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Students and parents in the Pontus school in Lappeenranta, one of the first  Finnish schools to implement the “phenomenon-based” digital curriculum, are now disputing the broad claim made by the World Economic Forum in its 2018 Worldwide Educating for the Future Index. Concerned about the new direction, parents of the children have lodged a number of complaints over the “failure” of the new school and cited student concerns that they didn’t “learn anything” under the new curriculum and pedagogy. For some, the only recourse was to move their children to schools continuing to offer a more explicit teaching of content knowledge and skills.

The Finnish parent resistance is more than a small blip on the global education landscape. It strikes at the heart of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s 2016 plan to introduce “phenomenon’ problem-solving — replacing more traditional subject-based curriculum in mathematics, science, and history with an interdisciplinary model focusing on developing holistic skills for the future workplace. Perhaps more significantly, it blows a hole in the carefully-crafted image of Finland as the world leader in “building tomorrow’s global citizens.”

The basis for Finland’s claim to be a global future education leader now rests almost entirely upon that 2018 global ranking produced by the World Economic Forum, based upon advice gleaned from an ‘expert panel’ engaged by The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited.  While Finland has slipped from 2000 to 2015 on the more widely-recognized Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, that educational jurisdiction remains a favourite of global learning corporations and high technology business interests. A close-up look at who provides the “educational intelligence” to the World Economic Forum demonstrates the fusion of interests that sustains the global reputation of Finland and other Western nations heavily invested in digital technology and learning.

The 2018 World Economic Forum future education index was a rather polished attempt to overturn the prevailing research consensus.  The PISA Worldwide Ranking – based upon average student scores in math, reading and science — place Asian countries, Estonia and Canada all ahead of Finland in student achievement.  The top five performers are Singapore (551.7), Hong Kong (532.7), Japan (528.7), Macau (527.3), and Estonia (524.3). A panel of seventeen experts, selected by The Economist Intelligence Unit, sets out to dispute the concrete student results of an OECD study of 70 countries ranking 15-year-olds on their scholastic performance.

The Economist Intelligence Unit index runs completely counter to the PISA rankings and attempts to counter the well-founded claim that student mastery of content-knowledge and fundamental skills is the best predictor of future student success in university, college and the workplace. Upon close examination, the World Economic Forum index seeks to supplant the established competencies and to substitute a mostly subjective assessment of “the effectiveness of education systems in preparing students for the demands of work and life in a rapidly changing landscape”( p. 1). It focuses on the 15 to 24 year-old-age band in some 50 countries around the world. Setting aside how students are actually performing, we are provided with a ranking based almost exclusively on compliance with so-called “21st century learning” competencies – leadership, creativity, entrepreneurship, communication, global awareness, and civic education skills.

The poster child nation for the World Economic Forum rankings is Finland, now ranked 8th on its PISA scores, because it has now embraced, full-on, the “21st century learning” ideology and invests heavily in technology-driven digital education. The balance of the Top 5 World Economic Forum nations, Switzerland, New Zealand, Sweden, and Canada, rank 15th, 16th, 26th, and 5th on the basis of their students’ PISA scores. Most problematic of all, the future education ranking downgrades the current global education leaders, Singapore (7th), Japan (12th), and Hong Kong (15th).  Mastery of academic competencies is, based upon the assessment criteria, not relevant when you are ranking countries on the basis of their support for technology-driven, digital education.

Who produced the World Economic Forum rankings?  The actual report was written by Economist Intelligence Unit contract writer Denis McCauley, a veteran London-based global technology consultant, known for co-authoring, a Ricoh-sponsored white paper, Agent of Change, alerting business leaders to the urgent necessity of embracing Artificial Intelligence and technological change.  Scanning the seventeen-member expert panel, it’s dominated by the usual suspects, global technology researchers and digital education proponents. One of the more notable advisors was Chief Education Evangelist for Google, Jaime Casap, the American technology promoter who spearheaded Google’s Apps for Education growth strategy aimed at teachers and powered by online communities known as Google Educator Groups, and “leadership symposiums” sponsored by the global tech giant.

Most of The Economist Intelligence Unit advisors see Finland as the ‘lighthouse nation’ for the coming technological change in K-12 education. Heavily influenced by former Finnish education ambassador, Pasi Sahlberg, they are enamoured with the Finnish model of phenomenon-based learning and its promise to implant “21st century skills” through structural changes in curriculum organization and delivery in schools.  It’s not surprising that it was actually Sahlberg who first tweeted about the Pontus school uprising, likely to alert Finnish education officials to the potential for broader resistance.

Launched in 2016 with a flurry of favourable ed-tech friendly research, the Finnish curriculum reform tapped into the rather obscure academic field of phenomenology.  The new curriculum adopted a phenomenon-based approach embracing curriculum integration with a theoretical grounding in constructivism. All of this was purportedly designed to develop student skills for the changing 21st century workplace. The ultimate goal was also spelled out by Canadian education professor Louis Volante and his associates in a World Economic Forum-sponsored April 2019 commentary extolling “broader measures” of assessing success in education. Peeling away the sugary coating, “phenomenon learning” was just another formulation of student-centred, project-based, 21st century skills education.

The daily reality for students like grade 6 student Aino Pilronen of Pontus School was quite different. “The beginning of the day was chaotic,” she reported, as students milled around developing study plans or hung-out in the so-called “market square.” “It was hard for me that the teacher did not teach at first, but instead we should have been able to learn things by ourselves.” Her brutally honest assessment: ” I didn’t learn anything.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit not only ignored such concerns voiced by students and parents, but brushed aside evidence that it would not work for the full range of students. A Helsinki University researcher, Aino Saarinen, attributed the decline in Finland’s PISA education standing to the increasing use of digital learning materials. Investing 50 million Euros since 2016 in training teachers to use digital devices and laptops, she claimed was not paying-off because “the more that digital tools were used in lessons, the worse learning outcomes were” in math, science, and reading. The most adversely affected were struggling and learning-challenged students, the very ones supposedly better served under the new curriculum.

What can we learn from taking a more critical, independent look at the actual state of Finnish education?  If Finnish education is in decline and 21st century learning reform encountering parental dissent, how can it be the top ranked “future education” system?  Who is providing the educational intelligence to the World Economic Forum?  Is it wise to accept a global ranking that discounts or dismisses quantitative evidence on trends in comparative student academic achievement? 

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The Chinese city of Shanghai has a school system that produces students who soar far above the rest.  On the 2009 and 2012 Programme of International Student Achievement (PISA) tests, administered to 15-year-olds worldwide, Shanghai-China students ranked first in all three major domains –mathematics, reading and science.

ShanghaiTeacherUntil recently, the secret of that astounding student achievement success was essentially shrouded in mystery.  With the release of the May 17 World Bank study, “How Shanghai Does It,” the answers are beginning to emerge, providing vitally-important lessons for education policy-makers in Canadian school systems and far beyond.

The World Bank report on Shanghai education, issued by World Bank research director Harry Patrinos, provides a counterpoint to the prevailing narrative that North American school systems should look to Finland for lessons on school improvement. It demonstrates, in incredible detail, what lies behind Shanghai-China’s rise to ‘education super-nova.’

The report, based upon SABER, a comprehensive World Bank system for benchmarking school system performance, delves deeply into how and why Shanghai students achieve excellent learning results. In the process, it smashes a few stubborn stereotypes and dispels the image of a mechanistic, test-driven, joyless educational enterprise.

Shanghai’s student successes stem, according to the World Bank, from a focus on teaching excellence. What’s unique about Shanghai-China is the way it “grooms, supports, and manages” teachers to raise educational quality and to a culture which accords great respect to the “teaching profession.”

We know that Shanghai students break records for extraordinary test scores, but lesser known is the success achieved in raising the floor for overall student achievement. The city has the highest share of disadvantaged students in the top 25 per cent range on PISA tests, and that is no accident. Educational equity is becoming a higher priority, especially targeting children of migrants.

Teachers in Shanghai are, by all accounts, well-trained and mentored after they become licensed to teach in schools. Ongoing professional development is not only offered, as in Canada, but integrated into a “collegial and supportive” professional growth process.  Subject mastery and pedagogical training go together in developing skilled and accomplished teachers.

Teaching time is organized far differently than in Canadian schools.  The Chinese teachers spend only one-third of their time actually teaching and far more emphasis is placed on preparation of demonstration lessons. Teaching effectiveness is the clear priority, not scattered efforts spread across a range of classes.

Teaching is also rewarded far differently.  Instead of being paid on a lock-step grid based upon seniority, Shanghai teachers move up the ladder based upon merit and guided by principals who are trained as instructional leaders not building administrators.

The biggest surprise is how Shanghai’s school system works to reduce educational inequalities. While education funding is vested in the school district, a proportion of the ‘education tax’ is specifically allocated to poor and low performing school districts.

ShanghaiSchoolBBCOne educational innovation worth emulating is what is known as the “entrusted school” management model to help raise up underperforming schools.  High-performing Shanghai schools are “twinned” with struggling schools within the state system. Instead of establishing private schools or creating charters, the Chinese use “twinning” to extend management, training, and resource support to teachers and students in the struggling schools.

Since 2006, the world of education has been enraptured with the so-called “Finnish Miracle,” while Shanghai-China has surged far ahead in student achievement. Instead of hitching our school improvement wagon to Finnish education promoter extraordinaire Pasi Sahlberg and his Finnish lessons, we should be looking at best practice anywhere and everywhere.

Let’s start by finding out where exactly we rank and what might be the areas that need improvement.  We generate lots of national, provincial and international student performance data, so why not put it to better use?

A really bold initiative would be to invite the World Bank to assess one Canadian provincial school system in relation to the SABER benchmarks.  The State of Maryland in the United States has already done so, and the SABER report for Maryland demonstrates just how incredibly valuable it can be in planning for, and advancing, school improvement.

The Finnish Education Miracle has begun to lose its lustre. Perhaps it’s time to consider edutourism junkets to Shanghai instead of Helsinki – in search of educational excellence as well as innovative teaching-learning ideas.

*An earlier version of this Commentary appeared in The Telegraph-Journal, provincial edition, based in Saint John, NB.

Will the World Bank report on Shanghai’s Educational Success be a wake-up call for North American educational leaders? Do popular stereotypes about Chinese education obscure our vision of Shanghai’s remarkable student performance achievements? Should we be producing more detailed studies of “Shanghai Lessons” for educators? And which Canadian province will be the first to follow Maryland in stepping-up to participate in the SABER assessment of school system effectiveness? 

 

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