How different are we?

December 5, 2011
Dale Skoreyko
Finnish and Albertan partnership participants

Both alberta and finland have top-notch teachers and bright students

High schools in Alberta and Finland, like schools everywhere, are committed to providing a great school experience for students. But what makes a great school?

McNally High School, in Edmonton, is one of five Alberta high schools participating in a partnership with innovative schools in Finland. The vision for the partnership is to advance international educational policy and instructional practice.

Prior to our school’s involvement in the partnership, we had little knowledge of Finland’s political, social or educational structure. As educators, however, we were aware of Finland’s world-class performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, especially in light of Finland’s resistance to wide-scale standardized testing. Finland’s practice runs contrary to North America’s trend toward increased testing and evaluation coupled with stringent curricula. We were interested in observing teaching practice and student engagement in Finnish schools.

The differences between Alberta’s and Finland’s education systems emerged as we visited schools in Finland and met staff and students. Michelle Murphy, McNally High School’s English teacher, visited Vasa Ovingsskola Upper Secondary School, in Vasa, and Seinäjoki Upper Secondary School, in Seinäjoki. Stephanie Gower, McNally’s math department head, spent the week visiting Kitee Upper Secondary School, in Kitee, and Kainuu Vocational Institute, in Kajaani. I visited Turku Suomalainen Yhteiskoulu Upper Secondary School, in Turku, and the Turku Vocational Institute, after which I visited Valkeakoski Upper Secondary School, in Valkeakoski.

Finland’s education system identifies and responds to students’ learning strengths and challenges. For example, students design their own programs and balance their schedules by choosing when they will study particular courses. Teachers accommodate the various ways in which students demonstrate knowledge and understanding of subject matter. In turn, students focus on learning, rather than obsessing or being anxious about the grading system. Although the students we talked to commented that their teachers provided structure and foundation, the students acknowledged that they had considerable latitude in determining how they would demonstrate their learning.

In Finland, children (some as young as three years old) who are identified as having special needs or deemed to be at-risk receive assistance to prepare them for school (school starts at age seven in Finland). When students enter high school, they continue in a postsecondary preparation academic program or enter an equally rigorous vocational school program. Finnish students are supported throughout their education and are valued for the education and training they receive. In Alberta and North America, a preference exists for academic postsecondary education, relegating vocational education to students who don’t meet high academic standards.e teaching profession in Finland is held to high standards of performance. Teachers and principals are highly respected and well-educated professionals. Students see their teachers as facilitators of learning who work with students in partnership to develop their respective proficiencies. In Helsinki, I met informally with students who had completed their high school education and were attending university or enrolled in vocational training programs. The students acknowledged that they respected teachers’ professionalism and commitment. This sentiment is widely held in Finland.

Back in Edmonton at McNally High School, we’re discussing how to develop a culture of respect for the profession, the work we do and the lives we enhance. In so doing, we are asking: What exists within North American culture, or (maybe) within our school, that erodes teachers’ professionalism? Are there policies or practices that we should adopt or dismiss? In a standardized testing system, is there a way to teach that promotes and values creativity and imagination?

Alberta and Finland have much to learn from each other. We enjoy highly effective education systems that produce world-class academic success in different political, social and economic environments. However, we both have deeply committed professional educators working with bright and creative students. How different can we really be?

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Dale Skoreyko is the principal of McNally High School, in Edmonton.