Saturday, 3 March 2012

Can the USA adopt a Finnish education system?

As American lawmakers argue over what the best course of action to make the the US education system the best in the world, I wonder why we can't adopt what the best nations in the world are doing. There has been a lot of research on top performing countries and Linda Darling Hammond wrote in her book "The Flat World and Education" what top countries like Singapore, Finland and South Korean have done to improve their education systems and make them among the best in the world. To look at what factors they all have in common, the difficulty then arises of how to implement their change. What they all do is:

Fund Schools Equally-Despite even having private schools, much of what they do falls under the umbrella of public education. In the US, school funding is tied tightly to income tax revenue which means school districts with higher income residence have more tax dollars to purchase better resources and offer better teachers better salaries. Roughly half of US lawmakers send their children to private schools and the rest send theirs to public schools, but often in the most affluent communities. Although one does not need to have better resources to learn, more often than not, it swings the odds in their favor. In short, this keeps the rich kids smart and the poorer kids dumb. To fund schools equally gives every child regardless of family income the same access to opportunities as their peers.

National Standards and Curriculum-All three countries have a curriculum that is consistent across the country. Currently, the US constitution denies the federal government from imposing education standards on states, so states are in charge of developing their own curriculums. This is a shining ray of hope though, as some states have very competitive curriculums and have high test scores in particular disciplines such as reading, math and science. There was some effort to agendize a national curriculum a few year back starting in history, but it was shot down quickly as the question came: "Whose version of history are we teaching?" Some reform efforts have been done to include the work of minorities such as Cesar Chavez, but some conservatives are reluctant to recognize the achievements of Chavez and other notables. Inevitably, most history books have been white washed to be non-controversial, dull and teach US history through the lens of European settlers and the ruling aristocracy rather than minorities such as Native American Indians.

Eliminated Examination Systems-There is very few levels of external examinations and they are administered to give value to their school and also serve as a means to provide more funding to schools that have poor test scores. It would make sense that if a school has lower scores, they need to improve the quality of their teaching and that is what it is used for. Currently in the US, schools are penalized for low test scores, shut down or transformed into charter schools which have more stringent admissions policies. Teacher collegues of mine in the states spend months teaching students how the "pass the test" and forgo critical thinking and learning in real-world applications and scenarios. In short, the US education system is using a "factory productivity" model of churning out graduates like crates of bobble head dolls. Our lawmakers have digressed our learning outcomes to a series of bullet points which somehow translate into kilowatt hours.

Support Ongoing Teacher Learning-South Korea, Finland and Singapore all realize the importance of teachers to form learning communities. Teachers are encouraged to visit and observe colleges while teaching, use common time to develop integrated projects, improve the quality of assessment and deprivatize their practice. They also know that new teachers have much to learn and they have systems to expose staff to ongoing professional development, the best pedagogical practices research based instruction. Compare this to the US that has a "teacher ranking system" that they publish publicly. Poor rankings serve as an excuse to divert children out of a low performing teachers classroom and label them as failures. It's no wonder that 50% of US teachers leave the profession in the first five years.

Develop National Teaching Policies-There are things that teachers do to be successful in the classroom. Statistically, students do not learn well by lecture, yet lecturing is prevalent in US classroom. Most students learn well by inquiry based, knowledge building learning experiences and all teachers are trained to use them well.

There is no silver bullet in US education reform. The changes mentioned above such as nationalizing curriculum and funding schools equally would create a huge stink from the rich and priviledged. Furthermore, the checks and balances of the government have resulted in a bureaucracy which makes it impossible to implement any large, sweeping changes. I plead to US lawmakers: Ignore partisian politics. You are faced with one of the last chances and opportunities to reform education in a way that will benefit your children's children's children. If you don't, 100 years from now when the US is a second rate world power we'll look back and ask: "What were we thinking?"

The Flat World And Education: Linda Darling Hamilton

Friday, 2 March 2012

How to improve student skills

So many parents ask me: "How can my child improve their grades?". I say to them, "If you improve your student skills, the good grades will follow."

Not everyone learns the same way. Not only that, but all students don't learn at the same pace. As some people are natural athletes and can put a basketball in a hoop with hardly any effort, there are students that really struggle to do the same task. The same applies to the classroom. Some students can look at an example or two and blaze through an assignment in minutes when another student will spend 10 minutes just trying to understand a single math problem. Getting a good grade is not the goal, the goal is improving your approach to learning.

The "best" students in my class are the best because they have a few things in common, (and it's not the grade). They exhibit a number of skills that help them reflect on their learning they are:

Coming in for help. Some students are deathly afraid of coming in to see a teacher during break or lunchtime. Furthermore, they're embarrassed, as it might be a sign that they "don't know how to do something". I've got news for you. It will be worse if you don't. The best students have the humility to ask for help, because when they do, it is the first step on the road to understanding and it means that they are engaged in the learning process.

Asking questions in class. Some students think that if they ask questions it paints a picture of them as an idiot. Nothing could be farther from the truth. When students do this, all the other students around them say: "I"m really glad he/she asked that?"

Reflecting on their learning. In grade 7, we always have a "practice test" to diagnose weaknesses before a final summative test. The practice test is crucial, because it unequivocally tells students what they can do and what areas they need to improve upon before the final. I think that a practice test is excellent because it narrows down what areas students specifically need to target, rather than blanketing a broad statement like "be sure to review for the final test" over students. How do they know what to study? The students that show the most improvement are ones that look at areas of their learning and really spend time on them. They ask themselves questions like: "can I do this without any help from others?" and "have I learned from my mistakes?"

Using study time effectively. If you have a quiz or test the next day it doesn't take a half brain to know that if you spend some time reviewing ahead of time, statistically, you'll do better than if you won't. Sadly, many students don't know how to study effectively. Often students lock themselves in their rooms with little parental oversight and many distractions such as social media and games. A 20 minute review session is then strung out to 2 hours if you include the breaks for facebooking and time to play the newest version of "Halo". Doing this creates problems. First, you haven't really focused your time into the task so your understanding will be "patchy" and fragmented. Also, since you've spent so much time not studying, you'll have an aversion to it. "I can't believe I got a D! I studied for an hour last night!" (Actually, it was probably more like 15 minutes)

All of these things above are student skills. They're not things that we as educators assess, but a student's ability to practice and develop them are crucial to developing long term learning habits. When students struggle in a class, I love to point out these above skills and ask them: "Why aren't you doing them?" When you are a good student, a good grade will follow.