What Lessons Should We Really Learn From Successful School Systems?

For improvement, we often look around us and copy what seems to work better. This happens as well in basic education. The challenge in education, however, is that schooling is not one specific task. It cannot be distilled in one activity or even one policy. Education is a system composed of many parts that work together and affect each other. Lifting one specific aspect is not necessarily the same as copying the entire system. And if done carelessly, we may even be attributing success to the wrong aspect. Take, for instance, the curriculum. We may hastily ascribe the apparent success of schools in Finland to what they teach and how they teach. What if the success of these schools really hinge on how well prepared their teachers are? In this case, what they teach and how they teach really do not matter. What really makes them successful is that the teachers are better trained. Simply copying Finland's curriculum therefore is not a recipe for uplifting schools without considering the true underlying reason behind their success. Worse, we may not be even copying the correct curriculum as exemplified by this news article published by the BBC in 2017, "Could subjects soon be a thing of the past in Finland?". This is simply not true.

Above copied from BBC News

Recently, in Washington Post's "What Finland is really doing to improve its acclaimed schools", Finnish education experts Pasi Sahlberg and Peter Johnson make it clear: "Another commonly held belief is that Finnish authorities have decided to scrap subjects from school curriculum and replace them by interdisciplinary projects or themes... ...All of these are false." Even the notion that schools do not give homework to students is false. Yet, these are the items that are attracting attention. Even in the Philippines, policy makers are embracing a single specific policy without really looking at the bigger picture as well as the finer details behind such policy.

Sahlberg and Johnson provide us with useful guidance on what really matters in Finnish education. These are not specific policies but, instead, values that should guide the policies we draw for our schools:
  • Successful education systems rely on collaboration, trust, and collegial responsibility in and between schools.
  • Successful education systems rely on continuous professionalization of teaching and school leadership that requires advanced academic education, solid scientific and practical knowledge, and continuous on-the-job training.
  • Successful education systems are designed to emphasize whole-child development, equity of education outcomes, well being, and arts, music, drama and physical education as important elements of curriculum.
It is not about competition but collaboration. It requires lifelong learning not just preparation for teachers. It should not be reduced to reading and mathematics. It should be, as Jesuits would say, "cura personalis", taking care of the entire person. It should be about equity. 

Unfortunately, we are focusing on the wrong things. Unless we focus on the right things, schools will remain as ineffective as they are now.