I bet all of you are tired of my rose-colored posts on the seemingly perfect Finnish Education system. I just imagine you saying at home “Ok, we get it. Finland has a utopic education system, with a never-ending supply of recesses, free lunch, snack times and breaks. Students have less homework, fewer classes and less stress. We have read your article on how “Less is More”, and we understand that Finland has created an idealistic learning environment. But this really doesn’t explain their high scores on international assessments like PISA.”
You are right. It is confusing and counter intuitive. If I am being brutally honest with you, the math in a typical secondary level Finnish classroom is not particularly rigorous or advanced. While the instruction is sound and I have few critiques on the actual teaching, the topics covered in most classes were not extremely difficult. The actual calculations and content covered in a 9th or 10th grade level class, even the honors classes, were all topics I could easily assign to my high achieving 7th graders (Finnish 6th graders).
So, what enables Finnish 15 year old students to rank at the top of the PISA scores while the U.S. scores remains incredibly average or even below?
How do Finnish students, who spend their evenings skateboarding, playing video games or hanging out with friends, perform almost as high as those from Singapore or Korea where kids go to a “second school” after public school until 10:00 pm and follow that up with 4 or more hours of homework? It doesn’t add up.
Finland’s education system sounds great and wonderful and full of sunshine and rainbows, but how does it work? How are they getting such great scores in math?
1. It is all about the law of Averages. Finland is a country where everyone does “Well”.
Finland, a country that prides itself on equitable education, does a great job at getting and keeping everyone on the same playing field. Mirroring the philosophy of their society and governmental structures, education in Finland is more concerned with the collective good and making sure that every student does well instead of focusing on competition, tracking and ranking.
The result is that every student learns what they need to learn and does quite well at the basics, but not much more. There are very few high achievers. In fact on the recent PISA assessment Finland, while ranking far above the international average, Finland only had around 15% reach a top performing category, while the Asian Nations who beat Finland had between 30 to 50% of their students reach that top category. Yet, at the same time Finland had very few students on the low spectrum.
In Finland no one is pushed to become great, but no one gets left behind either. When everyone in society is doing at least “okay”, this creates a collectively high average that beats the average of a country like the U.S. or China that have gigantic educational achievement gaps that mirrors their societal and economic structures.
It isn’t a secret that the U.S. society is obsessed with competition. This mentality has created an education system that continually pushes students to learn and achieve at high levels. Which isn’t necessarily bad. Our system, that is based on competition and ranking, is very good at creating a huge group of students who excel and thrive in very advanced mathematical courses.
However, we have become so focused and intent on pushing our kids to learn more and more, that we create a hole in actual student understanding and their natural progression of learning. It is starting to become common practice to put 5th and 6th graders into Algebra, which I think is crazy, unnecessary and detrimental! U.S. kids are very good at following steps and getting the correct answer, but they have no idea what those answers mean or how they can be applied to real life situations.
And while all U.S. students are exposed to much more mathematics than the average Finnish student, this doesn’t mean they actually understand or retain all of that math information. And many can’t keep up with the impossible standards. Thus, we have the flip side to the American coin. We have a massive amount of students, especially in less affluent States and communities who are failing math completely.
In the spitting image of our American economy, we have a large successful group at the top but an even larger group at the bottom who pull our collective score below international averages. Finnish academic performance also reflects its economy. Everyone does well or at least okay and so the collective scores are high.
It is no accident that academic achievement mirrors the country’s economic structures. We will never fix our broken education system in the U.S. until we fix our broken economic system. Students will continue to fail academically as long as they live in fear, hunger and poverty- no matter what educational reforms or policies we enact. To the most extent these roadblocks do not exist in Finland. All students are fairly equal in terms of provisions and care at home. Most Finnish students come to school feeling safe, fed, loved, wanted and ready to learn.
However, I wonder if this “everyone is doing okay, so lets not worry about it” mentality is going to be a problem for Finland in the future. I have visited several math classrooms all around Helsinki and I often think that there are a handful of students that could be pushed to learn more and perform at higher levels. Perhaps a little more competition and challenge would be healthy for Finland’s youth. Like everything in life, there is usually a happy medium.
2. It isn’t about Calculations, Formulas or Factoring!
Math classrooms in Finland do not focus on calculations, solving algebraic equations, or what I would call formal mathematics. In fact I visited a 9th grade honors classroom where students were learning how to calculate the volume of a triangular prism for the first time. They were also struggling with what I would consider basic algebra concepts that would be simple to my 7th graders.
However, It didn’t take me long to recognize that Finnish math education isn’t overly concerned with calculations or formulas. The kids in Finland don’t do rows and rows of algebraic problems. They don’t sit around factoring complex equations for months on end. They are taught more practical skills and ways of thinking about and learning mathematics.
And if you take a look at the PISA questions you can quickly see why Finnish students are succeeding and U.S. students are failing. The questions do not look like the questions on an American math exam. There are no equations to solve or problems to calculate.
I recently took the PISA exam out of curiosity and to my surprise it looked more like a logic exam than a math exam. There were no what I would call “pure” math questions. They were all logical real life questions. I could do most of the problems in my head. All I had to do is sit and think the question through rationally and use my previous experiences and knowledge of the world to help me work out the problem. I didn’t reach for a pen and paper once to calculate or solve.
This is the KEY my friends. The PISA exam does not measure a students ability to solve a mathematical equation or calculate the answer to a directly given math problem. It doesn’t require factoring skills or differentials. The mathematics used in this international assessment of “What students should know” is actually fairly simple and straightforward every day math.
The math itself is not complicated or difficult. The students must read the problem, assess the situation, and figure out the answer. And the Finnish students who have been treated more like adults than children have more real life experiences from which to pull to problem solve. They have been given independence at a young age and have therefore figured out how to deal with real-life issues and problems on their own.
They have also had an education system that has not spoon-fed them all of the answers. They have learned how to read through a problem, think it through logically and actually attempt to find an answer before they give up.
The U.S. needs to focus less on actual drill and skill in mathematics and work more on problem solving and logic. Our students, who are very good at solving equations and doing calculations, have no idea WHEN to use one equation/ calculation over the other. Yes, they can apply their good calculation skills 30 times in a row, but being able to read a problem and identify which calculation should be used in a given situation is a different story altogether.
Also we need our students to actually read the math questions and not give up when they see a paragraph. They need more mathematical literacy skills and less “formal calculation” skills if they are going to compete globally.
3. Physics, Physics and More Physics
In any given week in Finland I will meet or talk to more people who have a degree in physics than I have met in my ENTIRE life in the United States. I swear- everywhere I go in Finland I find someone who studied physics or is currently getting their PHD in the impressive and very allusive field. It is crazy to me- Physics is not something that is very common in the U.S.
I am a math teacher. I have a degree in mathematics and I have never taken a physics course. Ever. The physics teacher in my high school was crazy so I avoided her class. I therefore was too intimidated to take a college level physics course and opted to take a chemistry course for my science requirement instead.
The concept of Physics is terrifying to most Americans. We don’t know it, we don’t understand it and we assume it is a field for only the highly gifted and talented. While it is common for U.S. students to take ONE physics course in high school, it isn’t a requirement. They also are not exposed to very much physics before the age of 16.
However all children in Finland take physics as part of their regular curriculum. As early as 4th or 5th grade Finnish students learn the basics of physics. They have a physics class every year in middle school and high school. Most of the math teachers are also qualified to teach physics.
It is a common subject and one that does not breed disdain and fear. In fact many of the students I have questioned or interviewed stated they actually prefer their physics classes to their math classes. Why? They prefer physics because it is actually APPLIED mathematics. The students can see how math is being used, applied and how it is relevant to the actual physical world in which they live.
When you look at the questions being asked on the PISA test the questions are more geared toward an understanding of physics than actual mathematics. This is the huge difference.
While American 15-year-old students can calculate circles around Finnish students, they are clueless when it comes to physics and mathematical application. Our students don’t know how to properly apply the math they know so well. Where Finnish students, who have had years of physics classes, understand the questions being asked and know how to apply their knowledge of math in a real and logical way.
Education, Finland, Fulbright, Learning, Teaching, Travel
Education, Finland, Fulbright, Helsinki, International Scores, Mathematics, Physics, PISA, Problem Solving, teaching, Test Scores, travel
20 Reasons You Shouldn’t Assign Homework Over The Holidays
by Miriam Clifford
Many students agree that homework over the holidays really is a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
Upon returning from winter break, you’ll probably have a handful of students saying the dog ate their homework or it got blown away in a winter storm. But you’ll probably be surprised to learn that some research suggests too much homework can be a bad thing. A 2009 article in the Los Angeles Times, suggests that some districts have cut back on the amount of homework in the effort to consider children’s social development. In fact, the San Ramon Valley district modified its homework policy and no homework is allowed over weekends and holiday vacations, except for reading.
The US National Education Association recommends no more than ten minutes (of homework) per grade level, per night.
Homework has fallen in and out of favor over the decades. California even established a law in 1901 limiting the amount of homework teachers could assign. Homework is highly in favor now a days. With recent trends of information overload, packed activity schedules, and childhood obesity, it’s no wonder educators are reconsidering their stance on homework.
20 Reasons You Shouldn’t Assign Homework Over The Holidays
1. Students are learning all the time in the 21st century. According to a recent article in MindShift traditional homework will become obsolete in the next decade. Thanks to computers, learning is occurring 24/7. With access to software programs, worldwide connections, and learning websites such as the Khan Academy, learning occurs all the time. According to Mindshift, “the next decade is going to see the traditional temporal boundaries between home and school disappear.” Try to see if you can bridge the gap between school and home by getting students interested in doing their own research over holiday break. Rather than assigning homework, create a true interest in learning. They will often pursue learning about topics they like on their own. After all, this is the way of the 21st century and information is everywhere.
2. More homework doesn’t necessarily equate to higher achievement. Yes, too much homework can actually be a bad thing. A 1989 Duke University study that reviewed 120 studies found a weak link between achievement and homework at the elementary level and only a moderate benefit at the middle school level. In a similar recent review of 60 studies, researchers at Duke U found homework was beneficial, but assigning excessive amounts of homework was counterproductive. The research found homework was more beneficial for older students than younger ones. The study was completed by Harris Cooper, a leading homework research and author of “The Battle over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents”. Cooper suggests that teachers at the younger level may assign homework for improving study skills, rather than learning, explaining why many studies concluded less benefit for younger children. Many teachers do not receive specific training on homework. Cooper suggests that homework should be uncomplicated and short, involve families, and engage student interests.
3. Countries that assign more homework don’t outperform those with less homework. Around the world, countries that assign more homework don’t see to perform any better. A Stanford study found that in counties like Japan, Denmark, and the Czech Republic little homework was assigned and students outperformed students in counties with large amounts of homework such as Greece, Thailand, and Iran. American and British students seem to have more homework than most counties, and still only score in the international average. In fact, Japan has instituted no homework policies at younger levels to allow family time and personal interests. Finland, a national leader in international tests, limits high school homework to half hour per night. Of course, there are other factors not taken into account in the study, such as length of the school day. But in itself, it is interesting to see this issue from a world perspective.
4. Instead of assigning homework, suggest they read for fun. There are great holiday stories and books you can recommend to parents and students. If you approach the activity with a holiday spirit, many students will be engaged. They may want to check out the stories on their own. You can start by reading the first chapter in class and leaving them intrigued. For instance, you can read the first chapter of TheGift of the Magi and suggest students read it over winter break. With younger students, you might promise roles in a play for students who read over break.
5. Don’t assign holiday busy work. Most academics agree that busy work does little to increase learning. It is best to not assign packets of worksheets if they do nothing to add to student learning. You also don’t want to waste valuable time grading meaningless paperwork. Some studies show that much homework may actually decline achievement. Assigning excessive amounts of homework may be detrimental. In fact, a 2006 study by Yankelovick found that reading achievement declined when students were assigned too much homework. Actually, interesting reading such as Harry Potter produced higher reading achievement.
6. Have students attend a local cultural event. You can let parents know that instead of assigning homework, you are suggesting students attend a particular event that relates to your classroom. For instance, if you are reading Shakespeare, they might attend a related play or ballet.
7. Family time is more important during the holidays. Assigning less homework makes it easier for families to have time together. Family studies at the University of Michigan, show that family time is extremely important to achievement and behavior. Studies on family meals, suggest that students who have dinner with their family have better academic scores and behavioral outcomes. Perhaps this is only a correlation, but family time is undeniably important to child development. Students spent most of their days at school while parents are at work. When all is said and done, remember what it was like being a kid. The things you remember most about the holidays aren’t the assignments you took home, but the time you spend with family and friends.
8. For students who travel during the holidays, homework may impede learning on their trip. The Holiday time is the one time of year that many families reconnect with distant family members or travel. I remember having to pack hoards of books over some holidays to Spain and it was not fun. I wanted to enjoy the time with family and experience the country fully. Traveling in itself is a learning activity. Let students experience their travels fully.
9. Kids need time to be kids. A recent article from Australia’s Happy Child website, “What is the value of Homework: Research and Reality” considers this issue and explains how children need unstructured play time. Homework can have a negative influence on early learning experiences. Suggest students use holiday time to do physical activity, such as ice-skating or sledding.Many kids don’t get enough exercise. Childhood obesity is a major problem in the United States.Suggesting students play outside or participate in a sport is a good way to get them to value physical activity. The holidays are a great time for kids to go sledding in the snow or play with friends outside. If no one has homework, classmates might exchange phone numbers to play together. You can suggest this to parents. If the teacher thinks physical activity is important, students will too.
10. Some education experts recommend an end to all homework. Etta Kralovec and John Buell, authors of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, controversially suggests that homework may be a form of intrusion on family life, and may increase the drop-out rate in high schools. The authors blame homework for increasing the achievement gap due to socio-economic differences in after-school obligations. Consider challenging your own views of the benefits of homework and try to create a level playing field when considering assignments.
11. Send a letter to parents explaining why you are not assigning work. You might want to take the Christmas holiday as a chance to engage parents to play a learning game or do some art with their kids. If families know there is an intentional purpose to not assigning work, they may take the chance to spend more one-on-one time with their child.
12. You can make the holidays a time for an “open project” for extra credit. Students might take this time to do something related to the curriculum that they would like to explore on their own terms. Before the holidays, you might talk about topics or provide books students for students to take home. Learning for fun and interest, might produce more meaningful engagement than assigned homework.
13. Suggest they visit a museum instead. With families at home, the holiday time is a great time for students to see an exhibit that interests them or do a fun activity at a nearby museum. Sometimes encouraging these field trips may be more beneficial than assigning homework. You might want to print coupons, a schedule, or a list of upcoming exhibits so that families have the information at their fingertips.
14. Encourage students to volunteer during the holiday time. The holidays are a great time for students to give back. Students might volunteer at a local soup kitchen or pantry. Volunteer organizations are often at their busiest during the holiday time. Plus, students learn a lot from the experience of doing community service. I remember visiting a group home during the holiday time in high school and helping kids wrap Christmas gifts for their families. This is a great alternative to assigning homework, especially for Generation Y who highly values civic involvement.
15. Develop a class game. You might have the class play a learning game the week before vacation and have them take it home to show their family. My fourth grade teacher had hop-scotch math. We often drew with chalk outside to replicate her game at home. Try to think of a holiday-themed game or one that the whole family can get involved in.
16. Students might learn more from observing the real world. Learning isn’t just about paper and pencil activities. Teachers should also inspire students to seek ways to learn from real-world experiences. They might cook with their parents and practice measuring. Or tag along with a parent who is putting up holiday lights or building a shed. Ask students to observe a job around the house or ask their parents about their job over holiday break. They might be enlightened to learn more about the real world and different jobs they might pursue in the future. Perhaps some students might be able to go to work with their parents instead of a formal assignment.
17. Go on a hike. Students learn a great deal from nature. Tell students to go outside on a walk and be ready to share their experience when they get back. Did they observe natural phenomena you talked about in science class or different types of rocks you discussed in geology? Or can you tie their walk into a discussion of poetry?
18. Tell students to visit an amusement park. If you are teaching physics or math, amusement parks give ample room to explain the laws of physics and mathematical probability. This outing would allow students to think about the real world implications of science. You may want to even plan a lesson beforehand that ties this idea in. On another level, it allows students to create a lasting memory with their own families.
19. Kids need rest! Everyone needs a mental breather and the holidays are the best time for students to play and take a break from school.Kids need a full ten hours of sleep and adequate rest. The vacation time is a great time for students to take a mental breather from school. With many family outings and vacations during the holiday time, they will have less time to complete homework. They will come back to school feeling re-energized.
20. Many parents and students dislike holiday homework. You want parents to buy-in to your classroom community and support your endeavors with students. Assigning holiday homework is usually unpopular with parents because it may the one time of year they have to give children their undivided attention. Instead, you might want to take a survey to see if parents agree with the idea. You can then send a letter with the survey results. Taking parents’ perspectives into account shows you value their opinions and feedback. Students prefer some free time too. Not surprisingly one student created a Facebook page, titled, “Why do teachers give us homework over the holiday.” If the students know you are giving them a break over the holidays they may work harder for you when they get back.
If you’re still not convinced, check out this fact sheet based on The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish. If you are still going to assign some holiday homework, at least keep in mind some guidelines.
The US National Education Association recommends no more than ten minutes per grade level, per night. If you must assign homework make sure it is meaningful and doesn’t take away from time with families. And most of all, remember what it was like being a kid during the holiday time. Homework is generally not a part of those memories, nor should it be. Those days playing outside and spending time with family are lifelong memories just as important as school.
Childhood is over in the blink of an eye.
This is a cross-post from opencolleges.edu.au