A Reflection from Finland

Dr. Dick Hanzelka, EIWP Project Manager, St. Ambrose University

A writing project institute without trust among fellows and facilitators would lead to very little being learned by fellows and very little taken away from the institute and practiced in classrooms. All those involved as directors, facilitators and fellows know this is true. Meaningful writing, response, and learning require a high level of trust.

In January 2011 I was one of ten people from around the country asked by ASCD to take part in a study tour of Finland, a country which arguably has the highest learning achievement rate in the world. As a result of that tour, I learned some valuable lessons about how learning can thrive. What all of us in the study team came away with was a clear idea that there is a high level of trust afforded teachers in that country. Teachers are given responsibility for classroom decisions about learners as a group and as individuals. No standardized tests are used in Finland because those measures are viewed as a lack of trust according to Finnish educators. In Finland, teaching is the most highly respected profession placed above doctors, lawyers, engineers, and others.

And surprisingly---in Finland a typical middle school teacher teaches 600 hours a year while in the U.S. a teacher at that same level teaches for 1080 hours per year. The largest difference is that in each content area fewer topics are studied in Finland and those topics are studied in great depth. As a result of drilling deeper, students learn how to learn.

Teachers in Finland are trained to be responsible for:

  • The curriculum
  • Student assessment
  • School improvement
  • Community involvement

These tasks are not delegated to principals, outside groups, or other parts of a bureaucracy because as part of their required MA degree, teachers are trained to do those things.

In many cases, writing project fellows leave our institutes and return to situations where trust is either at a low level or perhaps doesn’t exist at all. What if our teachers were able to operate in a context of trust that allowed them to make the greatest use of what they learned in the summer institute and during continuation activities about what writing is for and what it can do for learning? What if a writing project fellow could go into great depth with writing, response, and reflection without worrying about being frowned upon by an administrator or by other teachers?

There are many differences between Finland and our country geographically and politically, but what if we worked on turning our profession into a trusted endeavor in which teachers are given responsibility for helping their students accomplish a set of agreed upon aims in a way that didn’t second guess the teacher’s abilities as a professional? At their best, writing projects do much to set the tone for this professional culture. Isn’t it time we took that tone public?

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