Finland Teacher Tales Pt. 13: It's not about the numbers, it's about the people

I’m James Phelps and I keep hearing how great the Finnish school system is.

Is it though?

Yes. Yes it is!

Because? Community.

Will Australian education ministers, leaders and policy makers ever come to the table and consider revolutionising the way we do school? Maybe… but probably not.

Why not? Because managers who are not true leaders are only interested in what they can measure and graph. For them it is all about the numbers. "If it can be measured, it can be managed" is a buzz phrase in management circles. They make decisions based on tangible 'facts'. But this is the saddest irony of Australian education: that our policy makers and leaders insist that teachers base their classroom practice and pedagogy on evidence - yet often our education policy is conceived and implemented while ignoring what the evidence says. The evidence says it’s getting worse. Despite this the policy makers keep doubling down.

You cannot measure the growth and worth of little humans (students) and big humans (teachers) solely by numbers.

Albert Einstein once said: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts".

In Finland it is not about the numbers - it is about the people. The Finns have not lost sight of the fact that education is essentially a human endeavour - a social and emotional journey of teachers and pupils with personal and collective goals, dreams and aspirations.


After reflecting on my time in Helsinki it has become most apparent that Finnish education is a COMMUNITY of learners - whereas Australian education has become a SYSTEM that functions like a BUSINESS. 
Behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely talks about social norms (like Finland) and market norms (like USA). Social norms are people being people to one another (community) market norms are objectives, value exchange, analysis, transactions (business).

Dan Ariely
“Social norms are the forces that can make a difference in the long run. Instead of focusing the attention of the teachers, parents, and kids on test scores, salaries, and competition, it might be better to instill in all of us a sense of purpose, mission, and pride in education. To do this we certainly can't take the path of market norms. The Beatles proclaimed some time ago that you "Can't Buy Me Love" and this also applies to the love of learning”

I believe that 'Community' is Finland's key point of difference that makes THE difference. Please take a minute to study this poster, which is displayed in all Helsinki schools, and ask yourself what do these images say about their education 'system' compared to ours?

But what if Australian education policy makers won't to come to the table of revolution? What if they want to persevere with building an education 'system' at the expense of an education 'community?

One option. District directors, principals and teachers could band together and start their own!

Michael Fullan, internationally-renowned author and advisor on education systems change, toured Australia in 2014 and spoke to thousands of education leaders (including politicians) on how to activate and achieve change. In a nutshell, this is how to start an education revolution in your school. (And remember that revolutionary ideas will upset some while inspiring others.)

1. "You can't fight City Hall" so "go for a 'C' in compliance". Meaning accountability measures and demands will continue to flow down the bureaucratic chain, so save your energy by accepting that but only do the bare minimum to oblige it (which will free more time and energy for what matters most).
2. "Exploit education policy relative to local priorities". Meaning, give less attention to policies that do not enhance student outcomes or teacher effectiveness. Instead, identify the policies (or aspects of) which align with your school's goals/needs and with best practice. In other words, do more cherry picking before you implement.

And my advice? Aim for an 'A' in 'Community'. Like they do in Finland.

All revolutions start with a “what if?”

This revolution won’t be of the political or violent or selfish kind. It will be a personal and quiet rebellion by those educators who wish to ignore the senseless and unfounded demands from non-educators - so that schools can put children’s educational needs first and foremost. 
It's said a revolution is a struggle between the future and the past, but perhaps it could be the best of both worlds.
Finland chose to do what works for them. Let’s do what works for Australia. And let’s stop doing what doesn’t.

James Phelps

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