Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Finnish Paradox: Is Finland to Education as France is to Health?

The French Paradox is a well-known conundrum in the field of public health. Wikipedia defines it as: "the observation that French people suffer a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease, despite having a diet relatively rich in saturated fats." The reason we have a hard time understanding how the French can eat the way they do—for instance, consuming full fat cheeses at lunch and supper daily—and remain healthy is that we are looking at the problem of diet and health through a particular lens, namely, the lens of fat intake. If our perception of health revolves around the issue of fat, specifically around the notion that reducing saturated fat is essential to good health, then there is no way to understand French health statistics; they become a "paradox." If saturated fat is not the key issue—and the latest medical research suggests that in fact it is not—then the French way of eating and staying healthy becomes less mysterious. After all, in addition to consuming all that saturated fat, the French do not snack much between meals, they drink loads of healthful red wine, and they eat a far greater variety of foods, including many more types of fruits and vegetables, than North Americans.

The Finnish education system is a paradox to American education "reformers" in the same way the French diet is a paradox to mainstream medical scientists. In Finnish education less is more. Kids start formal education late by North American standards (at age 7), and their school hours are shorter. Finnish teachers assign very little homework and carry out minimal standardized testing (performing sample testing only); teachers are less bound by rigid national curriculum standards, and are largely unburdened by hysteria over "accountability." In Finnish classrooms there is little technology—fewer smart boards, more blackboards. There are no gifted classes, the idea being that the more able students will benefit from interacting with, and helping, the less able students in the classroom. Yet despite all this, Finnish students' scores on international tests are among the highest in the world.

What are education professionals to make of this? Here again is a paradox wherein the data do not fit preconceived theories. Yet as in the case of the French diet, the data don't lie. Sooner or later American educrats—those currently making a lot of noise about the "crisis" in education—will have to deal with Finland. They would do well, in my opinion, to read an essay published last year by the Annenburg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. The author of this essay, Linda Darling-Hammond, explains how Finnish education officials chose a very different path to "reform" from that of their Anglo-American counterparts. Unlike Anglo-Saxon countries:

Finland has not adopted . . . standardization of curriculum enforced by frequent external tests; narrowing of the curriculum to basic skills in reading and mathematics; reduced use of innovative teaching strategies; adoption of educational ideas from external sources, rather than development of local internal capacity for innovation and problem solving; and adoption of high-stakes accountability policies, featuring rewards and sanctions for students, teachers, and schools.

In contrast, she quotes a Finnish education policy analyst who explains:

Finnish education policies are a result of four decades of systematic, mostly intentional, development that has created a culture of diversity, trust, and respect within Finnish society, in general, and within its education system, in particular... Education sector development has been grounded on equal opportunities for all, equitable distribution of resources rather than competition, intensive early interventions for prevention, and building gradual trust among education practitioners, especially teachers.

Hmm. Equitable distribution of resources. Trust. But. . . don't Finnish kids far outscore North American kids on international tests? Paradox indeed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Curriculum Night

I just got back from "curriculum night," at my daughters' school, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The girls' main (grade 6) teacher spoke at some length about having decided to adhere as closely as possible to the Toronto District School Board's homework policy, which I reviewed in a guest post on Sara Bennett's now sadly defunct StopHomework site (see here and here). The teacher explained that his goal this year is to attempt to cover the bulk of the curriculum, especially the overstuffed math curriculum, through in-class work. To that end, he has scheduled double math periods a few times a week. He noted that according to the revised 2008 homework policy, work completed at home cannot be assigned a grade, but is reported on only in the (non-graded) learning skills section of the report card.

In the two weeks since school began I had noticed that the girls were not bringing home much homework, just the occasional math problem that they hadn't managed to finish in class. But I was surprised at the teacher's admission that this was a conscious change of practice on his part. Last spring I interviewed the principal of our school for my post about the homework policy, and she told me that she fully supports the revised policy, and that at the beginning of each year she reviews it with the teaching staff. I'm wondering if our "chat" last spring, had anything to do with the changes I'm seeing this year. If so, it gives me hope that as a parent I can effect change, even by doing something as non-confrontational as writing a blog post about a particular policy. Nonetheless, I have to give credit where credit's due. In a handout the teacher distributed to parents, he further explained his position this way: "I have a young family and believe that spending time with your own children is very important. Spending less time on homework should allow children to do more of their preferred educational activities at home." How refreshing!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Back to Jail—Ugh!

Between the ages of eight and eleven I kept a diary. Although I like to think I was a fairly imaginative kid, my diary entries are strikingly unimaginative and repetitive. But they are interesting to me nonetheless for one reason: every weekday entry during the school year started this way: "I went to jail, ugh." Throughout the entire course of the diary I never referred to school by any other term. The reason this interests—or rather confuses me—is that I didn't actually dislike school. I didn't love it, I may have been a little bored, but I had several good school friends, and I was comfortable there. My elementary school, and even my middle school were second homes to me. I do not remember experiencing them as places of stress or undue misery.

As I prepare to send my own daughters back to school, I've been reflecting on what a difference two or three decades makes. My daughters are in the throes of back-to-school dread, and for good reason: to them school does indeed feel like a sort of prison. Despite the "progressive," child-centered rhetoric of the last thirty years—rhetoric that is especially prominent in school boards such ours (Toronto District School Board), which pride themselves on their forward-thinking approach to education—I would argue that schools have become more repressive, more prison-like than when I was a kid. Take lockdown drills, for instance, which every school in the TDSB is required to conduct twice yearly. This is a practice that originated in prisons as a means of containing riots by controlling the movement of the inmates; its adoption by school boards throughout North America is justified by citing hypothetical threats to "security." When my children were subjected to their first mock "lockdown" in grade 2, they were traumatized, their minds filled for days with images of potentially violent intruders skulking around the schoolyard or wandering down hallways. Around the same time, the school implemented new anti-bullying policies and procedures, the literature for which was full of references to "safe" schools. Could the administrators not see a contradiction between the two policies? How is subjecting children as young as four to lockdown drills conducive to creating a psychologically "safe" space? Have school boards ever performed a cost benefit analysis of the practice in terms of psychological harm versus physical security? (When kids get to high school, the "lockdown" effect is in many cases compounded by the presence of armed police officers enforcing "zero tolerance" policies. But that is a subject for another post.)

Today's schools are punitive and authoritarian in a subtler but arguably more harmful manner as well. Without much debate or any overt change in policy, schools have begun in recent years to exert more and more control over children in the most basic, bodily of ways. In the playground there are rules against running, against using the playground equipment in an unapproved manner, against play fighting or roughhousing of any kind. Within the school and classroom, access to the bathroom is even restricted. If a child asks to go to the toilet before or after recess, his or her request is likely to be denied. I witnessed this policy being enacted in a junior kindergarten class a few years ago while I was volunteering in the school library. A junior kindergartner (i.e., a four-year-old child!) had the audacity to ask the teacher if he could go to the bathroom soon after recess. I didn't hear everything the teacher said in response, but I did hear her when she began to yell loudly at the child who was slinking down the aisle toward the nearest bathroom, "No, it's not okay. You know you're supposed to go at recess. You know the rules. It's not okay!" When Michel Foucault wrote about the ways in which the state exerts it power at the micro level, including at the level of the human body, he probably did not have this scenario in mind. But for me, it is a perfect example of the early "disciplining and punishment" of the human soul.

A few more anecdotes to drive home the point, especially the under-acknowledged fact that schools have become more, not less, authoritarian in recent years:

My older brother recently told me that when he was in elementary school—this would have been in the late sixties—a teacher berated him in a manner that he felt was uncalled for and unfair. My brother's response? He simply left the school and walked home at recess. The school called my mother, who actually defended him!

Fast forward forty some-odd years. I picked my daughter up from school one day in fourth grade and upon seeing me, she immediately burst into tears. She'd been feeling physically ill for the final half hour or so of school, and upon arriving home she promptly threw up and took to her bed. I later asked her why she hadn't told the teacher she needed to call home. "It was close to dismissal time," she explained. "The teacher would have said I had to wait."

On another occasion, my daughter had a total breakdown after she accidentally dented her trombone. Even though my daughter considered the band instructor to be one of the "nice" teachers, she claimed he was nonetheless going to "murder" her for denting the instrument. I have rarely seen her so distraught. She cried for one hour straight, repeating over and over again "he's going to kill me." I asked her why she couldn't just tell him the truth: that someone had accidentally bumped into her and the trombone got dented. She looked at me as if I were stupid and said, "I can't just say that, because he's an adult and I'm not, and teachers don't believe kids." I went into the school the next day and talked to the teacher, who nonchalantly told me he'd send the trombone out to be repaired. He even provided another trombone for my daughter to use in the meantime. But I was left wondering whether he would have responded as casually had my daughter actually done the explaining herself. What is it about him, I wondered, or more generally, what is it about school that makes my daughter feel so utterly dis-empowered as a human being?

This, I believe, is the kind of question we, as parents and as citizens who pay for public education, need to be asking not just about specific schools, but about the current culture of public school in general.