A Vision for the Future of School that You Can Own

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Over this past weekend, I dug into the book Finnish Lessons 2.0 by Pasi Sahlberg with the intention of reading about the transformation of Finnish education before my trip to Finland at the end of September. Sahlberg asserts,

“What the world can learn from educational change in Finland is that creating a good and equitable education system is possible, but it takes the right mix of ingenuity, time, patience and determination.”

Much of what I read confirmed what I already knew about the Finnish way and is fundamental to any community’s transformation:

  • trust teachers and schools to help students do their best,
  • focus on learning through the use of alternative classroom assessments,
  • leverage teacher experimentation and research to design and evaluate what impacts learning,
  • ensure a balanced approach in course offerings and opportunities to grow a range student, and
  • provide a safe and supportive environment for every student.

What become clearer to me as I read that were so fundamental to the vision, so unbelievably complex, and so vital to put on the table in our own local conversations:

The emphasis on equity of outcomes

Sahlberg describes this as “having a socially fair and inclusive education system that provides everyone with the opportunity to fulfill their intentions and dreams through education.” This aspiration not only guides the work of the schools but also is reflected in the democratic ideals of Finnish society. You can’t simply transplant this into another school environment without taking a hard look at what we truly believe about the potential of every citizen regardless of age, native language, and socioeconomic status.

The emphasis on less is more

Compulsory education begins at a later age (7 years old), school days run shorter than in many other countries, and homework is surprisingly minimal. What are students and teachers doing with their “free” time? Students are learning in “unsupervised environments” by participating in youth and sport associations which grows “social and personal development.” Teachers are engaged in “school improvement, curriculum planning, and personal professional development” as part of their work day. This strong belief in focusing on the quality of the learning experience rather than the number of minutes learning is in direct contrast to how learning is structured in American schools.

The emphasis on personalized learning

If there is equity in outcomes for all learners, then the learning plan needs to be customized to the learner. Sahlberg notes that “retention and ability grouping were clearly against these ideals.” Growing student curiosity, engagement, and ownership in the learning requires educators to better understand from their students what topics, passions, themes, and challenges are worthy of deeper study, problem solving, and development.

Regardless of where we live, our steadfastness and ingenuity is to focus on a future where schools need to address the development of “new types of knowledge and skills required in an unpredictably changing world and how to make that new learning possible for all young people regardless of their socioeconomic conditions.” The students are counting on us to create a vision that is worthy of their investment.

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