Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Finland's forested classrooms
There is no mention below of the national character of Finns. Finns are in fact quite emphatic that they have a national character -- which they call "sisu". It means endurance, resilience, tenacity. Finns have an ability to face adversity and always overcome. That it might help in their educational achievements would seem obvious.
The ideas below may be helpful but they don't seem to be too different from the "progressive" (low discipline) schools of Britain and America -- e.g. A.S. Neill's "Summerhill" and Bertrand Russell's awful experiment. And such schools have rarely been good at imparting knowledge and skills. I taught in one such school and half of the pupils learned nothing. Their skill at card games improved, though.
So the caution below about whether Finnish methods could be succesfully copied in other countries is well warranted. I suspect "sisu" is needed to make them work
It is lunch time at the University of Eastern Finland's teacher training lab school in North Karelia, a lush forest and lake district on the Russian border.
Fourth-grade children race to the cafeteria in their stockinged feet, laughing, hugging, practicing dance steps and cavorting as they head for the cafeteria. One girl does a full handstand in the hallway. A distinguished-looking professor beams at the procession and doles out high-fives to the children. He is Heikki Happonen, head of the school and a career childhood educator.
As chief of Finland's association of eight national university teacher training schools, he is, in effect, the Master Teacher of Finland, the country that still has, despite many challenges and a recent slide in global test scores, the best primary school system in the world, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017.
According to Happonen, the hallway scene reveals one of the secrets of Finland's historic success in childhood education.
Children's brains work better when they are moving, the master teacher explains. Not only do they concentrate better in class, but they are more successful at "negotiating, socialising, building teams and friendships together".
Finland leads the world in its discovery that play is the most fundamental engine and efficiency-booster of children's learning. The nation's children learn through play until age seven, and then are given guaranteed 15-minute outdoor free-play breaks every hour of every single school day (regardless of the weather) until high school.
"Children must feel like their school is a home for them, it belongs to them," says Happonen. "They are very clever, they feel and appreciate an atmosphere of trust. We offer them an environment where they understand, 'This is a place where I am highly respected. I feel safe and comfortable here. I am a very important person.' My job is to protect that environment for children. That's why I come to work every day."
Happonen designed much of the Nordic-modern school building himself, a network of traditional classrooms linked by spacious hallways, cinematic soft lighting and warm colours, a palatial teachers lounge for coffee and collaboration (complete with a sauna for teachers), and comfortable scattered nooks, crannies and couches for children to relax and curl up in with a buddy or a book.
Connecting all the pieces, flanked by the high-tech science lab, a fireplace and plush sofas, is a modular, wide-open library of books and magazines for children to enjoy.
It is the focal point of the school. On a recent visit, a teacher from Spain was nearly speechless after a few minutes inside the school. "It's so beautiful," she said. "In Spain, our schools feel like prisons. But this - this is like a dream."
Happonen points to a colourful assortment of hand-carved wooden boats mounted on his office wall, featuring different shapes, sizes and types of vessels.
"I saw those boats in a shop," he recalls. "They were so beautiful. I decided I had to buy them, but I didn't know why. I put them up on my office wall so I could see them all day.
"Then I realised what they are," he continued. "They are children. They represent the fact that all children are different, they start from different destinations and travel on different journeys. Our job as teachers is to help children navigate their journeys through storms and adventures, so they move safely and successfully into society and the world."
Some aspects of Finland's primary schools may be culture-specific and non-transferable to other nations. But many other features may in fact be minimum "global best practices" for childhood education systems in Harlem, Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris, Los Angeles, Dubai, Mexico City, South Africa and elsewhere.
These practices include early learning through play, equitable funding and well-resourced schools, highly professionalised teacher training, a research-based and whole-child approach to school management, warmth and respect for children and teachers, learning environments of strong academic focus with low stress and high challenge, high-quality testing run by teachers and not standardised data collectors, comprehensive special education, and treating all children as gifted and cherished individuals without sacrificing their childhoods to overwork or cram schools.
Why would any of our children, especially those from high-poverty backgrounds, deserve any less?
In the United States, decades of botched attempts at education reform have led to little or no improvement in schools. As one of the founding fathers of the education reform movement, Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, recently declared: "If you look over the past 25 years at all the reforming we've been doing and all the spending we've been doing and still see flat [achievement] and slow slog as the main outcome, it's pretty discouraging."
For any parent, teacher or policymaker looking instead for inspiration on how we can work together to actually improve our children's education, they can start by coming to Finland's dream school in the forest.
UK: MPs quietly vote against compulsory sex education in schools
Conservative MPs have voted to block plans for sex and relationship education (SRE) to be made compulsory in schools.
Under increasing pressure from campaigners over the past year, Education Secretary Justine Greening repeatedly suggested she was open to reforming the current Government guidance on SRE, which currently allows free schools and academies to opt out of teaching the subject in class.
As the law stands, state schools are obligated to cover sex education from a biological aspect.
But no British schools are required to teach pupils about the social or emotional aspects of sex, or make classes LGBT inclusive.
Debating the matter in Parliament this week, an all-female group of MPs tabled an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill to make lessons on “sex and relationships education, same-sex relationships, sexual consent, sexual violence and domestic violence” mandatory in all UK schools.
The new law would require schools watchdog Ofsted to evaluate schools on their SRE as part of regular inspections, judging “whether the information provided to pupils is accurate and balanced, age-appropriate, inclusive or religiously diverse”.
In a vote of ten Conservative and five Labour MPs, the amendment was rejected – with the vote divided 10-5 between parties lines. No other party was represented on the bill committee.
Conservative MP for North Dorset, Simon Hoare told Parliament that the amendment did not offer enough protection for faith schools who oppose homosexuality. He said: “Some form of protection is needed for those who run faith schools, all faiths, to make the position absolutely clear.
“I have little or no doubt that I will receive emails from constituents who happen to read my remarks. They will say that this is all about promotion, and this or that religion thinks that homosexuality—or another element—is not right.
“To provide a legislative comfort blanket, for want of a better phrase, the new clause needs to include a clear statement that we are talking not about promotion, but about education, and where sex education is delivered in a faith school environment, those providing the education should not feel inhibited about answering questions such as “What is the thinking of our faith on this particular aspect of sexuality?”
Recalling his own faith school upbringing, Mr Hoare said he was much in “support” of the intentions behind the clause, but pointed out that it was tabled “solely in the name of Labour Members of Parliament who all happen to be women.”
Addressing Labour MP Stella Creasy, who led the amendment, he said: “A father, a husband and a boyfriend have as much interest in ensuring a high quality of PSHE as women do."
He added that she "might want to think about that point, which is why I hope that she will not press this new clause to a vote today but instead think about some proactive cross-party working on Report.”
Junior Education Minister Edward Timpson said the government would be bringing forward its own plans to reform SRE in schools, but agreed the amendment was incomplete, with “lots of repercussions that need to be thought through”.
He added: “We hear the call for further action on PSHE and we have committed to exploring all the options to improve delivery of SRE and PSHE.
“We are actively looking at how best to address both the quality of delivery and accessibility to ensure that all children can be supported to develop positive, healthy relationships and to thrive in modern Britain today.
“We welcome the support in delivering this in a timely and considered manner.”
Pressing the new clause to a vote, Ms Creasy said: “Millions of children in our schools right now are simply not getting the right sort of information about relationships, consent and sensitive issues such as their relationships with the other sex and with the same sex, domestic violence and abuse, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.
The rejected amendment comes amid fresh criticism from charity campaigners, who claim present teachings are seriously out-dated for the “smartphone generation” of children who are exposed to the internet and influenced by social media.
SRE guidance for schools has not been updated in close to 17 years - making the current legislation older than the majority of pupils learning about the subject.
A recent survey of more than 1,000 children conducted by Barnardo’s children's charity found that seven in 10 pupils aged 11-15 thought the government should ensure that all children have age-appropriate SRE in school.
Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan called for the government to “give children the knowledge that will help keep them safe”.
He said: “It's time to listen to children who are clearly telling us that they need help in understanding the digital dangers and the risks of sharing images of themselves with strangers.
“Online grooming is a very real danger facing all children and nearly half of the girls polled said they were worried about strangers contacting them online.
”Compulsory SRE lessons for all children must be introduced as soon as possible- it will help prevent children being groomed and sexually exploited.”
Calling the vote "shameful", HIV charity the Terrence Higgins Trust said the vote was "another missed opportunity by the government to make SRE statutory in schools".
An Ofsted report in 2013 found 40 per cent of schools required improvement or were deemed “inadequate” in their provision of sex and relationship education.
A Department for Education spokesperson said in a statement: “High-quality education on sex and relationships is a vital part of preparing young people for success in adult life – helping them make informed choices, stay safe and learn to respect themselves and others.
“Education on sex and relationships is compulsory in all maintained secondary schools, and many academies and free schools teach it as part of the curriculum. We are actively considering what further steps we could take to improve the quality and availability of sex and relationships education.”
University language policy: Not safe, just absurdly soft
As if Australia Day isn’t dangerous enough for the culturally insensitive, we are now advised not to celebrate the Australian belief in mateship and the fair go. The language police at Macquarie University have declared these are dangerous stereotypes, generalised images of a person or group that “may have potentially harmful real-world consequences”. The university’s latest guide on correct speech also instructs Queenslanders not to stereotype those living south of the Tweed as Mexicans, implying that they are ”hot-blooded, irrational, untrustworthy”.
Extreme linguistic governance of this kind was once restricted to religious sects and the political fruitcake fringe. Today it is chillingly mainstream; universities see it as part of their duty of care to offer written guides, training courses and counselling on “appropriate” and “inappropriate” language.
Since one can never be sure about the latest rules, every utterance is potentially suspect. Irony and sarcasm must be avoided at all costs. “To talk about a ‘huntsperson spider’ is an ostensibly humorous ‘non-discriminatory’ act of renaming,” the Macquarie University guide intones. “The joke here nonetheless mocks serious uses of non-discriminatory language and the struggle for gender equity.”
Incredibly, this is a statement of official policy at a major university, signed off, presumably, by the dean and other serious people. If perchance it is slipped past their guard they must remove it forthwith from the university’s website, for the damage imposed by this passive-aggressive chin-stroking is considerable.
The regulation of speech is one of the maladies of academe investigated by British sociologist Frank Furedi in a new book exploring the infantilisation of students.
The notion that people in their late teens and early 20s could not be trusted to act as adults, and that university authorities should protect their moral welfare in loco parentis, disappeared in the wake of the campus radicals in the 1960s.
Furedi, once a campus radical himself, says today’s academic paternalism is far more insidious. The baby boomer generation was taught that “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. The millennial generation is warned constantly of the harm language causes “vulnerable” people. Indeed, they themselves are vulnerable and must be protected from the psychological damage presumed to flow from linguistic aggression.
To explain how yesterday’s student militants evolved into today’s moral guardians, Furedi describes the rise of a risk-averse culture where precaution and safety have become fundamental moral values.
“The term ‘safe’ signals more than the absence of danger: it also conveys the connotation of a virtue,” he says. “The representation of safety as an end in itself is integral to a moralising project of monitoring both individual and interpersonal behaviour.”
Censorship became unfashionable in the late 1960s when it was seen as an instrument of repression. Today it has become a form of therapy, underpinned by a cultural script of vulnerability.
The adjective “vulnerable” has mutated into a noun. The downtrodden have been recast as “the vulnerable”; the wretched have become “the most vulnerable”; universities have been transformed from an intellectual adventure into safe spaces for “vulnerable students”.
We are right to worry about the resilience of those who emerge from these cosseted, hypersensitive campuses. The vulnerable are inclined to fatalism, since vulnerability presents as a permanent feature. They are seldom encouraged to draw on inner strengths to make themselves less vulnerable. Indeed, to suggest they should toughen up is condemned as victim-blaming, denying the vulnerable the ritualistic empathy to which they feel entitled.
Vulnerability, together with the ethos of survivalism — the modern belief that danger lurks around every corner — are the narratives that bolster the infantilisation of students. Hence the semantic tsars at Macquarie deem that the expression “Australians believe in the fair go” is not just distasteful but “potentially harmful” to non-Australians or to Australians who don’t think that way. The purpose of their rules is to develop “a university environment characterised by sensitivity to cultural diversity, and in which the number and seriousness of discriminatory experiences are reduced or eliminated”.
Censorship, like compulsory seat belts or fences around swimming pools, is a matter of public health and safety. So, when activist Maryam Namazie was banned from speaking at Warwick University, the student union justiﬁed itself with “language that would have done any risk manager proud”, writes Furedi.
“Researching Namazie and her organisation had raised a number of ﬂags,” declared the students. “We have a duty of care to conduct a risk assessment for each speaker who wishes to come to campus,” they wrote. It is not the intended meaning of words but their supposed impact that matters. “Verbal puriﬁcation is not simply directed at cleansing politically objectionable words but also at providing psychological relief,” Furedi concludes.
It may be too early to predict what lasting effect the censorious, mollycoddled environment of modern academe will have young graduates.
Posted by jonjayray at 1:50 AM