William Doyle is a 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar who joined the faculty of the University of Eastern Finland last year as a lecturer on media and education. He has enrolled his 7-year-old son in a Finnish public school and has been dazzled at what he has seen. His Fulbright project title: “Global Education Forum: The Schools of Tomorrow.” In this post, he talks about an approach to education in Finland that he thinks would do well in the United States.
Doyle served as director of original programming and executive producer during seven years at HBO. In 2014, he co-wrote with civil rights icon James Meredith the American Child’s Education Bill of Rights, which you can read about here. He is the co-author, with former U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, of the New York Times bestseller, “American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms.”
His other books include “A Soldier’s Dream: Captain Travis Patriquin and the Awakening of Iraq,” “An American Insurrection: James Meredith and the Battle of Oxford, Mississippi” (winner of the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award and the American Library Association’s Alex Award), “Inside the Oval Office” (a New York Times Notable Book), and “A Mission from God” (with James Meredith). He was co-producer of the PBS special “Navy SEALs: Their Untold Story,” for which he co-wrote the companion book. His latest book is “PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival and the Destiny of John F. Kennedy.”
When he isn’t in Finland, he lives in New York City.
By William Doyle
I have seen the school of tomorrow. It is here today, in Finland.
As a public school dad and a university lecturer in rural Finland last semester, I found Finland’s school system to be an absolute inspiration, and a beacon of hope in a world that is struggling, and often failing, to figure out how to best educate our children.
Over the past four decades, Finland has climbed to the top of the Western world in educational performance tests, and widely outpaced its fellow Nordic nations. Finland has also won recent #1 world rankings for most efficient education system, most stable nation, greenest country, freest press, women’s participation in the workforce, strongest property rights, least corrupt state, and most innovative economy.
Not bad for a young nation of 5.4 million people whose economy barely got started until the 1970s. Despite Finland’s huge current social and budget pressures, and a recent slip in its global benchmark education tests, Finland’s education system continues to be an inspiration to teachers around the world. If you asked them which system comes closest to getting childhood education right, many would automatically say “Finland.”
In the United States, failing education reforms are causing widespread chaos in our public schools and the ongoing waste of billions of precious taxpayer dollars on untested, unproven reforms. As civil rights hero James Meredith recently told me, “We are destroying the future of our nation” with misguided education policy.
Professor Howard Gardner of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education has suggested that we “learn from Finland, which has the most effective schools and which does just about the opposite of what we are doing in the United States.”
What is Finland’s secret? A whole-child-centered, research-and-evidence based school system, run by highly professionalized teachers. These are global education best practices, not cultural quirks applicable only to Finland.
The striking lessons of Finland’s long-term success with education reform can help inspire and be adapted by any school system in the world. They involve concepts much admired by education reformers in the United States — standards, rigor, competition, choice, assessments and standardization — but defined correctly and applied at the correct points in the system.
Here are a few:
Maximize system-wide standards by putting professional educators in charge of education. They are the ultimate experts on childhood education, not bureaucrats, politicians or technology vendors.
Apply rigor and competition at the front end of the system, where they have the strongest impact. Have your best, most passionate young people compete to become teachers. Train them rigorously at the highest levels of professionalism and give them maximum respect, authority and autonomy in the classroom. Build a culture of system-wide teacher and school collaboration.
Standardize funding for students based on their needs, and provide equitable access to educational resources.
Provide choice to parents by enabling them to choose between high-quality, well-resourced, safe, transparent and locally governed area public schools.
Don’t waste time and money on mass standardized testing of children. Instead, test students correctly on a daily basis, with assessments and observations designed by their own classroom teachers and used for diagnostic purposes to improve learning. Realize that much of what matters most in education – including “21st and 22nd Century skills” like a child’s curiosity, perseverance through trials and failure, kindness and compassion, critical and abstract thinking, sense of leadership and teamwork, expressiveness, social skills and creativity – should be evaluated by classroom teachers, and can never be measured by standardized data collection.
Get real about classroom technology. A recent major study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that most classroom technology has had little or no academic benefit. “In most countries, the current use of technology is already past the point of optimal use in schools,” said OECD official Andreas Schleicher. “We’re at a point where computers are actually hurting learning.” Spend money on childhood classroom technology extremely carefully, and don’t automatically throw out tools that work for unproven ones. Remember that screens deliver only a simulation of individualized instruction. Highly qualified teachers deliver the real thing.
Give children what they need to learn best, including reasonable class sizes, individualized attention from highly qualified teachers, a rich curriculum, regular breaks and physical activity, proper sleep and nutrition, reasonable workloads and downtime, warmth and encouragement, a screen-free “digital oasis” when appropriate, and social support services when necessary.
Let children be children. Let the children play. That’s how they learn.
Some skeptics dismiss Finland’s schools as being the product of its demographics, but they ignore the fact that its population size and poverty rate are similar to over two-thirds of American states, and in the United States, education is largely run at the state level.
Finland’s schools are the product of a unique culture. But so are the public schools of Canada, Singapore, Shanghai, Denmark, South Korea, Australia and Japan, as are the private schools attended by the world’s political and business elites. To automatically dismiss critical insights from any nation or school is a mistake. We can all learn from each other.
I have a suggestion for anyone who wants to improve children’s education. Start by coming to Finland.
As Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg says, “If you come to Finland, you’ll see how great American schools could be.”
If you look closely and open your mind, you may see the school of tomorrow today.