Finns can’t talk about their schools without using this word

Trust. I’ve heard the word again and again here in Finland. It came up in conversations with members of the Finnish National Board of Education, but also when I visited a Helsinki high school and chatted with the teachers, students, and principal.

The National Finnish Board of Education trusts schools and teachers.  And teachers? They trust their students.

Schools Trusted

This spring, Skyline High School in Oakland, California, will host a team of inspectors from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).  A WASC accreditation team visited us three years ago; read the three-hundred-page report we had prepared about our school; and spent three days observing and interviewing teachers, students, parents, and administrators.

The team said that our program met their requirements and that our seniors would be eligible to apply to the UC and CSU systems.  (Without the WASC seal of approval, even our top students would be blocked from these institutions of higher learning.)  If the WASC inspectors had decided that our school was excellent, we would have won a six-year accreditation.  As it was, our school was deemed to be adequate and on a good track for reform, so we were awarded a three-year accreditation.

There are no school inspections in Finland.

Schools are left to themselves to make plans for improvement.  Schools are allowed to respond to their local communities’ needs.  If a community wants its school to focus on the arts, or have an international  focus, or specialize in science, then the school may do so, without applying for any kind of approval from the government.

What the national government has done in Finland is draft a skeleton of basic learning standards that are compulsory for all schools.  Local schools are expected to flesh out how those standards will be implemented and choose any additional standards or lessons they would like their students to master.

Teachers Trusted

It’s all the rage in America today: hunting down and jettisoning the so-called “bad teachers.” In numerous states, student scores on high-stakes exams are being attached to teacher evaluations, used to determine who are the good teachers and who should be fired. In Los Angeles, the Times has been reporting the rankings of the city’s teachers based on their students’ California State Test scores, vilifying individual teachers by name.

In Finland, there is only one high-stakes test.  At the end of Upper Secondary School (roughly equivalent to American grades 10-12), students take Matriculation Exams.  They are required to take one exam–Finnish language–and then choose at least three more from a list of exams in mathematics, sciences, social sciences, and other languages.

Students’ scores on these exams, along with their grades in Upper Secondary, determine which universities they may apply to. Even then, the stakes are lower than in the US.  Students who are disappointed in their scores may take an extra year (13th grade, if you will) at the Upper Secondary school to build their skills in advance of taking the Matriculation Exams again.

Again, the “stakes” of these tests apply to students themselves. Teachers (and school leaders who work with them each day) are certainly attentive to the test results, but the Finnish system does not use the tests primarily for the purpose of “getting rid of bad teachers.”

Other tests are given each decade in various subjects, but only to a statistical sample of Finnish students–not to every student in the nation. Finnish teachers and the Ministry of Education examine the data to determine the effectiveness of various reforms, identifying areas for improvement.

Students Trusted

I heard no bells at the high school I visited here in Helsinki. Students do not receive a set schedule at the beginning of the semester like my students do. Instead, teachers posts the days and times when compulsory and elective classes will be offered.  Students are free to choose which classes they will attend. Students are simply expected to show up to their classes on time – and they do. (I got the impression that Finnish high schools are more analogous to American colleges than to American high schools.)

I was amazed at all of the open spaces at this school where students could gather to study, chat with friends, or study during their breaks. And I was a little surprised at the high percentage of students who were talking about their studies rather than some other topic.  “We talk about boys too,” one laughing Finnish girl said in a remarkably American accent when I asked her about this.  “But we all live here in town, so we can talk about that, or movies, or whatever anytime we want to.  Everyone pretty much knows that when we’re in school, we need to do our studies, so we spend most of our time here doing that.”

Back home in America, we don’t trust our students very much.  Security officers patrol campuses, looking for cutters to hustle back into class. There are no places on campus where students are trusted to be without adult supervision. There are rules for nearly every behavior and consequences for every infraction. The American school experience is, in large part, an elaborate dance between rule enforcers and rule breakers.

Moving Forward

The teachers and students I met yesterday in Helsinki seem to enjoy learning together a lot more than we do at Skyline. Trust–and the resulting culture of teaching and learning–is something I think is as worthy of pursuit as any accreditation.

I certainly don’t think that when I return to Skyline High School next week, my colleagues and our students can simply decide to be more Finnish.  I don’t think we can have a brief discussion about trust, join hands, sing “Kumbaya,” and magically transform our school environment.

I do wonder, though: what steps we can take to improve the level of trust?  What can I and my students do in our classroom?  What changes in expectations and behaviors will I need to make to show my students that I trust them?  What decisions and choices will my students need to make to show me that they are trustworthy?  Who will take the first step in dancing a new dance–and how will we find a shared rhythm?