Tag Archives: University of Rhode Island

What Can Be Learned from Finland & Pasi Sahlberg?

Photo: Pasi Sahlberg

Pasi Sahlberg, director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (Helsinki, Finland), presenting Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? at University of Rhode Island, December 10, 2013.

Distinguished International Scholar Pasi Sahlberg recently made the final presentation at University of Rhode Island’s Fall 2013 Honors Colloquium. It is a fascinating glimpse into his book Finnish Lessons, as well as a remarkably thought-provoking lecture on educational change and what he has dubbed the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). It is well worth the hour or so that it takes to view it.

Sahlberg is an exceptional speaker, measured and thoughtful, exuding a quiet authority. Above all, he is a teacher and warm storyteller that shares deep insights and understanding about education, highlighting the path Finland has chosen in contrast to those infected by one of the most virulent forces of decay, GERM.

Remarkably, Sahlberg wisely insists that his native land has lessons worth sharing about education, but that it would flawed to simply imitate them. That is not how to build a great educational system. That result can only come from within a nation looking at finding ways to realize their philosophical ideals and aims. Moreover, there is a hint of paradox in that Finland has never had a goal of being a top educational system.

The lesson is one about focusing on meaningful targets and being the top rated nation according to PISA may not actually be one.

In fact, one of the themes that comes out of Sahlberg’s presentation is the impact of indirect, seemingly peripheral issues as benefitting education. Issues like equity and wealth distribution correlate with student achievement. This, of course, is something that many educators have been challenging edreformers not to simply dismiss or ignore.

Still, a more holistic set of issues also seem correlated with Finnish success. Issues like technological advancement, low corruption, economic competitiveness, and innovation. However, child well-being, happiness, maternal benefits, and political empowerment of women are all aspects that fuel the success of Finnish education. In fact, 50% of the Finnish Parliament are women and 30% are actually teachers!

The lesson is one about empowering a plurality of voices and perhaps focusing on the health and well-being of children, maybe even their happiness.

In the second part of the presentation, Sahlberg reveals the makeup of just what comprises GERM and then shows how Finland continues to avoid infection.

Symptoms of GERM Finnish Resistance
Competitiveness Collaboration
Standardization Personalization
Test-Based Accountability Trust-Based Responsibility
School Choice Equity
Education as Industry Education as a Human Right

Maybe most interesting is the distinction that Sahlberg makes about how standardization hampers and limits creativity. I suspect that we will see this for ourselves in the United States as the Common Core is implemented.

However, the strongest recurrent theme is equity in education, as a he simply explains, equals quality or excellence of the system. He returns to that point repeatedly, even declaring that his analysis of current data shows that the United States has made strides in equity, in the past three years, and the public school system is arguably doing better than it has ever done.

The lesson is one about creating equity in the system, giving all children fair opportunity and shared access to the promise and success that education offers.

Sahlberg ends with a few takeaway conclusions he has learned in his experience. First is the reiteration, “Equity equals excellence.” Second is “School is team play.” Third and finally is “Children must play.”

Interestingly and unfortunately, all three of these ideas seem to violate American individual’s sense of entitlement and exceptionalism. There is a subset of American’s that will always dismiss ideas such as these too European and socialist, even. Yet the nations that Sahlberg highlights in his Excellence Improves/Equity Increases chart (slide 11) are neither.

There are many lessons worth learning  from both Finland and Sahlberg. If only more American policymakers and politicians would heed them.

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Preparing for a Clash of MOOCs

ETMOOC LogoWhile I am absolutely loving my experience with ETMOOC, I am about to try my first run at an xMOOC. Tomorrow, I will begin a HarvardX course, HLS1x: Copyright. I am excited.

Copyright is a topic that I have been chasing on my own for a few years now and one where I think that educators must have greater command. It seems professionally irresponsible to remain ignorant on the subject anymore. Moreover, while I like Creative Commons, I reject it as the safe and easy option as it is routinely presented in the edtech arena.

On the most fundamental level educators need to now more about copyright not only to help ourselves and students avoid infringement, but exercise our rights to fair use and resist the longstanding encroachment on that provision. I have long admired the work of Renee Hobbs and her Media Education Lab, now at University of Rhode Island. For any educators keen on learning about copyright, I recommend you start there. Yet, this Harvardx class will be a much deeper dive into the subject than Hobbs’ must-read Copyright Clarity. It is a course being offered via the Harvard Law School for one. Plus, the list of guest speakers is impressive, including the likes of Lawrence Lessig and Shepard Fairey among others.

In spite of my excitement, I must admit that I have developed a bias for the cMOOC variety. Of course that is what I know best, having engaged in about six or seven of them with varying degrees of success. So I am reserving some judgement but wanted to start some comparing them for my own understanding as much as anyone else’s.

ETMOOC is fostering such a magnificent community of open-thinking educators from all teaching levels and tech savviness. Loosely connected as a “course,” it is warm, inviting, and filled with innumerable learning opportunities. It is a grand invitation to self-directed wayfinding in a virtual space that hinges on a hashtag. Focusing on education technology, which is much broader and already begun tangentially addressing the legal concept of copyright, the experiences between the two are already so different.

Diagram: Why MOOC Design

While ETMOOC is completely open and proving to be quite adept at building a massive tent to include all those who wish to  participate, HLS1x: Copyright was subject to a pretty serious winnowing process. Thousands of applications were submitted for only 500 spots. So I guess I got pretty lucky. I certainly feel that way. Upon the invitation letter to join the course, however, there was a four part follow-up to secure the spot, including a 20 minute pre-test.

As one of the 500, I am already subdivided into a section of 20, complete with a juris doctor teaching fellow to lead the group, a bit different from the conspirators of the ETMOOC variety so far as I can tell. I have already received a handful of preparatory messages and documents prior to the class start. At the conclusion of the course, I am invited to take a four hour written examination. If my performance in the discussion forums and on the exam are satisfactory,  I can earn a certificate of completion.

It is a given that these two MOOCs are very different. HLS1x: Copyright is a course that really is primarily about content. ETMOOC is less about content and more about discovery, in a variety of forms. Both are genuine opportunities for deep learning and professional growth. Yet, I can’t help feeling a bias in favor of the xMOOC, even if I might be falling prey to it.

The level of commitment that is being requested in the HarvardX is formal, demanding, and leverages the prestige of Harvard University. It is highly focused on the accrual of knowledge, includes an already potentially intimidating test, and even offers a credential, for whatever that is worth.

All of these factors led me to ask my employer for some professional development recognition upon completing the course, as if I was taking a typical graduate course. Graciously, the decision maker in my district granted the request. However, I cannot imagine that the same administrator would have gone for the similar request regarding a cMOOC. Eventually, I will make a the same plea, but figured this xMOOC wasn’t too far of a departure from the known way of doing the business of education. Plus, living in the Boston area, Harvard has even more clout, helping my pitch.

Still, I wonder which experience will ultimately prove most valuable to me. ETMOOC already strikes me as the kind of experience that may have much longer legs than its scheduled 11 weeks. I am waiting to see what HLS1x: Copyright holds. I will  be interested to see what kind of community is created in the course, especially among the cohort of 20 to which I now belong.

On a side note, part of my cMOOC fancy has to do with my increasing aggravation at how much the mainstream press has for the most part completely disregarded them, instead lauding the revolution of the prestigious and for-profit ventures. Friedman’s piece in today’s New York Times is just another egregious example. It is as if cMOOCs never really existed or at least those reporting aren’t even aware of their existence.

Almost all of the press coverage advances a bias about education that I will have to return to in a separate post. Safe to say, the bias is what influenced my effort to pitch my employer on the xMOOC for credit over the cMOOC. Friedman’s understanding articulated in “Revolution Hits the Universities,” with its courting of Coursera isn’t nearly as revolutionary as Couros, or Siemens, Downes, Cormier, Groom, Levine, and all the other practitioners of this new educational phenomenon. At some point, I hope to press the case that the experience offered in a cMOOC is just as valuable, arguably more so, and just as deserving of consideration for some means of professional development recognition, regardless of whether it is affiliated with a credential granting scheme or university, prestigious or not.