Monthly Archives: March 2016

Finns aren’t what they used to be


I (Clare) came across this interesting article on Finland by Sean Couglan from the BBC. . But unlike most other articles it is a “counter point” to the Finnish miracle. Thought you might find it interesting.·

No international education conference is complete without a reference to Finland._82320693_helsinkibbc

Ever since it appeared at the top of international league tables more than a decade ago, it has been endlessly hailed as how to run an education system.

Finland, which faces a general election this week, has been the poster child for education reform and overseas delegations have made pilgrimages to learn from its example.

In particular it has been used to argue that you can have high results without an overbearing system of testing and inspection.

It was the country where pupils did not have to start school until they were seven, enjoyed the longest holidays and then basked in the glow of global approval when they topped the tables in the international Pisa tests. _82320689_finnishstamp

But is the gloss coming off the image of Finland as an education superpower?

More like an Asian tiger

A study from Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, director of research at the Centre for Market Reform of Education, argues that Finland’s education standards are in decline.

He says it is a misunderstanding of Finland’s success to attribute it to a liberal culture without league tables or a formal curriculum and giving much autonomy to teachers.

Finland faces a general election this week

In a report published by the right-wing think tank the Centre for Policy Studies, Mr Sahlgren argues that Finland’s star performance in the 2000 Pisa tests was built on the legacy of an older, very traditional education system, which had been part of the country’s process of nation building.

But this wasn’t the image of Finland wanted by education experts, he says. Instead, when Finland was the top performer in Europe, it was used as a “counter-argument” to the success of east Asian school systems in Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

While they were seen as successful because of hard work and grindingly long hours, Finland was seen as the way to achieve success with a much more creative and less centralised approach.

Mr Sahlgren, based at the London School of Economics, says there was “never any real evidence” for such an impression.

“It was simplistic, looking at how Finland’s system looked today, without looking at its history.”

Finland’s school system became part of its building of a national identity

Rather than being the opposite of east Asian countries, he says in many ways Finland was like those emerging economies.

Compared with its Nordic neighbours, Finland was a “late developer”, much poorer and with lower levels of education in the early part of the 20th Century.

Finland’s approach of investing heavily in education and seeing rapid improvements was in many ways more like the pattern of Tiger economies in east Asia than the more sluggish progress in western Europe.

‘Fairy stories’

Mr Sahlgren’s research argues there is a reluctance to accept that Finland’s education system, under which many of its successful teachers had trained, had been very structured and centralised.

IFinland has been the European country that matched East Asian countries in education tests

He quotes a research group from the UK visiting schools in Finland in 1996, a few years before the Pisa tests brought the world’s attention to the country’s schools.

“We have moved from school to school and seen almost identical lessons, you could have swapped the teachers over and the children would never have noticed the difference,” said the researchers from the University of East Anglia, observing Finnish classrooms.

Another study challenges what it calls the “misconceptions and misrepresentations” about Finland’s success in the Pisa tests.

Tim Oates, director of assessment research for the Cambridge Assessment exam group, has published a study called “Finnish fairy stories”, in which he debunks what he claims are myths about the Finnish system.

‘Education tourism’

He says the waves of “education tourism” that followed the success in Pisa tests failed to look at how the system had improved.

Image captionHow much of Finland’s success was the legacy of an earlier, more traditional school system?

“They got off the plane and asked the Finns about the system in 2000 – not what it was like during the 1970s and 1980s, when standards were rising.”

He also warns of a tendency for people to use Finland’s school system as a way of confirming what they want to find.

The claim that Finland does not have an Ofsted-style inspection and national testing is an incomplete picture, says Mr Oates. He says there has been a strong system of accountability and inspection and gathering of data.

The difference from a system such as England, says Mr Oates, is how the information is used – for example in Finland exam results are not published in school league tables as they are in England.

Pisa tests 2012 top 10
Reading Maths
1. Shanghai 1. Shanghai
2. Hong Kong 2. Singapore
3. Singapore 3. Hong Kong
4. Japan 4. Taiwan
5. South Korea 5. South Korea
6. Finland 6. Macao
7. Ireland 7. Japan
8. Taiwan 8. Liechtenstein
9. Canada 9. Switzerland
10. Poland 10. Netherlands

It is also misleading to think there are not high-stakes exams or academic selection, he says, with entrance to some secondary schools being determined by test scores.

And Mr Oates argues it is “hopeless myopia” to see Finland’s system as a model of high levels of autonomy.

Finland is facing another set of controversial changes, away from traditional subject teaching. And Mr Sahlgren warns of a school system in decline. It is no longer in the top 10 for maths in Pisa tests, having been in second place in 2003 and 2006.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of education and the creator of the Pisa tests, rejects this analysis.

“In the 1960s, Finland was an average performer at best and that was when it had a very traditional education system,” says Mr Schleicher.

“Finland changed its system only in the late 1970s and 1980s and that’s when we saw the results rise. The most recent decline is quite modest,” he said.

Mr Oates says the problem has been that people have used Finland as a way of discussing their own national education debates, without really thinking about what made Finland different.

“People have been seriously misled by stories told by people who have looked at Finland through their own, restricted lens,” he says.


Using Snapchat in Higher Ed


I (Pooja) have always been somewhat of a late adopter to the latest technologies, but I know when things are shifting because of what learners in my class and my more technologically-inclined friends are using on  their phones. What I’ve noticed is that Facebook and Instagram are quickly becoming the social media tools of yesterday. Growing in popularity is Snapchat, a social media application known for its short-lived videos. On Snapchat, your followers can view the photos or videos you “snapped” for 10 seconds before they disappears for good. Started in 2011, Snapchat now has 100 million users and is gaining users at a rapid speed, especially post-secondary students.

It is for this reason I am curious to know how (and if) teachers are using Snapchat in their classrooms. I came across an article on NPR written by Jacquie Lee that highlights the work of one professor, Michael Britt using the app in his introductory psychology course. He uses the tool to post 10-second videos which relate to the theory and concepts discussed in class. For example, to help students connect to a lesson on the biology of the brain, Brit snapped his niece in during her ballet class standing on one leg. He “used the snap as an example of how the cerebellum in the brain controls balance” (Lee, 2016). Britt notes that approximately 90% of his students check his “snaps.” That is a significant number considering how many students don’t do/complete course readings. Snapchats seem to “reach” the students in a way perhaps course readings can’t.

I still do not have a Snapchat account. I can’t imagine people being interested in the details of my day. Perhaps I should reconsider. Perhaps Snapchat is an entry point into bridging the divide between theory and practice in our courses.

To read the entire article click here:

Global Conversations in Literacy Research

One of the amazing things about our research team is we share common interests in literacy teaching and teacher education while at the same time we explore our own avenues of research. My areas of interest are in critical literacy pedagogy and teacher development.  I (yiola) have been enjoying and learning a great deal from another amazing literacy research based website and would like to share it with you.

Here is the link:

Global Conversations in Literacy Research (GCLR) is a series of interactive open access web seminars that feature cutting-edge literacy research conducted by international literacy researchers. GCLR is grounded in critical literacy, and sees as its mission to use networked technologies to connect global audiences in a virtual space that allows participants to exchange ideas on literacy theory, research, and practice. Each year, GCLR features scholars whose work addresses a range of literacy areas of interest to international audiences.

Some of my favourite researchers in critical literacy have shared webinars on the site.  I appreciate the global nature of the site and the sense of shared understandings through varied contexts.

An inspiring site — enjoy!

Learning Policy Institute

I (Clare) continue to be concerned about our often “over assessment “of students. Last year at AERA I was at a presentation where the presenter talked about one elementary school teacher with whom he was working who had to conduct 30 standardized tests in one year! Yes 30 (that is not a typo). What does this number of assessments do to children? The teacher? The curriculum? The climate in the classroom. I just received the announcement below which I hope will bring some “common sense” to assessment.


How Can Schools Measure True College and Career Readiness? Learning Policy Institute Receives Award to Support More Authentic Assessments for California Students

The Learning Policy Institute (LPI) was named today as one of 12 organizations nationwide th-2to receive a grant award from the Assessment for Learning Project (ALP) to fundamentally rethink the roles that assessment should play to advance student learning and to improve our K-12 education system. LPI is supporting the California Performance Assessment Collaborative (CPAC), a newly launched pilot project that enables schools, districts, and networks in California to share, research, and document current efforts to graduate students using competency-based approaches. Instead of assessments based only on testing, these will assess applied learning focused on deep understanding of content and demonstration of 21st century skills in order to inform other schools as well as state policymakers.

CPAC’s work has deep implications for teaching and learning in participating schools and for the work of both practitioners and policymakers who are rethinking assessments with the passage of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA requires states to implement assessments that measure “higher-order thinking skills and understanding” and explicitly invites the use of “portfolios, projects, or extended-performance tasks” as part of state and local assessment systems.

Born from the vision of a group of committed educators, policymakers, and researchers in response to the current policy environment, CPAC serves as an “innovation site” within the state where educators from various contexts are now working together within a professional learning community dedicated to the advancement of authentic, meaningful assessments for California children.

CPAC is composed of the Learning Policy Institute working with schools from the CORE network, including the Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco Unified School Districts; Envision Schools; High Tech High; Internationals Network for Public Schools; Linked Learning Alliance; and New Tech Network; plus East Palo Alto Academy (Sequoia Union High School District); Hillsdale High School (San Mateo Unified School District); John Muir High School (Pasadena Unified School District); and Oceana High School (Jefferson Union High School District). In addition to ALP, support for this collaborative program comes from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Notes Linda Darling-Hammond, CEO and President of the Learning Policy Institute, “This work will inform both those seeking to develop more meaningful assessments in their schools and those seeking to develop policies that can support the deeper learning opportunities today’s students need to succeed in today’s and tomorrow’s world. Ultimately, the goal is to enable students to pursue – and colleges and employers to be able to receive – more productive measures of students’ genuine accomplishments and readiness for postsecondary college, career, and civic life. “

“For too long, assessment has been something that is ‘done to’ kids instead of with them,” said Gene Wilhoit, Executive Director of the Center for Innovation in Education, one of the organizations partnering with the Assessment for Learning Project (ALP). “These 12 grantees have promising plans to use assessment to build student agency, support a broader definition of student success, and envision new systems of assessment and accountability.”

Out of 148 proposals, ALP selected its 12 grantees based on the “boldness of their ideas, the quality of their learning plan and general orientation toward learning, potential for scale and routes to ‘systemness,’ and their potential contribution to the learning agenda.” Next Generation Learning Challenges is the the co-partner of this initiative, with funding provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The Learning Policy Institute and CPAC proudly join the Center for Collaborative Education, Colorado Education, Del Lago Academy, Fairfax County Public Schools, Hawai’i Department of Education, Henry County Schools, Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium, New Hampshire Learning Initiative, Summit Public Schools, Two Rivers Public Charter School, and WestEd as recipients of the initial round of ALP grants. For more information on the project and the 12 grant recipients, visit


About the Learning Policy Institute
The Learning Policy Institute conducts and communicates independent high-quality research to improve education. Working with policymakers, researchers, educators, community groups, and others, we seek to advance evidence-based policies that support empowering and equitable learning for each and every child. For more information, visit
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Palo Alto, CA 94304

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Keeping up with Technology in Education

I (Cathy) am not sure that keeping up with technology in education is possible.  This is where collaboration in the classroom becomes a necessity. The ‘technology-gifted’ students become our greatest resource, in effect- the teachers.   Unlike the cartoon below, I’m not referring to the  students who can afford the latest gadgets, I’m referring to the students who are ‘technologically intelligent’.  Several years ago, Howard Gardner suggested this was possibly  a new intelligence to add to his list, but unfortunately never followed up.  Personally, I have relied on such students in the past.  They are our mentors. They ‘see’ the digital world and the possibilities. It’s a gift.  Look for these students in your class.  They may be a fantastic untapped resource.


'Our school computers are one year old. How can we be competitive in the job market if we're being trained on obselete equipment?'
‘Our school computers are one year old. How can we be competitive in the job market if we’re being trained on obselete equipment?’

Thesis Defense = Celebration of Learning

I (Clare) am a very active doctoral supervisor and have two students near completion of stress-lego-faces-popular-science_2400x1800their Ph.D. At the University of Toronto like many other universities the final stage in the doctoral program is the thesis defense. It is a complicated process requiring 2 external examiners, a student presentation, discussion, and voting. The entire exam is so so so stressful for the students. No matter how much I reassure them that they will be fine because their work is high quality they are still nervous, stressed, tense, anxious …. From my perspective it should not be so stressful nor so high stakes. These students have worked for years under careful supervision and presented at their doctoral committee meetings.

Some universities have a much more informal (and civilized) approach to the final exam. I try to see it as a celebration of the student’s work rather than a grueling experience. I think it is time for many universities to rethink the final stage of the process to make it less stressful for the student (and supervisor) and more joyous.

The Wrong Way to Teach Math (and Other Subjects)

In the New York Times Sunday Review on Feb 28, Andrew Hacker published an article (p. 2) checkmark imagescalled “The Wrong Way to Teach Math,” based on his forthcoming book The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions. It begins with this remarkable statement:

“Most Americans have taken high school mathematics, including geometry and algebra, yet a national survey found that 82 percent of adults could not compute the cost of a carpet when told its dimensions and square-yard price.”

Hacker, who teaches political science and mathematics at Queens College in New York, argues that while “calculus and higher math have a place…it’s not in most people’s everyday lives.” Students need to learn “numeracy” or “quantitative literacy”: “figuring out the real world – deciphering corporate profits or what a health plan will cost.”

I (Clive) find Hacker’s ideas and examples very helpful and plan to buy his book. But it occurs to me that similar things could be said about other subjects such as literacy (reading, writing, literature), history, science, etc. While “academic” aspects of these subjects have to be taught to prepare students for later education and (possibly) work settings, teachers need to do both (as I have posted before). It isn’t appropriate just to focus on Shakespeare and classical novels, for example, and not prepare students to find enjoyment and make wise choices in their everyday fiction and non-fiction reading.

Addressing both – the academic and the everyday – is not easy, given the extensive subject content teachers are expected to cover; but in teaching and teacher education this should be our goal, and over the years we should move as far as humanly possible in this direction.


Dora in the 21st Century

A few weeks ago, I (Pooja) was watching an episode of Dora the Explorer with my niece and nephew. Dora and her friends were on an adventure and as per usual got lost. I expected Dora to whip out her handy animated friend, Map (see below).


For as long as I could remember, Map had been an integral character of the Dora the Explorer Show. Map helped the viewers understand the cardinal directions, locate familiar landmarks, and use a compass. So, I was surprised when I saw Dora reach into her pocket and pull out her phone and open Map App!!! After my initial surprise, I started to understand why the Map character had been replaced with an app. Viewers, like my 5-year-old niece and nephew had never held a map or seen a map, so of course they couldn’t relate to it. Now, an app? They know all about those!


The initial character Map was introduced to teach life skills. Do you  think the Map App will be able to teach the same skills or more?

Butterfly Books: An amazing resource

It is common to find educators and parents in search of good books for children.  What makes a book good? What is a worthwhile read? What kinds of books do we want children to read? Why?  I have discovered a resource for thinking about and finding children’s books and am excited to share it with you.

Helen Antoniades, founder and operator of Butterfly Books, has embarked on a most inspiring journey in search of great books for children.

A front line social worker in Toronto, Ontario Canada, Helen has spent her adult life counselling children and adults from all walks of life. The  last 4 years of her practice was at the Hospital for Sick Children.  After 17 years of social work Helen, feeling burned out,  decided to start something new and explore her passion for healing others in an alternative way. Always passionate about books, she chose to share her knowledge of and experience with using books to help children understand and deal with issues in their lives.

Helen began her search by asking a lot of social worker colleagues for their go to books. Then she began asking friends in related fields. This interest grew into the blog, where she alternated “regular” pictures books with therapeutic books as suggested readings for children. As her journey continued Helen began exploring the “regular” books she was coming across and has broadened her scope to quality books that are reflective of diversity.  You can find Helen’s website at:

Butterfly Book’s mission statement:

Butterfly Books is a children’s book subscription service whose goal is to make receiving a new book an eagerly anticipated, joyful event with an aim to foster and sustain a love of reading in children.
In addition to creating excitement about reading, the service will give children the opportunity to explore other worlds and experiences through books.  Part of the focus will therefore be on ensuring diversity of characters and topics within the books chosen.
This service is also a way to make giving books as a gift more inviting.  This personalized approach will connect families through the love of books and the satisfaction of a quality gift given and received. 
There is also a handy Facebook page with wall postings that share a book per week. It is an efficient and helpful way to access interesting books and gain insight to how they can be explored with children, often including book reviews.
Check out the website, like the FB page, and get connected with Butterfly Books!