Author: Michael Horn

Finland Offers Lessons for Building Student, Teacher Agency

August 17, 2015 by

Finland FlagThis post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on August 13, 2015. 

Rhonda Broussard is the founder and president of St. Louis Language Immersion Schools, a charter management organization. In 2014, she traveled to and explored the education systems of Finland and New Zealand as an Eisenhower Fellow (full disclosure: I was also a 2014 Eisenhower Fellow). As I listened to her discuss her travels this past May in Philadelphia, I was struck by how relevant some of the insight she had gained in Finland were for those creating blended-learning schools that seek to personalize learning and build student agency. What follows is a brief Q&A that illustrates some of these lessons.

Q: Your observations around student agency in Finland and how it stems from the great trust the Finnish society has in children are striking. Can you explain what you saw and learned? Do you have takeaways for what this means in the context of the United States?

A: What amazed me most during my school visits in Finland is what I didn’t observe. Finnish schools had no recognizable systems of “accountability” for student behaviors. Finnish schools believe that children can make purposeful decisions about where to be, what to study, how to perform. Whether via No Excuses or Positive Behavior Intervention Support, American schools don’t expect youth to be responsible for themselves or their learning. When I asked Finnish educators about student agency, they responded that the child is responsible for their learning and general safety. When prodded, educators responded that the child’s teacher might send a note home to parents, speak with the child, or consult their social welfare committee about destructive or disruptive behaviors. Despite the fact that Finland is the second country in Europe for school shootings (they have had three since 1989), none of the schools that I visited had security presence or protocols for violent crises.

My first trip to Finland was during the immediate aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting. When I juxtaposed those events with the high trust I observed in Finnish society and schools, the reality of micro-aggressions in our schools became more apparent. In my piece “Waking up in Helsinki, Waking up to St. Louis,” I cite a few examples of what trust looks like in Finnish schools. The absence of trust in American schools requires educators to police our youth daily, and do so in the name of respect. Many U.S. peers respond to my observations with, “But our kids are different, they need structure.” Our country, society, and expectations are different, but our kids are not. American hyper-attention to accountability reinforces the belief that people, young people in particular, cannot be trusted. (more…)

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