As I rehearse tales of Finnish lukios (high schools) to share back home, I worry about reaching audiences who want a Disney-esque bumper sticker / shopping list story where everyone lives happily ever after. No homework. Respected teachers. Long recess. Trust. Free lunch. But as current popular fairy tale reinterpretations have shown, the education story in a land far, far away isn’t so simple.
I’ll ask listeners to use their imaginations. Without commenting or arguing or data twists, I’ll provide a list of what-ifs. Imagine how different your world, your school, your classroom would look with this kind of make-believe.
Imagine a land where self responsibility guides behavior. A world where it’s agreed that people should persevere, even when things get hard (sisu). What would that look like in a classroom?
Imagine a world where it’s agreed that people are happier when things are reasonably equal. (Couple this with personal responsibility- the effect is synergistic.) What does this equality look like in our schools and classrooms?
Imagine a land where it is agreed that a healthy work-life balance is important.
Imagine a world where trust exists. How different would government and businesses look? What about your school, classroom, community?
Imagine a place that respects teachers– where teaching is a desirable profession. Imagine being called “Teacher,” in the same way “Doctor” or “Professor” is used. Along these lines, imagine a place where practicing teachers write the national curriculum, the textbooks and the national exams (high stakes tests).
Imagine a land of nine year compulsory education, beginning at age seven. Anything afterward is elective. How many of your students would choose to continue?
Imagine a place where authentic student choice exists. A place where every student in your school attends because he/she asked to be a student there. Imagine a place where this authentic choice means that the students select almost half of his/her courses. Imagine that the student choice even extends to most of the exam subjects (high stakes tests) he / she will take.
Imagine a place where student choice allows training for a many vocations, not just a college path.
Imagine teaching in a land where education is a community effort. Libraries, sports centers, music halls, craft centers, parks, community centers, youth centers, writing houses, theaters also support learning.
Imagine a twenty class hour work week. Sixteen for writing teachers, who have the lower load to compensate for the added assessment burden. Imagine the time that this allows to plan, research, adapt, create, assess, differentiate, infuse rigor and imagination.
Imagine no assigned classroom. Instead, imagine an office space and a lounge area for coffee and collaboration or maybe a massage or ping-pong.
Imagine teaching subjects that you know and love. No clubs. No coaching. No committees. No fundraisers. Limited duty and meetings. Planning. Researching. Teaching. Assessing.
Imagine a land of people who read.
Imagine a land of students who are multilingual.
Imagine working with students who are humble. Students who have a modest estimation of their abilities and want a teacher’s guidance and expert knowledge.
Imagine working in an education system where there are no dead ends. A land where anyone can adapt with changing circumstances or dreams. A land with a healthy adult ed population.
Imagine a land that has largely eliminated child poverty, with rare private-sector corruption, where a special relationship with the environment exists, where a living wage is not a fairy tale, where college and day care are free for citizens, where leisure and recreation are important, where health care is available for everyone, where flexibility is built in and where seniors are not invisible.
I know it’s hard to draw this picture- I couldn’t last year, even though I had been reading these stories for months. Finland, a newer country, has many policies and customs in place that seem like fantasies to Americans. And yes, things are changing in this far-away land. The depressed world economy and immigration challenges have thrown in plot twists. I’ll be watching from afar to see how this story unfolds, biting my nails in hopes that the brave characters continue to persevere and prevail.
But in this not-so-surprising ending, the page turns to US classrooms. In the Finnish equality-driven storyline there isn’t a single heroic character who saved the day. All the characters in the magical kingdom participate. In the American story, we have assigned the hero role to our teachers. It has been pointed out that their respected Finnish counterparts have advanced degrees. (But in the interest of fair storytelling- it is a five year degree (no GRE culling) qualifying educators to work with grades 1-6. Others are subject teachers who have at least a Master’s degree in their field.) Studies report that ed majors are the top university students. (But there is another higher ed strand- applied sciences institutes/polytechnics populated by engineers, computer scientists, visual and performing artists, and nursing brainiacs -perhaps watering down that elite top percentile.) And these Finnish educators are good. But it is in the US –where despite the near-overwhelming challenges that many American classroom teachers confront every day- that I’ve seen more student-centered, engaging, charismatic, creative, differentiated, hard-working, heroic teaching. I’ve had the privilege to work with some of the finest professionals in the world at Carencro High. I can imagine how forceful their effect would be in Finland.
How to make our own education story live happily ever after? Use your imagination.
I’ve especially enjoyed the imaginative puppet and doll art during travels to Estonia and Russia and hope the included pictures inspired your imagination. See more fanciful creations here.
Anna Marquardt is a proud classroom teacher at Carencro High School in Lafayette, Louisiana. She has been living in Finland for six months, researching education practices. The views represented in this blog are hers alone and not those of the Fulbright Commission.