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News, 3/12/2014 | Embassy of Finland, Washington

Fulbright to the Fullest: What could the U.S. learn about Finnish Teacher Training?

Before I came to Finland, my idea of professionalism was abstract. I would have described it as how my work is viewed and a certain level of education attained. In my endeavors to learn about teacher education in Finland, I have inescapably been forced to develop a clearer understanding of what professionalism means because one cannot truly understand how teachers are trained in Finland without first understanding why.

Karen Martin is an American teacher who is currently living in Jyväskylä, Finland as a part of the Fulbright Program.
Karen Martin is an American teacher who is currently living in Jyväskylä, Finland as a part of the Fulbright Program.

The Finnish approach of research-based teacher education began with the understanding that teachers are professionals and therefore, needed not only practical skills learned in “apprenticeship” settings, but a knowledge base of theory, that could be used interchangeably forming a teacher’s expertise. This is the root of a professional’s expertise, in any field, the reliance on dual sources of knowledge, both from theory and practice, to perform their work.

The contrasting view of a teacher’s work is that of a practitioner or a craft. In this perspective, teachers are taught specific methods of teaching, learn through observation of mentors, and practice applying methods in their own practicums. There is little or no focus on educational theories or research. There is no intent to develop a teacher’s critical thinking and to train teachers to argue for the rationale of when and why to use specific instructional strategies or to analyze content.

Finnish teachers are professionals. Does this mean that parents do not question their decisions? Does it mean that school leaders don’t ask about their work? Does it mean that you will walk into a Finnish classroom and see the most innovative teaching methods? Finnish educators experience greater autonomy and trust at all levels of the education system--but the answer is no, to all of the above.

The clearest evidence of Finnish teachers’ professional expertise is their thinking. Without prompting, I have had the rationale explained to me for why desks were arranged in a particular arrangement, how modifications were made in a sequence of lesson plans based on an assessment, how materials were differentiated, how learning activities were cooperatively structured to promote social construction of knowledge and less reliance on the teacher, and how a teacher’s philosophy reflected his classroom management. These may not be new strategies, but the teachers’ choices were intentional, effective and efficient.

There are teachers in the United States whose teaching decisions are evidence-based and supported by a solid understanding of theory. Some teachers can even define the goals for each step in a specific instructional strategy and why they chose that strategy as the best approach to helping students meet a learning target.

But more and more, there is a movement toward textbooks that plan content (what and when to teach a subject) and professional materials that tell teachers exactly what to say to students during lessons. These crutches are deemed necessary to fail proof teaching and, I cannot help but feel strongly, remove the necessity for teachers to think. We don’t often ask first how we can support and develop teachers through better initial training or on-going professional development. I had a Finnish teacher educator explain to me that this view of teaching makes teachers no better than cleaning ladies who have a checklist of things to accomplish in their work without any need to actively think about what they are doing.

In general, the United States does not have a unified approach to teacher education whose shared theme is to provide every teacher trained in the United States with professional expertise. All teachers in Finland are trained to be evidence-based and inquiry oriented through development of a research-based understanding of pedagogy--the direct result of Finland’s intentionally designed research-based teacher education programs.

We cannot do what Finland has done. I have read many excuses why Finland’s educational system cannot be replicated. After my experience, I agree with some. The United States is not yet a place where culturally the needs of the whole are put above the needs of the one. I have never before experienced a society whose intent is equity and truly comes close to achieving that--especially where children are involved.

But, I do not agree that Finland’s teacher education program cannot be replicated in the United States. There is no excuse that is supportable. If we believe, as is often stated, that teachers are the one constant in a child’s educational experience, why does not it follow that teacher education should be restructured and all teachers should be empowered and trained as professionals?

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Updated 3/12/2014

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