Saturday, December 21, 2013

Homeschooling and Finnish education

Finland consistently scores at or near the top in worldwide education surveys. The implications for the US have been discussed widely in US media, including prominent articles in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and The Washington Post.

I'm quite interested in this. Born in Finland, I am a US resident and went to public school in both countries. My father is Professor of Education at the University of Helsinki, my own graduate studies were in sociology and I am currently homeschooling my children here in the US.

Although homeschooling is legal it is still rare in Finland. Most Finns are happy with public education and don't see the need to homeschool. Moreover, private education is virtually nonexistent.

I've just finished reading Pasi Sahlberg's 2011 book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland and it occurred to me that the reason for Finland's success in public education might be that it strikingly resembles homeschooling.

Here are my notes from the book.
  1. Finland is small – but as a unit of educational reform 5.3 million is comparable to many states and provinces in other countries (including US states, which have a lot of say in designing their education systems)
  2. In international educational surveys, Finland went from being an average performer to a top performer in just a few decades. At the same time inequality between students, which started out being considerable, was reduced to a minimum.
  3. Finland is homogenous in terms of language and culture – but it is the most rapidly diversifying European country, and has managed to improve even as it has diversified
  • Not only small classes but also small schools
  • Motivated teachers who get a great education and a lot of autonomy
  • Absence of testing and audits keeps school stress-free
  • Shorter days and less homework mean there's more energy left to be creative
  • Children learn to read early regardless of school; their literacy provides a basis for other learning
  • Normalcy of special ed: roughly half receive it at some point
  • Other people really value teachers
  • Well designed spaces and nutritious warm meals
  • High social cohesion and trust. On average, a Finn belongs to three clubs or associations
  • Children are spending more and more time on their devices; they use them to learn different things at different speeds
  • Children find themselves in bigger schools; small schools are disappearing
  • Devices are also changing how children spend time together face to face
  • Boys are no longer reading as much for pleasure (no data on girls?)
  • Older children increasingly feel the lessons at school are irrelevant
Sahlberg's reader will conclude that a great school is small, led by highly educated teachers who are free to do things their way, has short days and issues little homework. It relies on parents and other people who help the children learn to read early. When a child has difficulty learning something – which happens to many at some point – they get help from a specialized teacher without being stigmatized. Plus, everybody there benefits from well-designed spaces and good food.

To Sahlberg the key challenge now is personal media. Because children spend so much time on their screens, teachers find they are harder to reach. They read fewer books on their own and their learning is out of synch with their peers. Hence, more effort is required from teachers to engage each individual student. But schools are getting larger and as the kids get older, they become even less engaged and more dissatisfied. They no longer see any reason to be in class. They use their devices to access information and to communicate.

Sahlberg's answer, which he calls the Big Dream, is school as a safe community where children are free to pursue their interests, learn more diverse things, and discover their unique talents. In the future he paints, classroom-based teaching gives way to customized, activity-based learning:
Rather than continue thinking of future schooling in terms of subjects and time allocations to them, the time is right now to make a bold move and rethink the organization of time in schools. This would mean having less time allocated to conventional subjects, such as mother tongue, mathematics, and science, and more time for integrated themes, projects, and activities.
He continues:
This would also mean a shift from common curriculum-baed teaching to individual learning-plan-based education. This would lead to extended time for all students to spend engaged in personally meaningful workshops, projects, and the arts.
Sounds a lot like homeschooling.

Cross-posted on my blog

Friday, December 13, 2013

Strong and weak ties

A new boy joined the school and it has been great. Everyone now has a friend and it really matters.

Maybe because of that we have been thinking and talking about friendships and the optimal size of our group more in recent days.

Marjatta Kalliala, an educator in Finland, noted in one of her books that what matters most to young children are trustworthy grown-ups who can offer a lot of individual attention to them. Whereas closer to their teens it becomes even more important to be part of a diverse, stable community of other young people.

I once asked Riitta Olander, head teacher of the preschool E & E went to in Helsinki what she thought of this. She recited a simple formula: age of the child + 2 = the maximum number of other people they should be expected to interact with daily.

That seems to be true. Now that our children are aged five to six, a core group of four to five kids plus two teachers has been working out really well. It's enough to enable deep friendships, free group play, and more directed group activities like Simon Says and yoga without compromising on the ability to comfort a little one when things go wrong, have thoughtful conversations, and pair up for extended one-on-one sessions when math, writing, etc. requires it – and they frequently do.

Those are the "strong ties". But we all need "weak ties" too – people we don't know so well, who we engage with out in the world when we need to get something done.

In New York we team up with Brooklyn Apple Academy on field trips sometimes once, sometimes twice a week. This larger combined group of seven to eight kids has started to gel as the children become more familiar with each other and we develop routines as a group.

Then there are the afternoon classes, sports, park days and homeschooler community events on both coasts. The faces on the soccer field, at the pool and gym, in the park, science camp, or at robotics class are familiar even though we may not remember everyone's name.

The world is big and it moves fast, and a six year old is wandering out of his or her comfort zone a lot. It's ok though, when there's a close friendship and a safe home base to return to.

Apple of the Day

Every day one of the children gets to be Apple of the Day. We borrowed this from our friends at the Brooklyn Apple Academy

The Apple acts as a tie-breaker and takes on some grown-up responsibilities like leading the way on field trips and blowing out the candle after circle time.

The system is known as rotating chairmanship and it is part of many democratic institutions. For example, the Presidency of the European Council is a rotating chairmanship.

Now, whenever there's a conflict (who gets to press the elevator button?) the children have an obvious way to resolve it without needing grown-up referees.

Monday, December 2, 2013

School Rules

Some mornings the children want nothing to do with circle time or academics. We start such days by crossing the street to the park, which is often still wet from dew, and run around and play hard. (My first grade teacher in Finland sent us outside to run in the woods. It worked wonders then and still does today).

But after a few particularly rowdy mornings I asked the children if they thought we should have any rules. They all enthusiastically agreed "Yes!" – even the couple who were beating each other with their seat cushions.

I asked what the rules should be, and offered to write down what they said. Here's the result:

1. The Apple gets to lead and blow candle - not anyone else
2. No phones
3. Raise your hand and no interrupting
4. No screaming, standing up, yelling, showing private parts, disturbing, lying down
5. No playing with stuffies in circle time

This set has worked remarkably well and it has remained on the wall of the tower room where we meet in the morning. 

Maybe the reason it has worked is that it is consistent with John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle:

"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

The harm principle has become somewhat of a guiding line to us. The children have become familiar with it through arguments about what they can and can't do. They think it's fair.

For example, rule 5 originally read "No stuffies in circle time." It was amended to "No playing with stuffies" after one of the girls pointed out that the stuffies didn't bother anyone if they were not being used.

That sense of justice is probably why these rules continue to get respect from the grown-ups and the children – even the ones called out for breaking them.