By: Caitlin Emma – Politico | http://politi.co/1gz6zFe
May 27, 2014 11:39 PM EDT | HELSINKI :: At the start of morning assembly in the state-of-the-art Viikki School here, students’ smartphones disappear. In math class, the teacher shuts off the Smartboard and begins drafting perfect circles on a chalkboard. The students — some of the highest-achieving in the world — cut up graphing paper while solving equations using their clunky plastic calculators.
Finnish students and teachers didn’t need laptops and iPads to get to the top of international education rankings, said Krista Kiuru, minister of education and science at the Finnish Parliament. And officials say they aren’t interested in using them to stay there.
That’s in stark contrast to what reformers in the U.S. say. From President Barack Obama on down, they have called education technology critical to improving schools. By shifting around $2 billion in existing funds and soliciting $2 billion in contributions from private companies, the Obama administration is pressing to expand schools’ access to broadband and the devices that thrive on it.
School districts nationwide have loaded up students with billions of dollars’ worth of tablets, laptops, iPods and more on the theory that, as Obama said last year, preparing American kids to compete with students around the globe will require interactive, individualized learning experiences driven by new technology.
But with little education technology in the classroom, Finnish students have repeatedly outperformed American students on international tests. In 2001, Finland’s students were the highest-achieving in the world, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment test administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The Nordic country uses innovative teaching strategies in the classroom, just generally without incorporating technology. Private schools and charter schools aren’t part of the mix, and all education is essentially free. Powerful teachers unions work hand in hand with the government, which went to great lengths to revamp teacher training. The profession is revered and respected, and government has no bearing on assessing a teacher’s performance in the classroom.
With a population roughly the size of Minnesota, Finland doesn’t have a very competitive spirit. Officials and educators said they were shocked to learn that their education system was one of the best in the world. And officials say Finnish culture is about bettering oneself instead of besting other nations, such as the Asian countries that recently pulled ahead of Finland in global rankings.
Kiuru said an education system modeled after the top-performing Asian countries isn’t right for Finland.
“Education isn’t a competition,” said Kristiina Volmari, counselor of education and head of statistics and international affairs at the Finnish National Board of Education. “This is a quality assurance mechanism, and it’s quality assurance for ourselves.”
Since being labeled the highest-achieving country in the world, Finland has fallen in the rankings, to fifth in reading, 12th in math and fifth in science. But it’s still one of the top countries out of the 14 that belong to the OECD. In the latest PISA rankings, 18 education systems — including Finland’s — outperformed the United States in reading, math and science.
Good Old-Fashioned Pencil-and-Paper Note-Taking
Finnish students, even those in the most modern schools, aren’t playing the latest learning games in the classroom. Even the upper secondary students at Viikki, who received laptops from the school two years ago, leave their computers at home unless instructed otherwise — which doesn’t happen often. The school, located on the University of Helsinki’s campus, is one of 12 teacher training schools in Finland and far more modern than schools elsewhere, such as the rural northern region of Lapland.
“I think it’s really too bad,” said senior Emmi Halmesvirta, shifting a purse full of heavy books on her shoulder. “Teachers will tell us to bring them in on certain days, but they tend to stick more to traditional methods.”
According to the latest PISA results and a study conducted by the European Commission, there’s roughly one computer per five Finnish students in schools. In the U.S., that ratio is almost one to one (but the breakdown across individual rural, urban and suburban districts might look different, depending on a district’s financial resources).
At the International School of Vantaa, just outside Helsinki’s major airport, students are ushered to a computer lab with about two dozen desktop computers after a teacher reserves the space. The lab accommodates roughly two classrooms at once. Laia Saló i Nevado, a student guidance counselor, home room and health teacher, said she brings her students to the lab about once a week for special projects, quizzes and sometimes Internet research — but that’s about it.
Finnish teachers and students use education technology significantly less than those in other European countries. At grade eight, Finnish students’ reported use of school computers is the lowest in the European Union, with only 27 percent saying they use computers at least once a week.
The average percentage of teachers using education technology for at least 25 percent of lessons in the EU is higher than in Finland for fourth and eighth grades. In grade four, overall EU usage is at 29 percent, while Finland falls at 20 percent. In grade eight, EU usage is at 32 percent while Finland is at 29 percent. For teachers using education technology in more than 25 percent of lessons, Finland ranks at the bottom in a group of countries for grade eight, at 29 percent.
Pasi Sahlberg — an educator, author and unofficial ambassador of the Finnish education system — writes that many visitors hoping to see Finland’s high-performing schools firsthand expect to see state-of-the-art technology in classrooms.
“Instead, they see teachers teaching and pupils learning as they would in any typical good school in the United States,” he writes in his blog. “The irony of Finnish educational success is that it derives heavily from classroom innovation and school improvement research in the United States.”
Just without all the computers.
What Makes Finland Different?
Where to begin?
At 5.4 million people, Finland’s population is equivalent to 1.7 percent of the total U.S. population. And the Nordic country is extremely homogenous. The number of people living in Finland but born outside the country is the lowest in Europe at nearly 250,000 in 2010, or 4.6 percent of the total population. About 40 million people residing in the U.S. were born outside the country, comprising 12.9 percent of the total population.
The teachers unions work closely and collaboratively with government. Children attend the school closest to home unless they’re looking for something extra, like a school that teaches German. There are no standardized tests until upper secondary students have to demonstrate their knowledge on the country’s matriculation exam. Passing the exam allows a student to go on to university studies.
Finland is also renowned for its teacher training system, which requires all teachers to finish five to six years of schooling and earn a master’s degree before starting their careers. Preschool and kindergarten teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree. The profession is considered one of the most honorable careers to choose from.
In the U.S., school choice is one of the most contentious topics in education. The federal Education Department is requiring states to tie student growth determined by standardized test scores to teacher evaluations and personnel decisions. Students take standardized tests in grades three through eight. And some would argue that it’s too easy to become a teacher.
That could soon change as the Obama administration embarks on a push to regulate teacher preparation programs. A draft regulation, expected this summer, will aim to ensure every state evaluates its teacher education programs by several basic measures. For example, the administration wants to look at how many graduates land teaching jobs, whether they improve students’ standardized test scores and how long they stay in the profession.
In a post titled, “What the U.S. can’t learn from Finland,” Sahlberg writes that teacher trust and training are two basic hurdles the U.S. must conquer if it ever hopes to become high-achieving.
“Finland is home to such a coherent national system of teacher education,” he writes. “And unlike in the United States, teaching is one of the top career choices among young Finns.”
Sahlberg notes that the University of Helsinki received 2,300 applicants in spring 2012 for 120 spots in its primary-school teacher education program.
“In this teacher education program and the seven others, teachers are prepared to design their own curricula, assess their own pupils’ progress, and continuously improve their own teaching and their school,” he writes, noting that the U.S. just doesn’t trust teachers the same way.
Until teacher training, trust and other conditions improve, the high-achieving Finnish model of education bears little relevance in the United States, Sahlberg writes.
The Finnish were right to tackle teacher training before education technology, said Charles Barone, policy director of Democrats for Education Reform. While the education technology revolution needs to happen, none of it will matter without excellent teacher training, he said.
Technology — Not A Panacea
In the U.S., there’s hesitancy to incorporate education technology in the classroom because it can prove useless unless used in a truly constructive way. Technology can act as an amplifier, making good teachers great or leading to a lot of unproductive screen time, Tom Vander Ark, chief executive officer of the ed tech advocacy group Getting Smart, said last fall.
Mark Bauerlein, an Emory University professor and author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future,” said there isn’t enough evidence linking more education technology to improved student achievement. And these are expensive programs to gamble with, he said. Increased focus is needed on creating good habits around the use of ed tech.
“If students use the tools and they never spend 30 minutes reading text on a tablet without interruption, this is a bad habit,” he said. “And it’s a bad habit that shows up in workplaces.”
The same worries are true for Finland.
“There’s always the question of whether it’s all about entertainment. Some teachers wonder, what are we doing here?” said Olli Vesterinen, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki.
There are quite a few bumps to work out when it comes to the use of education technology in the U.S. When the Los Angeles Unified School District used $1 billion to give all students iPads and build the infrastructure to support their use, teachers last fall experienced trouble connecting to the Internet; students surfed prohibited websites; and district instructions for the devices were often confusing and misinterpreted.
“Did they really think that these kids wouldn’t find their way around the security features?” Bauerlein said.
In early April, Kansas had to halt a trial run of new standardized tests when it was hit with cyberattacks. And an education technology boom at the education technology conference SXSWedu in early March sparked caution. Educators were interested in trying the technology but weren’t ready to steer their classrooms into uncharted waters.
“Is this really where the inequity is most critical?” Bauerlein said.
Country At A Crossroads
In Finland, education technology is now part of a broader national push at “looking beyond PISA,” Vesterinen said. It’s about teaching students 21st-century skills for a digital society.
It’s a bit like the Common Core and the push to prepare U.S. students for college and careers. Finland is also due for a new set of education standards. Officials are working to write them for 2016 — and part of that effort means likely boosting the role of technology in the classroom.
In January, Finland and Estonia announced that they were partnering up to develop educational “cloud services,” pushing to standardize the use of education technology in both countries.
Perhaps ironically, Finland hopes to become more economically competitive, pinning hopes on its students to become future technological innovators: “Without digital skills, you don’t have much to say in the labor market,” Volmari said.
Nokia thrust the country into the global technology spotlight in the 1990s and early 2000s, but Apple and Samsung have all but buried the cellphone maker.
Now the Nordic country is pushing Finnish company Rovio’s Angry Birds and related learning games. Angry Birds paraphernalia — key chains, candy, stuffed animals and more — is everywhere. A person wearing a giant Angry Birds head teetered through the crowds at the Oppi Festival for education in Helsinki in mid-April, where Rovio was a headlining partner.
Organizers invited schoolchildren to attend the Oppi Festival and test new Angry Birds products. The children jumped around in front of a huge monitor, digitally launching birds in all directions while playing with stuffed Angry Birds toys and drinking complimentary Angry Birds-branded drinks.
But on Monday, it was time to pull out those plastic graphing calculators again.