“The kind of things that are easy to teach and easy to test are diminishing in the labor market relevance because computers are a lot better than humans in things that we call algorithmic processes. What gains in importance is not your capacity to reproduce what you have learned but to extrapolate from what you learned and apply your knowledge in a novel situation to work with others, (with) people (who) are different from you, (and) who have different ideas.”
This Finnish journey began in 2011.
It was a warm Sunday afternoon, I was listening to some jazz and reading Amanda Ripley’s article in The Altlantic, “The Global Schoolmaster” about Andreas Schleicher, Director of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The article said he was someone who was respected globally and sought after to help make decisions regarding education and educational reform. This intrigued me – because for almost twenty years I had been trying to get educational decision-makers in America to listen to successful teachers when making systemic decisions. Now I hoped to meet Andreas.
I arrived in Finland eighteen months later and in April of 2013 we sat down for a formal interview.
We talked about the Finnish and American education systems, we talked about innovation, and we talked about moving past education systems designed during the Industrial Age. Andreas showed me a genuine interest in helping children of all nations get a better education. He was reflective, insightful, and compassionate and he gave me hope for the work and aspirations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). I enjoyed our conversation immensely.
Here are selected portions of that interview.
On Finnish Assessment and Systemic Success:
“On the premise that the Finnish system lets teachers make sort of a lot of decisions on their own, actually, it is a highly demanding education system. The expectations placed on individual students are actually very, very high. They’re not standardized, they’re not uniform, but there is no tolerance for failure in the Finnish system. Actually that’s often underestimated because it looks like a nice and pleasant environment but the fact, for example, speaks for itself that on the PISA test only five percent of the performance variation in the Finnish student population lies between schools. Every school succeeds. Every class succeeds. So that is the result of having actually very strong and uncompromising expectations and that is reflected in their approach to assessment and evaluation. They don’t have one single standardized test that comes from the outside but they have a multi-layered system of assessments that starts in the classroom, that looks at the school, that looks at the system, through sample-based assessments. So it’s an approach where you know evaluation is part of everything they do, not part of something happening once in a year or once or twice in a year, it’s happening every day in every classroom and the teachers are the owners of that evaluation process. They actually do standardized testing, that’s something that we can see in our data quite clearly,but they do it in a way that it’s not taking learning time away from the students but adding to the learning process and both for the learner and for the teacher.”
“Finland shows us how you can make assessment and evaluation a systemic exercise. You know, in Finland, assessment and evaluation is everybody’s business. It’s the student’s role, there’s a lot of self-reflection and students actually demonstrate high levels of metacognitive skills; they know something about effective… learning. They are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and this tells you that the teacher actually provides good feedback to the students. The same happens at the level of the teachers. Teachers watch what’s happening in classrooms every day. They actually report on this, they document individual learning because in Finland, because the system has no tracking, no streaming, no stratification, you actually need a very high degree of personalization in the Finnish approach. So basically as a teacher you need to manage a broad repertoire of different teaching strategies. You need to adapt those strategies effectively. There is no standardized curriculum. There are very clearly articulated learning goals; there is no compromise being made about them. But you as the teacher have to figure out,’What do I have to teach to my students today?’ There’s no one going to tell you about that. You can work with your colleagues. So the process of evaluation is one that is built into the system. That’s happening at the school. At the level of the system, the government takes very careful sample-based assessments of how the system delivers. This is not about rating individual schools or regions. It is about understanding, ‘Is the system delivering on what we expect the system to deliver?’ So…every level of the education system has a clearly defined role in this multi-layered approach to assessment and evaluation so I wouldn’t say you know – some people argue that in Finland they test less or they evaluate less than in the United States – the opposite might actually be true. There might be much greater emphasis on the evaluation of learning processes but it’s done in a way that is actually ADDING to the process of learning – learning for the student, helping students to learn better, helping teachers to teach better, and having the system actually doing a better job and becoming more effective.”
On Education and Innovative Thinking:
“The kind of things that are easy to teach and easy to test are diminishing in the labor market relevance because computers are a lot better than humans in things that we call algorhythmic processes. What gains in importance is not your capacity to reproduce what you have learned but to extrapolate from what you learned and apply your knowledge in a novel situation to work with others, people are different from you, who have different ideas. I think those are the kinds of things that are of increasing importance and that requires a very different approach to teaching.”
“You know we teach mathematics, we teach science, we teach history but at the end of the day all of those are different languages. You know, mathematics is not a world of equations and formulas it’s a language which I can understand, structure, model, predict the world. The same is true for science. The same is true for history. You know, it’s a very poor version of history if this is just an accumulation of dates and when things happen. When I can use it as a language that I can predict phenomenon that I know what other kind of contexts under which certain things happen I mean I can use that language to…then I can use those different languages to triangulate in the reality. I will create innovative thinkers because they will need to connect the dots across the different fields of school subjects where the next innovation is going to come from.”
On Moving Past the Industrial Age Model of Education:
“You know, the education systems evolve gradually and I think we can all change them from our own perspective and I think seeing how different people around the world address problems differently gives you a lot of ways to triangulate solutions, explore new ways, contribute to the improvement of the profession. I think that’s important everywhere and the future of the education system is not the kind of industrial work organization that we see today. You know where you have someone at the top who figures out what students should be learning and then thousands of people at the assembly line implementing those ideas. That was the right concept of education in the Industrial Age where you needed actually standardized products coming out of the people who can arrive on time at work, who can read and process information, and so on. Today in the knowledge society you need people who can think for themselves and that requires a different learning process.”