On March 24, the Ballroom of the National Press Club was buzzing with education experts eager to unearth the secrets behind internationally high-ranking Finnish schools. A new documentary film, The Finland Phenomenon, answered many of their questions and offered fresh ideas for increasing respect for the teaching profession in the U.S.
Preceding the viewing of the documentary, The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System, directed by Robert Compton, ambassador Pekka Lintu remembered from his own times inside the Finnish school system how teachers were both well educated and respected. As indicators of Finland’s education success story, he pointed out the recognitions from the United States, UNESCO, and the European Union. He also stressed that Finland is part of international economical area and that it is ready to offer its most promising ideas on education to other countries, in the spirit of reciprocal learning.
According to Robert Compton, some critics in the U.S. are not ready to apply Finland’s success in rankings to the American school system, because the Finnish population is too small and linguistically, ethnically and economically homogenous. At the same time, none of these reasons can explain the results of OECD or Newsweek research that rank Finnish 15-year-olds among the world's top learners. Those who think that something can be learned, view Finland as a success story in the post-industrial knowledge economy. The very low school dropout rate in Finland is also being seen as remarkable. Nevertheless, Finland spends less on education than the U.S. and most EU countries.
The documentary features Dr. Tony Wagner, a researcher at Harvard University and author of The Global Achievement Gap, who interviews Finnish basic school students, soon-to-be teachers, seasoned teachers, and experts from the Ministry of Education. The documentary’s view on Finnish education is “less is more”, regarding the shorter school days, less homework and longer summer holidays. The active role of a student in Finnish system is also recognized. The document shows that by building trust between teachers and students and by holding teachers’ work in high esteem it is possible to enhance the prestige of the teaching profession in ways that encourage top-notch applicants to pursue careers in education.
In the panel discussion, Executive Director Gene Wilhoit from the Council of Chief State School Officers recognized the importance of perceiving schools as learning communities. He wanted to see the school system in the U.S. as a knowledge center, where the main question would be how to deliver the knowledge most effectively to students. Seeing teachers not only as vessels but as active workers would empower them in the classroom and help prevent the all-too common notion that their incompetence or lack of motivation are the main reasons for students' lagging performance.
Tom Friedman, The New York Times columnist and author of The World Is Flat, said that the U.S. hobbies in education. Alternative to the view that “it takes a village”, as made famous by Hillary Clinton, Friedman wanted education to focus on how individuals face the world. In the rapidly changing information economy, the most important skill will be the ability to come up with new and unexpected ideas, he said. Chief Talent Officer Annmarie Neal of Cisco Systems, predicted even further changes in the school system as international competition increases.
As a synthesis, Executive Director John Wilson from the National Education Association posed a question on what would be the most relevant things that should be taught to the members of a global community. Like Wilhoit, Wilson was ready to support greater autonomy for teachers. As the session ended, Wilholt proposed using the ongoing technological progress to bring together high-performing schools, offering a way for American educators to draw from their Finnish colleagues' successes.