Thursday, 12 April 2012

Notes from the Education Seminars #1: What Was Said

Ilari Lovio blogs about the key perspectives discussed in recent education seminars, organised by the Finnish Institute with its various partners. These topics will be discussed further in the forthcoming series of blog posts on education.

During the last week of March, the Finnish Institute’s event series that tackles education from various perspectives started. Two seminars were held on the 29th and 30th of March, organised in cooperation with the Institute of Education, UCL Nordic-Baltic Research Group, University of Helsinki, and the Embassy of Finland in London.

The first seminar, held at the Institute of Education, titled In Teachers We Trust: Explaining the Finnish Miracle concentrated in elaborating on the Finnish education system and comparing it to the British model and recent reforms. The motive of this setup stemmed from the vast interest that Finnish education has drawn due to the top ranking PISA results.

The second seminar, held at the Finnish Institute in London, titled Lessons from the North? Education, Teaching and Schools, widened the scope of the comparison to include examples also from other Nordic, and Baltic countries. Differences, challenges and recent developments were addressed through panel discussions.

Considering the number of attendees, both events were hits! More people were eager to attend than was possible to accommodate. Having this in mind, we have decided to publish a series of blogposts that will elaborate on, as well as document, the key perspectives that were presented and discussed. This is why the title, 'Notes from the Education Seminars'.

Education, teaching, and schools were discussed from various points of view during these seminars. However, I will point out here the key perspectives that rose to the center of discussions. These themes will also be elaborated in the following blogposts.

Equality and Excellence

One of the main underlying principles of the Finnish comprehensive school system is equality. The emphasis has been on narrowing down differences between schools to enable equal opportunity to every child. This can also be seen in the PISA results where Finland has a very low variation between pupils.

In the UK, at the same time, schools are much more diverse. There are, brilliant, high achieving schools, a well as poor schools. There are private schools, run by for-profit companies, state funded public schools, as well as so called faith-based schools.

The big question raised in the seminars is: Why are there such gaps in achievements of different schools in the UK? Is it determined by history, due to the heterogenic population of the UK, or outcome of conscious policies? That is the question.

Regarding Finland, on the other hand, question that was raised is that does the emphasis on equality collide with the pursuit of excellence? Are equality and excellence mutually exclusive in the world of comprehensive education, or not at all?

Teacher Education and Trust in Teachers

Finnish educationalists often emphasise the meaning of academic, research oriented, teacher education of Finnish teachers. To be a teacher in Finland requires a Master’s Degree in education. In the UK, at the same time, there are many ways to become a teacher and different providers offer teacher training, which makes the field much more diverse.

A word that repeatedly surfaced in the discussions around teachers and teaching is trust. While the Finnish educationalists emphasise autonomy and trust in teachers, many argued that in the UK there is distrust in teachers and teacher training from the government’s side, which manifests itself in the continuous testing and ranking of schools and pupils, and supervising the teachers’ performance as well.

At the same time, a question that was thrown to the Finnish was, how does one recognize and deal with poor teachers or ensure the transparency, if teachers’ autonomy is very high.

Changes and Challenges

What became clear during the seminars is that for the Finnish society, the late, but relatively rapid increase in ethnic diversity is a change that has to be considered also in education. A timely question is that, what kind of policies has to be developed to maintain the principles, goals, and features of Finnish education in a changing demographic situation.

Another societal change that was discussed, that both societies, Finland and the UK are facing is the increasing use of information and communication technology. What needs to be researched now is that how learning happens in the 21st century classroom and how does the use of ICT shape it.

Risks and Promises of Policy Transfer

As the purpose of these seminars was the exchange of knowledge, ideas and experiences, naturally the possibilities and conditions of policy transfer were on the agenda as well. Even though the importance of exchanging ideas was probably shared by the whole audience, at the same time, some crucially important notions were raised by the speakers about the risks of policy transfers that are based on superficial understandings of the societies and education systems in question.

To read more about education and the themes that were discussed in the seminars, keep following this blog and the forthcoming posts!


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