Category Archives: research

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.


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!

Why reading is good for the brain


I (Clare) found this terrific article on reading which build on World Book Day. Below is the Image Red Maple_How-To-Outrun-A-Crocodilelink and the article. So after reading the blog, relax with a tea and read a good book!

If you love reading, you won’t need us to tell you how beneficial curling up Unknownwith a book can be, but studies have shown that picking up a novel has health effects that extend beyond the immediate de-stressing and pleasure it brings.

To celebrate World Book Day (March 3), we want to talk about the less obvious health benefits books can bring. Reading is time well-spent!

Reading fires up your brain

41e13pkIBfL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Researchers at Liverpool University revealed that reading Wordsworth, Shakespeare and other classics “lights up” the brain under scanners. However, when participants were given easier, modern translations of the books, the brain boosting effects were less, suggesting that reading trickier texts is better for you. Areas of the brain fired up included not only the left part of the brain concerned with language, but also the right hemisphere that relates to autobiographical memory and emotion.

Effects are enduring. A study at Emory University in the US found that reading a book causes heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist even after you’ve stopped reading.

Reading can slow the progress of Alzheimer’s

Reading can lower the levels of a brain protein involved in Alzheimer’s, researchers have Image Red Maple Award_The-Boundlessclaimed. US scientists looked at beta amyloid protein levels in 65 healthy older people and compared the results with Alzheimer’s patients. They found lower levels of amyloid in the brains of people who had read, written, played games, or taken part in other cognitively stimulating activities throughout their lives.

Lead researcher Susan Landau, of the University of California, Berkeley, said: “We report a direct association, suggesting that lifestyle factors found in individuals with high cognitive engagement may prevent or slow deposition of beta amyloid, perhaps influencing the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.”

In fact, reading slows mental decline in general

People who read books are more likely to have healthy brains in old age, according to research published in the journal, Neurology. The study looked at 294 elderly participants and found that those who had taken part in mentally stimulating activities – such as reading – had lower rates of mental decline as they got older. Conversely, those who rarely read or performed other stimulating mental activity mentally declined 48 percent faster than average.

“Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person’s lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age,” said study author Robert. S. Wilson of the Rush University Medical Center, Chicago.

Reading can improve your memory

Scientists at Liverpool University found that reading poetry stimulates activity in the brain area associated with autobiographical memory. There’s a lot to remember when you read – plot, sub-plots, characters, emotions, your own evaluation of what’s going on – and all of this effectively gives your brain a “work-out”.

Reading improves your concentration

For many of us, life is frenetic and we spend our days juggling a million jobs. If you regularly find yourself chatting online at the same time as speaking on the phone, trying to get work done and dealing with family demands then you’re not alone. However, this type of frantic multitasking has been shown to lower productivity, meaning you get less done in the long-run. The discipline of focusing for prolonged periods on reading a book is good for your powers of concentration and can have a far-reaching effect on your life.

Reading lowers stress

If you’re stressed, reading is one of the most effective, enjoyable ways of making yourself feel better. Part of this is common sense; getting lost in a book will take you away from your worries for a while, giving you new perspective when you return. However, research has found that reading lowers stress faster than other activities such as walking or listening to music. Research from the University of Sussex found that subjects only needed to read for six minutes to slow down their heart rate and ease tension in the muscles.

Reading may help with depression

Several studies have suggested that reading can help with mood disorders such as depression. A study published in the journal PLOS ONE showed that reading self-help books, alongside therapeutic support sessions, lowered depression more effectively than traditional treatments alone. Even in severe cases, reading the right kind of book can improve your mental health. According to a study at the University of Manchester, people with severe depression can also benefit from “low-intensity interventions,” such as self-help books.

Reading can help you sleep

Most sleep expert suggest that insomniacs should create a calming bedtime routine, away from phone and computer screens which can stimulate brain activity with their lights (not to mention annoying posts from distant relatives). Reading a non-stressful book under a gentle light can be part of this routine, but choose your book wisely; anything too exciting may have the reverse effect.

Reading give you better analytical skills

Reading is a complex process, involving several parts of the brain as you piece together and visually recreate what’s happening. This brain activity will stand you in good stead for becoming more widely analytical. Research at the University of Berkeley revealed that readers are able to spot patterns more quickly, a key tenet of good analytical thinking.

Reading makes you more empathic

Reading fiction makes you a nicer person. There, we’ve said it, and research will back us up. A team at the University of Toronto found that the more fiction a participant had read, the higher they scored on measures of social awareness and tests of empathy, such as being able to take another person’s perspective or being able to accurately read emotions from looking at someone’s eyes. On the other hand, people who regularly read non-fiction were found to display the opposite characteristics, making them less empathic.

Reading literally makes you cleverer

Canada’s Keith E. Stanovich, Emeritus Professor at the University of Toronto, is a world leader in the psychology of reading. Stanovich has carried out a vast amount of research into the topic and the conclusion of one meta-analysis reads: “If ‘smarter’ means having a larger vocabulary and more world knowledge in addition to the abstract reasoning skills encompassed within the concept of intelligence, as it does in most laymen’s definitions of intelligence, then reading may well make people smarter. Certainly our data demonstrate time and again that print exposure is associated with vocabulary, general knowledge, and verbal skills even after controlling for abstract reasoning abilities.”

International Literacy Association

The International Literacy Association (ILA) has its annual Conference coming up in Boston in July. An inspiring organization that works to build global capacity in the area of literacy, pre-service and experienced teachers alike have much to gain from learning about ILA and attending the conference.

Check out the website for more information and be inspired!

I am inspired by the advocacy piece:

From local issues to global issues ILA provides resources for professional development.

Check it out!



Professional Learning in Top Performing Systems, part 2

I (Clare) thought you might find this blog interesting about high performing schools. Not sure I agree with all of it but food for thought

International Education News

PDinfographicv2The National Center on Education and the Economy’s (NCEE) Center on International Education Benchmarking has released two reports on professional learning environments in top performing systems: Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems and Developing Shanghai’s TeachersTo explore and share the findings of these reports, the NCEE held a conference last week featuring presentations and panel conversations with the leading voices in education from around the world. This conference was also streamed live and can be viewed online. Moderated by Marc Tucker, president and CEO of NCEE, speakers included Ben Jensen (author of Beyond PD) and Minxuan Zhang (author of Developing Shanghai’s Teachers).

Ben Jensen began his presentation with the questions, “What is at the core of high performing professional learning systems? What is the strategy to ensure effectiveness?”

Jensen argued that we need to move past the idea that there is a single answer…

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Parent Research Night

This week I (Clare) attended the Parent Research Night at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Studies (where I am the Director). It was a truly amazing evening because the two presentations demonstrated research that was for teachers and parents, done by teachers, and inspired by teachers. It was such a beautiful form of dissemination of research. The findings are not confined to a peer-reviewed article but were shared with the public.

IMG_1147Dr. Patricia Ganea talked about the importance of shared reading with children. And she shared data on how children respond to images in children’s books – realistic (photos) vs fantastical (comic-like). Interestingly they relate much more to the latter.

Then Dr. Yiola Cleovoulou and 3 teachers (Zoe Honahue, Cindy Halewood, and Chriss Bogert – who is now the VP) from the Lab School IMG_1153presented on their work with the children that was framed by critical literacy with an inquiry focus. They shared student work, read transcripts of actual conversations, and described activism work.

JICS has a tripartite mission: Lab school, teacher education program, and a research centre. Parent Research night truly brought all three together.

Revisiting Mysteries in Canadian History

A project entitled Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History, engages inquiry-based pedagogy to encourage students’ critical thinking and research skills. The project, based at the University of Victoria, the Université de Sherbrooke and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, has developed a collection of websites, which invite high school and university students to examine primary source documents, photographic evidence, archival material and historical interpretations, in an effort to solve a historical puzzle (e.g. the mystery of the doomed Franklin expedition; the mysterious death of artist Tom Thomson). John Lutz, University of Victoria history professor and one of the founders of the project noted, “history is too important to be boring, and these mysteries are too intriguing to be left to historians alone.”  All the materials and teachers’ guides are free. Link to project site: Link to the CBC article:

Then and now

I (Clare) found this post so interesting and relevant. In my university dissemination of research is strongly encouraged so I have tried to make better use of social media — this blog! With 26,000+ hits and counting our website has certainly helped us disseminate our research in ways we could not do with traditional print (e.g., peer reviewed journals).

The Research Whisperer

Photo by Jeff Sheldon | Photo by Jeff Sheldon |

In the last five years or so, I’ve completely changed my attitude to communicating research.

Guess how much I used to do before?


I published in journals and scholarly books. I presented at academic conferences and ran a research network. I dutifully applied for research funding. I thought of myself as a good, productive academic.

And that was it. I wasn’t really on Twitter and I blogged about our network activities – but only really for our members. I didn’t do community forums or write for other non-academic publication outlets.

Don’t believe me? Read on!

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Anti-Plagiarism Tools


At my (Cathy’s)  institution,  like most HE schools, plagiarism is an  issue.   According to Wikipedia, “Plagiarism is not a crime per se but in academia and industry, it is a serious ethical offense.”  I deliberately quote Wikipedia because that (sadly) seems to be a popular source for many students these days.  As the cartoon to the left implies, is copying from the internet plagiarism?  The many new sources for plagiarism checking indicates “yes”.  My institution supports a plagiarism locator called Turnitin.  It is a relatively simple tool to use. Once the text is submitted to the Digital Learning System, the tool highlights all words in sequence that can be located on the www and Google Scholar.  Hence, copying the words from Wikipedia becomes as evident as copying a paragraph from a journal article.  The professor has to look at the text and determine if the highlighted parts have been properly cited.  If not, the text is  plagiarized.  Although professors have access to this and can use it to check for plagiarism, it is used instead as a formative feedback took to encourage students to monitor their own work and how they are sourcing. Regarding Turnitin, Jennifer Haber, Professor of Communications at St. Petersburg College shares this email from one of her students:

Keeping an eye on the similarities percentage area keeps me aware of possible situations where I may be using too much (or even too little) outside resource information. Due to its ease of use and instructive benefit, I would say the service has played a significant part in my becoming a more improved writer. I would favorably recommend its use to any institution of learning.

This kind of feedback has sold Professor Haber on the use of this tool.  Besides Turnitin, many more of these tools are popping up on the internet.  Two popular sites are:  Best Plaigerism Checker and Proofreader  and  Plagiarisma.Net (links provider below).  With these kinds of free tools available and the  bad press plagiarism has been receiving, its  wonder that students still plagiarize.  Perhaps these tools will help reduce it happening in our schools.  Let’s hope so.


Educational Research: Small Scale or Large?

On Monday, Clare and I (Clive) had the privilege of attending an outstanding symposium at Brock University on self-Image Brock Symposiumstudy research on teacher education. It was organized by Tim Fletcher and Deirdre NiChroinin and funded by their respective institutions, Brock University and the University of Limerick. Highlighted speakers were Clare, Julian Kitchen, and Tom Russell. Apart from the local audience, the symposium was streamed live and will be archived for online access at : (Under Self Study Symposium — 01:46:06).

One issue that came up was the validity of self-study inquiry versus research with a larger sample size. It was noted that there is pressure (from tenure and promotion committees as well as policy developers) to conduct research larger in scope than the typical self-study project. Some suggest that to increase the “significance” of self-study research it may be necessary to combine a number of smaller projects.

From the audience, I made a comment that was lost electronically and Tim and Deirdre have asked me to repeat it here. My comment was as follows:

Small scale research by individuals or small groups often provides a depth of understanding not available through large scale research. We must not assume that bigger is better. While large sample research is suitable for certain purposes, often something is lost when we move to a larger sample and have to ask simpler, one-shot questions, where the meaning of the questions and answers is often unclear. The typical self-study project enables us to probe in considerable depth the nature, purpose, and effectiveness of various teaching practices.

Dewey, Schon and, more recently, Zeichner, Cochran-Smith, and Lytle have emphasized how much practitioners learn on the job; and Bryk et al. in their recent book Learning to Improve (Harvard Education Press, 2015) maintain that quantitative researchers must join forces with on-site practitioner-inquirers to build a complex, publically available framework of educational concepts, principles, and practices (somewhat akin to Wikipedia). Both types of research are needed. We must not privilege one over the other.