Written by Janet English

17. Teacher Freedom and the Core Concepts for Learning

“Teachers have a lot of good ideas and when they process those ideas (and) share the ideas with each other, they can create an even better school than we (can) here in the Board of Education.”

Chapter 17

The Finnish education system moves slowly because teachers know that developing young minds takes time and rushing that development is counter-productive.  I asked teacher after teacher in Finland how they know when to proceed to the next topic and I was looked at with curiosity and told, “When the students have learned what they need to learn,” as if to say, “How can it be any other way?  That wouldn’t make any sense.”

Imagine a class where students are graded for how well they high jump – and the bar for the high jump is moved higher every week based upon a predetermined pacing guide. Day after day, more and more students are unable to “clear the bar” but the bar gets higher every week no matter how well the students perform. If students can’t perform at this predetermined pace, should they be considered failures? If this were a math or science class, would you allow this strategy for learning?  Is failure the fault of the student if they’re getting further and further behind? Is this what is happening in your school? This doesn’t happen in Finland but students having to adjust to a predetermined pacing guide is the norm in the United States.

In Finland, students’ learning objectives are written so that teachers can practice pedagogy that aligns with students need to learn. This is how learning can be optimized. For example, in mathematics, grades 6-9, the students’ objective is to learn about  “functions that demand logical thinking, such as classification, comparison, organization, measurement, constructing, modeling, and looking for and presenting rules and correlations.”  (http://www.oph.fi/download/47672_core_curricula_basic_education_3.pdf, page 164)

With objectives this broad and with ample time, teachers and their colleagues can design activities and explorations to optimize learning for all. Finnish teachers are not restricted by a pacing guide, some weekly assessments, or a mandated test at the end of the year; teachers are guided by the learning needs of their students. They are given the time and the pedagogical freedom to do their best work with students. Writing core curricula that promotes optimal learning is delicate work.  Here are excerpts from my interviews with Tiina Tähkä from the Finnish National Board of Education on how the learning objectives are written.

(An international perspective of the United State’s Common Core will be addressed later in this series.)

Tiina Tähkä, Counsellor of Education, Finnish National Board of Education

“The National Board of Education gives core curriculum that means it has the objectives, contents mentioned in a sort of very descriptive way, a brief way, and that material is then processed in the schools or actually in the municipality level. It depends how they process it but in the municipality level it is processed into the curriculum and in some schools it is later then processed in the school curriculum. In the school curriculum it describes more in detail what is going on and then the teacher in their work, the teacher makes their own pedagogical decisions how to teach certain things, what is the depth of things, how to teach. So it gives a structure to the teachers – what things are expected – but it doesn’t actually hinder the teachers to actually use their own ideas and to actually see from the students and their process what would be helpful for them. So, teachers have a lot of good ideas and when they process those ideas, share the ideas with each other they can create an even better school than we could here in the Board of Education.”

The Finnish system does not expect students to enter or leave their educational experience with the same accomplishments and this allows teachers to set instructional “targets” that all students can achieve.  In the crafts class, all children designed and built paper towel holders of their own design; they did not have instructions and they were not graded on how well they followed the directions.  In Sampo’s class, students were asked to build chairs of their own design.  Students are not usually graded but they are assessed on their progress and given help, if needed.  All children learn, all children succeed, and all children learn to solve problems.

Please notice the wording for the Core Curriculum for ages 7-16.

Selections from the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education, 2004

3.1 The Conception of Learning “Although the general principles of learning are the same for everyone, learning depends on the learner’s previously constructed knowledge, motivation, and learning and work habits…. In all its forms, learning is an active and goal-oriented process that includes independent or collective problem-solving.” (page 16)
3.2 Learning Environment “The learning environment must guide pupils in setting their own objectives and evaluating their own actions. The pupils must be given the chance to participate in the creation and development of their own learning environment.” (page 16)   (47671_core_curricula_basic_education_1.pdf)