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Finland has had recent surprising successes in measures such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s PISA survey, which compares the fifteen-year-old students of various countries in reading, math, and science. For the past decade, Finland has ranked at or near the top, along with heavy hitters South Korea and Singapore, while the U.S. has muddled along in the middle ranks. Consequently, educators from around the globe are trying to mine the Finnish model for ideas to improve education in their own countries.
Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility, has authored a new book called Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? and is speaking to educators in the US about what is being done in Finland.
Anu Partanen reported on Sahlberg’s reception and the lessons US educators are NOT learning about Finnish education in the recent article “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success.” Sahlberg and Partanen both seem to believe that American educators are missing Sahlberg’s main points.
And yet it wasn’t clear that Sahlberg’s message was actually getting through. As Sahlberg put it to me later, there are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about….
From [Sahlberg’s] point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?
The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do.
Partanen then lists several things named by Sahlberg that Finland does in a vastly different manner than American public schools:
~ Finnish schools assign less homework.
~ Finnish schools engage children in more creative play.
~ Finland has no standardized tests.
~ Finland’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves.
~ Report cards … are based on individualized grading by each teacher.
~ In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.
~ If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.
~ The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.
~ Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.
~ There are no private schools in Finland.
Partanen accuses US educators of not wanting to listen to all of Sahlberg’s message, but Partanen is just as guilty as those he accuses. He actually quotes Sahlberg’s concern (above) that Americans are obsessed with evaluation and tracking and accountability but then ignores that point just as thoroughly as the US educators do in favor of his own apparent agenda. Which part do you think Partanen focuses on?
Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it. Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.
No private schools. That’s the message Partanen gets, the whole message, and what he thinks we should import to the US. While I am not downplaying the importance of that part of the Finnish formula, and I do think less competition in educational fields is an excellent idea, I find it at best amusing that Partanen ignores so much of the rest of Sahlberg’s message to educators: Less homework. More autonomy of teachers to teach, examine, and rate children individually. More autonomy of principals to be in charge of the teachers rather that being bogged down in red tape regulations. No standardized testing.
These are the points that are at the heart of Finland’s surprising success, and apparently the points that Sahlberg himself is concerned are being missed. Standardized testing and tying teacher evaluation to student results means less individualized attention to each student, putting them all through a sardine press that fits none. Allowing teachers to have their own classrooms where they can connect with the children as individuals and without the pressure of standardized testing looming spectrally over all is what frees them to be good teachers, frees the children to get a real education.
How do I know this is true? Because private schools that follow this model in the US get the same results. Check out John Stossel’s excellent report, “Stupid in America,” to see how privately run schools, with no oversight but the intimate group of principal, teachers, and parents, get incredible results on a very minimal budget:
Muddling along as the US public schools do, with competition between schools, within schools, and between students on standardized tests, produces the mediocre results we have been seeing in US public education in recent decades. One way to get to the top of the heap to emulate countries South Korea and Singapore, which essentially eliminate childhood in favor of intensive study habits that according to some lead to increased suicide rates among teens.
The other way to get to the top of the heap, apparently, is to chuck nationalized educational standards altogether, and return control of the classrom to where it belongs: the principal, the teachers, and the individual students themselves.
— I have four children who have always been homeschooled. They learned to read in four very different ways, though there are some important similarities too (all four have me for a mother, after all). This is the first in a series of posts examining how each of my children learned to read. —
Nova is sixteen years old as of this writing. When she’s not drawing, she is either reading, or she is writing on any one of at least a half-dozen different fantasy stories she has going at any given moment. I am a reader myself, and I began collecting books for her early. Much to my husband’s bemusement, I began purchasing children’s books before the birth – I managed to hold off until I was at least five months along. (I remember the first one I had to buy: Animalia by Graeme Base. It was so beautiful, I couldn’t resist.)
I don’t specifically remember reading aloud to her while I was pregnant (though I think that is a good idea), but I did begin reading to her before she could sit up. She loved rhythmic stories such as Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb. If I have occasion to read it these days, I still read it in the same cadence she loved, keeping a steady beat with no pauses, even between the pages.
Books were her first, best toys. As a toddler, she used to sit on the floor in front of her bookshelf, put her forefinger on the top of the spine of a book, and pull firmly until it came off the shelf, repeating until she had all her friends on the floor with her. After she nearly put her eye out a time or two by flipping sharp corners directly toward her face, I transferred her books into baskets so she could make her messes with less threat of injury.
Starting to Read and Write
When she was old enough to hold the books and turn the pages herself, I would “read” to her while I was driving. We kept a basket of board books in the car, and I would recite each page (I had them all memorized by this point) and say “Ding!” when it was time for her to turn the page.
Sometime around eighteen months, when she was barely talking, she began saying a phrase I couldn’t figure out. She would walk around saying “ah goo, ah goo, ah goo” and I could tell it had meaning to her, but I couldn’t quite figure out what she meant by it. Then one day I saw her plop down with our well-read copy of Where the Wild Things Are, carefully turning each page, until she came to the page where “that very night in Max’s room a forest grew … and grew … and grew …” and as she turned each page she recited, “ah goo … ah goo … ah goo …” and I knew she was reading.
No, of course she was not decoding the phonics of the written words, but she was getting meaning from the book and understanding the story on her own, which is after all, at its heart, what reading is.
Around her third birthday, we had to send a birthday card to a family member. I handed her the card and a pen for her to “sign her name” … that is, make a scribble. She took the pen from me and carefully wrote each letter of her name. I had never shown her how to write her name or even talked with her much about the alphabet other than in the most general terms, and of course reading books such as Dr. Seuss’s ABC and Applebet, one of my all-time favorite alphabet books. I am not a proponent of programs to teach very young children to read, but it was clear to me that she was going to be one of those kids who just picks it up early and effortlessly.
Hitting a Speed Bump
Her headlong progress stalled out, however. I fully expected her to be reading independently somewhere between four and five – again, without me pushing, pressuring, or even teaching her to read, just because she was “that kind of kid.” But though she progressed almost magically on her own to the point of reading simple words or phrases, if I showed her a page with more than two or three words on it, she would physically turn her head away, stating, “It’s too hard.” Please understand, I wasn’t trying to get her to read books other than the simple picture books she loved, or even pushing her to read in any way; I was following her natural progression until she suddenly stopped for no reason I could discern.
I feel very blessed to have learned what I learned next, because it is not an avenue I would have pursued on my own, at least not so early. I was talking to a friend at church about some behavioral issues with Nova and she said, “You might want to consider vision therapy.” I had not heard of this but after she told me her child’s story, I had an appointment with her vision doctor quicker than you could say “Jack jumped over the candlestick.”
We already knew that she had vision problems. Around her second birthday, she began crossing her eyes. An exam with a regular eye doctor put her into glasses to correct her severe hyperopia (far-sightedness) and also mild astigmatism. When she wore her glasses (which she did at all times) her eyes didn’t cross, but as soon as they were off her eyes would cross again.
A Lazy Eye
Her exam revealed that she was not using her binocular vision; that is, her eyes did not work in sync, but one at a time. Look at a page of print and try to read it while alternating using your eyes: close first one eye then the other and repeat that in succession, and you’ll see why more than three words on a page was “too hard” for my daughter. Her glasses stayed, of course, as her vision was so poor, but our new eye doctor did remove the correction for astigmatism from her prescription. He said she did have astigmatism, but when she focused on something, her eyes corrected it on their own so she didn’t need the correction in her spectacles.
As I learned more about vision therapy and who needs it, I realized quite a few things about my daughter that had seemed like idiosyncrasies were, in fact, symptomatic of her vision problem. For instance, when I gave her stickers and paper, she would pile all the stickers almost on top of each other in a little square, leaving the rest of the paper completely empty: she hyperfocused on a small area that she could see easily, rather than looking at the entire paper. She ran almost sideways, looking over one shoulder. She had never crawled as a baby.
Vision therapy (which I will post about more soon) brought rapid changes in more than her reading ability, which blossomed within two or three months of beginning the therapy (though reading was not part of the therapy). She began to run in a straight line. In gym class (her fine motor skills were excellent but she lacked most of the graces having to do with large muscle skills, so I enrolled her in a fun, low-pressure gymnastics class around age four) she had always been bottom of the class, but the summer of her vision therapy, every coach in the class came up to me to mention her sudden and (to them) inexplicable improvement. She was in vision therapy for about nine months and came out of it reading fluently and running straight. She no longer crosses her eyes when her glasses are off … or at least, only when she wants to.
That’s All, She Read
And that’s really all I have to say about how Nova learned to read, because that’s all there is. I read to her extensively, I surrounded her with books, I taught her to love books. When she hit a snag in her development, I found the help she needed to get past it and get on with her reading. As soon as her vision was straightened out, she began reading without any further instruction or encouragement from me; she was already desperate to read and had the entire skill set necessary for it, she just needed working vision to implement it. She skipped over a lot of the early childhood literature, moving quickly on from the simple first chapter books to complicated books well above her grade level.
I will add this note of caution: read to your children, let them see you loving books, but don’t necessarily expect this type of response. This is Nova’s personality and how she responded to books. In the next chapter of this series, you’ll read about her mirror opposite in the learning-to-read department: her brother Lock, who received the same amount of “book stimulation” she did, but responded very differently.
Some of my favorite children’s books.
Teach a Child to Read With Children’s Books by Mark Thogmartin: This is the only teaching reading book I recommend for homeschoolers. It takes the natural learning to read process as shown by my daughter and describes the process in a way many parents will find helpful, especially if they are not avid readers themselves. It also gives ways to encourage and enhance reading while keeping it meaningful and enjoyable.