuit with Sir Ken and Sugata Mitra.
    One thing I think he correctly identified was the lack of private schools and the less stratification this causes (which is also conveniently ignored by people with a neoliberal bent). Unlike Tunya’s suggestion above, I believe the solution to our education woes is never going to lie in private or charter schools (most of which seem to be more ‘progressive’ anyway) as these systems remove high quality teachers from the regular classroom, or home schooling (which is completely impractical and has a compounding effect of SES advantage).

  4. What so often passes without comment in the progressivist wars is that schooling is still compulsory in almost all jurisdictions. The rationale for compulsion is entirely negated by the use of progressivist methods, and in my view opens the door for the overthrow of compulsory school enrolment.

    We should all be in court making applications to that effect. Rather than blogging and tweeting about the damage being done to children, we should be taking action to get them out. Only 5 US states (as far as I know) have taken this sort of action voluntarily by creating an Education Savings Account system, in which parents are able to remove their children, and with them the state funding that normally accompanies the child to school. With that funding, they can patronize education options of their choice or teach their children themselves.

    Other jurisdictions are unlikely to do so unless it is ordered by the courts, and the courts are unlikely to make such orders unless knowledgeable people who can make the necessary case go to court and ask them to do so – in most cases this would likely involve an application to declare the compulsory attendance laws unconstitutional.

    *I am not a lawyer*

    It is hopeless to try to challenge progressivism in a compulsory setting – it holds all the cards while children are captive. The only way it can be defeated is if it loses its preferential access to teachers. As only a small proportion of parents would voluntarily patronize progressivist teachers, it will die out quickly in a voluntary patronage system. Only compulsory attendance has kept it alive for the past century, and only releasing the captives will defeat it.

    To date, whales in captivity get better advocacy than children in captivity do.

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