A few weeks ago I posted a brief piece about the Time Magazine article, How to Make Great Teachers. The focus of the Time feature was America’s teacher shortage and the potential use of merit pay to attract and retain talented educators. Perhaps the more interesting read, however, was Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond’s accompanying sidebar, How They Do It Abroad, and her observations about education in Finland.
According to Darling-Hammond, “With its steep climb in the international rankings, Finland has been a poster child for school improvement. Teachers learn how to create programs that engage students in research and inquiry on a regular basis. There, training focuses on how to teach students who learn in different ways–including those with special needs. The Finns reason that if teachers learn to help students who struggle, they will be able to teach their students more effectively.”
There is more to the Finnish approach than addressing learning styles, however. As Darling-Hammond notes, “The highest-achieving countries…have been pouring resources into teacher training and support. These countries routinely prepare their teachers more extensively, pay them well in relation to competing occupations and give them lots of time for professional learning. They also provide well-trained teachers for all students–rather than allowing some to be taught by untrained novices–by offering equitable salaries and adding incentives for harder-to-staff locations.”
Time is not the only publication to take notice of the Finns. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal featured What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart? And they ARE smart, scoring among the best in the world in science, math and reading:
So what might we find in these model classrooms? Surely a plethora of technology supporting a cutting-edge, 21st century curriculum? As noted in the Journal article, “In November, a U.S. delegation visited, hoping to learn how Scandinavian educators used technology. Officials from the Education Department, the National Education Association and the American Association of School Librarians saw Finnish teachers with chalkboards instead of whiteboards, and lessons shown on overhead projectors instead of PowerPoint. Keith Krueger was less impressed by the technology than by the good teaching he saw. “You kind of wonder how could our country get to that?” says Mr. Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, an association of school technology officers that organized the trip.”
In case you skimmed through that last paragraph, let me highlight this sentence again: Officials from the Education Department, the National Education Association and the American Association of School Librarians saw Finnish teachers with chalkboards instead of whiteboards, and lessons shown on overhead projectors instead of PowerPoint.
What a concept! Good teaching, not fancy gadgetry, makes for an effective teaching-learning experience. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone; it’s no secret that the classroom teacher has more impact on student achievement than any other factor. Robert Marzano and others have the data to prove it, and anyone who has endured a sub-standard teacher has learned this lesson the hard way. So do we need to replace our SmartBoards with chalkboards? No…but we do need to reevaluate how we approach instructional technology.
I am fortunate to work in an environment that recognizes and values the connection between technology and learning. Many schools, however, have emphasized the former over the latter. Good technology will not save bad teaching; a SmartBoard is only as smart as the person using it. Before we send teachers off to be trained on the latest tools, we must first critically examine their use of pedagogically sound techniques. Whether it is under the guise of “Best Practice” or simply listening to the experiences of our veteran colleagues, the teaching must take precedence over the technology. The Finns figured that out; surely we can too.