Last week, I had the good fortune of attending the UK College of Ed., AdvancED’s Innovation Summit in Lexington. There were many great speakers and presenters, one being a very talented 4th grader from Eminence Ind., who very confidently and expertly discussed and demonstrated utilizing various web tools for important school projects. This kid trains her teachers! I attended fantastic sessions presented by teachers, students, administrators, and school board members of Danville Ind. and UK professors. I listened to a panel of successful superintendents of Danville Ind., Jessamine, Fayette, Eminence, and Clark Counties. I heard great speakers such as Gene Wilhoit and Kris Kimel and was delightfully entertained by the UK Marching Band and School of Music. But one of the most impacting moments for me was hearing Tony Wagner, author of Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, discuss the successes in Finland and provide his own insight to improving our nation’s public education system. Prior to his delivery, I viewed Wagner’s documentary, The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System.
I have been fascinated by Finland for many years, and have often wondered why we aren’t looking more toward the country’s education system as a role model. Finland provides equal education for ALL. Teachers are paid for professional development and continuing their higher ed. Teachers are paid fairly, even though money is not the driving factor in career choices. Mediocrity is not accepted. Students do not pay for lunch in Finland. There is no special education. There is room in the Finnish classroom for exploration, taking time to delve deeper, and even making mistakes. Class sizes are small – no more than 20 students/class.
To me, Finland really stands out because teachers are trusted by the public, businesses, government, and most importantly, their students. Teachers are highly regarded. Students want to become teachers. Students are trusted, too. There are few behavior issues in the Finnish classroom because of the focus on and nurturing of the individual student. Students’ talents and interests are emphasized, celebrated, and incorporated into their learning. What I find even more remarkable, though, is that in high school, students are researching and developing in their “fields.” They are receiving real-world application and producing real-world projects for their portfolios. In a sense, they are getting career experience before they even receive a degree in their fields of study. They are self-motivated and take on the responsibility of learning. Their school day is flexible. Even their schedule is flexible. Students can graduate after two-four years of high school, depending upon how much they put into their work.
Research and hands-on exploration are key. Research always has been and always will be an important factor in lifelong learning. I have no idea where I would be if I didn’t have the proper foundation of research in my public education. My high school English teacher (thank you, Mrs. Wills) and K-12 library media specialists (thank you, Mrs. Donathan and Mom) were equally instrumental in helping me develop these skills. That’s what prepared me for life. Not just career, but life. I won’t forget them.
Why have research skills been so far removed from school? I don’t see much emphasis placed on research. More and more of my clients in the schools, the library media specialists, are given other responsibilities and becoming part-time LMS’s or, even worse, being pulled from the library altogether. They are sometimes placed into the classroom or into the libraries of multiple schools. I find this very alarming. The library is central to the school. Students and teachers rely on the expertise of the media specialist, who knows the library, to help them locate books, trustworthy Internet and multimedia references that are integral to their research, projects, and lessons. These are the people who can match a reluctant reader with a good book to generate a passion for reading. These are the well-read educators who possess knowledge in a wide variety of areas and can guide a learner in the necessary direction to find answers. These are the central processors of the school. You can find links about The Finnish School Library Association here. It is evident that the school library media specialist is pretty important there, too.
If we are ever going to put the needs of our students first and prepare them for such an uncertain future in an innovative way, we need to rethink the way we structure our schools. We need to add to students’ experiences and resources – not take away from them. We need to nurture their talents, feed their curiosity, show them how to find the answers to important questions, give them room to explore, guide them in their critical thinking and analysis, and celebrate with them when they learn from mistakes. We cannot possibly achieve any of that without good classroom teachers, the library media specialist, and without teaching research skills. There are other significant factors in innovative student learning, but these should be at the top of the list. Every time.
Our culture is very different from Finland, but I believe there are many ways we can learn from their successes. First, however, we have to come together as a nation and want to put education at the top of our priorities. It will require some sacrifice on our part, and we will have to accept that. We have to understand that this is necessary in order to become a stronger, more resilient, and better educated United States of America. I think we can.