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Posted at 01:30 PM ET, 01/12/2012

This was written by Cathy N. Davidson, a Duke University professor and author of “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.”

Correction: An earlier version of this said there were no private schools in Finland. There are a few.

By Cathy N. Davidson

It is fascinating to be in Hong Kong this week talking with the nation’s top educational officials and business leaders about new modes of learning for the digital workplace during the release of a new book by Pasi Sahlberg, a leading innovator in the Finnish Ministry of Education. Educators in Hong Kong are as intrigued, inspired, and perplexed by the Finnish educational success story as those in the United States. “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” details the way Finland has become the gold standard in public education by going in nearly the opposite direction of all the other top-ranked systems in the world.

Whereas “excellence” is the byward of educational theory in most countries these days, “equality” and “equity” govern Finnish school reform. No one guessed that Finland would still come out No. 1 by standardized measures of educational attainment.

It’s easy to see why Sahlberg’s book is getting attention in the United States. We have a crisis. With our high student drop-out rates, our even higher teacher attrition rates and demoralization, and our low test scores as measured by the world standards of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, we need to look at others who are excelling where we fail. We usually look to places like Hong Kong, where superior standardized test scores are the norm.

Finland’s approach is opposite. They have come out on top in the OECD rankings even though, as a nation, they have abolished standardized testing. They view it as antiquated as a method, inefficient as a way of actually measuring the most important learning, and a dis-incentive to great, inspiring teaching. Since 1980, when Finland reformed its schools, it took the opposite course of seemingly every other country in the world. Finland has few private schools and the rest are public and tuition is free. Virtually every school is a “charter school” in the sense that teachers and principals are given the freedom to devise methods that they believe work best for the particular students in their own school.

The general Finnish educational method is a Dewey-esque learning-then-doing approach, theory then practice model. Teachers are highly professional and professionalized. You need a Master’s degree to teach at a higher level than kindergarten. There is great respect for teacher judgment as well as respect and decent wages for teachers as the best people to determine what metrics best account for learning success. They work with principals at coming up with the best ways to determine how to measure success, engage kids and communities, and how to both keep national norms and address local conditions. In immigrant communities, kids are taught all subjects in their first language (including Finnish instruction).

The United States has much to learn. Finland provides a real alternative to the standardized testing mania that began in the United States in 1914, and was invented in a time of a critical teacher shortage to turn out students as efficiently, uniformly, and at the same “one basic size fits all” level as the Model T. [Click here for more information]. Unfortunately, this system originally designed to mass-produced results for “lower order thinking” and now rules most educational systems worldwide, including testing for higher education, graduate, and professional schools.

But what about Asia? Asian nations tend to do brilliantly on the standardized testing they adopted from the West. In fact, some commercial entities, rubbing their hands greedily at the thought of making a lot of money by corporatizing public education, are using Asia’s economic success to argue that America needs to get rid of the Department of Education, corporatize public education, and raise those standardized test scores.

That’s wrong-headed on every level but the Hong Kong conversations I’ve had this week about the Finnish educational system show just how much so. Although Hong Kong regularly finishes in the top five in the world in student high school and college completion rates and in those OECD standardized test rankings, there is great dissatisfaction with the public educational system here.

Over one-third of Hong Kong residents may attend college and there are excellent post-secondary vocational alternatives for those who don’t, but the general public feels that the extreme standardization and the harsh drilling to do well on those tests makes education uninspiring and even painful. They also are concerned that it programs students to a certain kind of standardized thinking that does not suit the interactive digital world of the 21st century workplace.

That concern about whether high test scores mean anything in the contemporary world is why I was invited here. I’ve given four talks here from the “How We Measure” chapter of my book “Now You See It and have addressed a number of organizations thinking about how the Hong Kong system can be open to newer collaborative modes of learning.

Hong Kong seems a success story when viewed enviously by American educators noting those high test scores. Meanwhile, educators in Hong Kong want to learn more about more flexible, motivating, inspiring ways to improve their system. The Finnish model, which I greatly admire, is helping in that process.

At the MaD (“Making a Difference”) conference of over 1,200 outstanding Asian young people from ages 16-30, I not only delivered the closing keynote but had the opportunity to meet with 70 students in a free-flowing workshop moderated by Hong Kong’s Undersecretary of Education Kenneth Cheung. The subject of our session was “Learning 3.0” and the future of the students who are scoring so brilliantly on the world stage.

Are they being “standardized” by the pressure to excel? Where is their individuality, creativity, and risk-taking being learned? Is it possible to spend pre-school to graduate school learning to ace standardized tests and then suddenly, in the adult work world, become the next Steve Jobs, the entrepreneur who changes all the paradigms?

There are no fixed answers to those questions but caution about what all the standardized testing means is what drives many of Hong Kong’s elite to send their students abroad, often to the United States for college or graduate school.

It also inspired the introduction of “Liberal Studies” as a compulsory subject in the New Senior Secondary Curriculum. This interdisciplinary program is designed to help students develop critical thinking skills based on elements of science, the humanities and the liberal arts. It sounded great to me but when Mr. Cheung uttered the words “Liberal Studies” at our open discussion workshop at the MaD conference, he was greeted by a chorus of boos. I was taken aback but he wasn’t surprised at all.

He says the Ministry of Education is facing great opposition from this innovative new curriculum. The brilliant young people at MaD were quick to say why they didn’t like it. You cannot pretend to teach critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, and collaborative project for the 21st century — and then measure the results by standardized end-of-grade tests invented for the industrial workers of 1914.

No wonder the Finnish example has everyone talking here. I am full of admiration for a nation — for educational, policy, and business leaders, for teachers and parents and the students themselves — who, though seemingly already on top, are striving to be better. That spirit in and of itself may be part of the reason for Asia’s economic dominance now. No resting on laurels here!

Hong Kong has much to learn from Finland’s alternative approach to education. The United States has much to learn from how and what Hong Kong discovers. Do we want our kids to thrive in the 21st century or do we want them to raise their test scores? In the United States those issues are blurred because of our current failings. In Hong Kong, where high scores are already a reality, the Finnish example may well inspire educational reform, not for better scores, but for better learning.

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