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Finland = Education Mecca?

OK, so we’re not Finland.  I’m fine with that; it’s too cold there anyway.  But do I envy their education system?  From what I read and as a teacher, some of it sounds really great.  It doesn’t take much searching to find out more, but to save you time the Business Insider presented these 26 facts about the Finnish education system.  So what about this system could work for us yanks?

I think before praising Finland for their high test scores we have to consider the slide that says 43% of students go on to vocational school.  It’s the remaining cream of the academic crop takes the test.  As far as I can tell, our goal here in the US is to send every student to college.  That would be nice, but it’s unrealistic.  And as I have written in a previous post, vocational work is honorable and necessary.  If the students in my class who seem skilled at a non-academic craft got to pursue and develop that skill, I think everyone, except their parents perhaps, would be happier.  And would this not increase the “love of learning” that we’re supposed to be creating?

If we could create an education environment where students  love to learn, everyone, including Finland, would be envying us.


Make Teachers Classroom Students

As I mentioned in a previous post, I coach HS tennis.  Last week I sensed our HS team was at a plateau with our practice routine.  They were not getting a sense of the intensity and aggression I wanted to see on the court. So in an inspired moment, I decided to practice with them and model how to practice and play.  The results were dramatic and quick: players increased their intensity and focus exactly as I had hoped.  In fact, some more advanced players on the adjacent court began doing this too, which means these players just needed to observe in order to learn.  Perhaps this was because they had already mastered the basics and were able — and hungry — to “take it to the next level”.  At the next two tennis matches it was clear these players had mentally, and as a consequence physically, moved to another level.  The key point I want to make here is this outcome was not the result of rigorous structure and detailed planning; it was the result of situational awareness and momentary inspiration on the coaches part.

Again as in my previous post, I find the similarities between the tennis court and the classroom profound.  And then it hit me: why not have teachers model how to be a good student?  Allow teachers to choose a course that interests them and would make them better somehow.  For example, a foreign language.  Many of my students speak Spanish.  I can speak some, but knowing more would allow me  to connect with them better and probably converse with their parents better.  I could also benefit from a chemistry or biology refresher, and knowing more chem/bio I’m sure would allow me to make more parallels to my own physics instruction.  A history refresher could do the same and allow me to make cross-curricular connections in my classroom.

What benefit could there be to the students if there was an adult teacher sitting next to them?  I honestly think many of my students don’t know how to be a good student.  They haven’t figured it out yet.  As a model student, I would show them how to be a  good student.  Show them how to be: focused in class, organized, considerate, polite, honest.  Demonstrate how to do quality work on assignments.  Show them that it’s OK to make mistakes and how to react to mistakes.   And show them that I, too, am human.

And this would be a perfect opportunity to provide feedback to teachers.  Heck with observing — your colleague is now a participating student.  How much more relevant could feedback get?

And on those days when I’d be exhausted and couldn’t complete my assignment, perhaps I’ll gain some empathy for my students who had a volleyball match or music recital until 8pm, didn’t eat until 8:30pm, started homework at 9pm, passed out at 9:30pm, and didn’t complete the assignment for my class.

What’s would this cost?  Money.  I do not advocate simply adding this task to teachers who are already tasked at 150%.  Schools would need to hire more teachers, and I think we all know that’s not going to happen.

Too bad.  I think teachers becoming classroom students would do wonders.

Differentiation on the Tennis Court

I coach high school tennis at my school, but I occasionally help out with the middle school (MS) too.  We need and have a total of 4 coaches.  Due to our busy schedules, we usually manage to get at least a couple coaches out on any given day.  Yesterday we had a MS practice with 10 kids (all boys) and 3 coaches.  The students’ tennis abilities and experience covered a very wide range.  We had a couple kids who could really strike the ball well; one was the son of a coach, so he’s grown up in and around tennis.  On the other end of the ability spectrum were a couple kids who were challenged to even make contact with the ball.  They generally have poor hand-eye coordination and lack any consistency, bless their hearts.  We coaches try to encourage them as much as possible, reaching for things to complement them on.

As coaches, we have the typical drills and challenge games to keep the kids interested.  Forehands, backhands, play points, serves.  We change hitting partners and drills based on our sense of the kids’ interest (boredom) level and how much time we have.  These drills are a little stale but get us through the practice session with kids hitting balls and hopefully gaining experience and confidence.  We got the kids to pick up the balls, packed up the equipment, and left the courts pretty drained.  A couple kids’ parents were late to pick them up, so they borrowed my cell phone, and we waited in the parking lot an additional 20 minutes until their parents arrived.

Would I call the practice a success?  Hmm.  It was certainly not optimum.  The better kids were bored at times, and were seen texting between rallys.  The weaker kids were overwhelmed and lost at times, and I fear subjecting them to such a direct comparison with the other more talented (and sometimes younger) kids will damage their confidence.

Later that day it struck me how similar the practice was to my classroom.  The students have such a wide variety of talents and abilities.  Some don’t speak/understand English very well.  Some lack the foundation skills needed for the subject.  The planned activities are sometimes a bit stale, since technology changes so fast.  The better kids get bored, and I can sometimes see them get impatient with their classmates.  The challenged kids get frustrated and maybe give up a little.  And there are 24 students in one class.

The popular buzzword solution to this situation is “differentiation.”  My administration uses this as a single-word solution to teaching a classroom containing students from all over the ability spectrum.  “Just differentiate your instruction,” I’m told.  I don’t know if the lack of appreciation for detail here is intentional, because once you start to pay attention to detail you see the enormity of the challenge.  Convenient ignorance allows you to stay on-message, at least.

On the tennis court we really couldn’t differentiate our instruction enough, and there were only ten students and three instructors.  Can we really expect one teacher to adequately differentiate to over twice as many students?

So to me “differentiation” has a different definition: an excuse for instruction on-the-cheap.  And this video on differentiation is scarily too close to reality.

And then I got to thinking, if I were in an administration position would I be doing the same thing?  The answer is no, definitely not.  But many administrators used to be teachers.  Surely they understand the inanity of this directive, right?  How can they look me straight in the eye and feed me these lines?  I can only conclude they fear they would be fired if they didn’t stay on-message.

I wonder if this is how Einstein felt when he said he should have been a plumber.

More on Grade Inflation

My school, a for-profit private school, is but one such school in our area.  As a geographical consequence, we gently compete for students.  I am removed from the details of the sales-pitches and negotiations that go on with parents, but we seem to accept any and all.  So it is not unusual to have an under-prepared student with poor work habits suddenly show up in my class in, say, February.  These factors contribute to a difficult situation for both student and teacher, and when it comes to grades these students typically earn low marks.  (No comments about differentiation, please.)

What would you do if you were a parent in one of these cases?  Wouldn’t you want your son or daughter to go to the school that gives the highest grades?  What else are you paying for, really?  Character education is nice, but colleges don’t measure that (as far as you know).  Wouldn’t you send your son or daughter to a school that “informally guarantees” a minimum grade?  I have heard our competing schools give out nothing less than an 85, even though the grade scale is still out of 100.  That puts pressure on the competing schools to do the same — or even go one-better.  Grade inflation ensues.

Where does this end?  Are we institutions of education or car salesmen?  (There’s more info on grade inflation here.)

Teachers want to give a grade that reflects the student’s level of understanding.  To do otherwise makes a mockery of the profession.  Administrators claim to see the “bigger picture” by making the students more attractive to colleges.  A higher grade point average allows a lower SAT score as college acceptance criteria.  And if the student’s ticket to college is via athletics, should we allow a low GPA to limit his/her college choices?

On the other side of that coin: isn’t there another picture just as big?  Are colleges not finding more and more freshmen under-prepared and needing remedial work?  How could this be if the student had a 87 average in high school?  And don’t these same freshmen expect at least a B+ for little (or no) effort?  How is this preparing them for the realities of life after college?

So I put it to you: does grade inflation help or hurt students?  Do high school grades really matter that much?

Education Reform

OK, I’ve been gone a while (and probably will be again).  But the semester is almost over, and it looks like I’ll survive.  So here’s a post to get back on-track… maybe…

When I can, I follow Twitter and people involved in education reform (#edreform).  Today I read this article in the Washington Post by Valerie Strauss.  Now and then I read something that really resonates with me (I’ve got to be better about blogging when the spirit moves me), and this one did.

I don’t teach in a public school where we have to give a standardized test.  We do make our students take the ERB, but there is no devastating consequence for students if they do poorly.  I can’t help but feel fortunate.  Another message in Strauss’ article that we do have in common is that our curriculum is irrelevant.  My students complain they have so much work to do and feel none of it is significant.  When you heap insignificant and uninspiring work on anyone, student or not, the result is burnout and disenchantment.

Aren’t we supposed to be creating a “love of learning?”

Until colleges change their acceptance criteria, I don’t see anything changing for the better.

I started writing the rest of this post a couple months ago.  Seems like it fits…

A current (physics) student of mine sent me a link to a blog of a former (math) teacher of his.  This former teacher is embarking on a new career, but before he does he wanted to express his thoughts and feelings about the US education system and make recommendations about what reform is needed.  I recommend reading it.  The missive is long, so be prepared to sit and read for a while.

His recommendations remind me of those of Sir Ken Robinson.  You’ve probably seen his 2006 TED talk on creativity.  RSA did a cool video using an audio track of a talk from Sir Ken calling for a change in the education paradigm.

I wonder how many other people in education think this way?  And, of those, how many are in a position to change things?

Play in the Physics Classroom and for the Physics Teacher

Wandering through my blog reader I came to view a couple videos about “play” in the classroom.  I don’t remember how I got there, but that’s par for me.  (After multiple tangents I say, “Now what was I going to do?”)

Here is Tim Brown’s TED talk.  I agree on the importance of play, but I wonder if parents will see it as valuable.  (Just remembering the mother who sued her kid’s kindergarten for playing too much.)  One point that stuck with me is: the more students feel safe, the more they’re willing to take a creative risk.  I need to keep encouraging this and being sensitive to students who do venture out of their comfort zone.  I think students feeling safe in this way is still pretty rare, due to past experiences.  Just wondering how I can build this sense of trust…

Then I saw the link to Stuart Brown’s TED talk.  What I gleaned from this is that we teachers need to employ a measure of play in our work and in our PD.  What inspires and motivates me?  What causes me to lose track of time and all bodily needs?  (see Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” and Daniel Pink’s “Drive”)  I can identify some examples, such as building and testing a new lab activity/idea or making a $400 piece of PASCO equipment for under $30.  Does my school’s administration know what motivates me?  I’m pretty certain they don’t.  Yet they control my PD.  I had a former curriculum director/dean of faculty who saw her job as feeding every faculty member the same thing: what she thought we needed for PD.  The inanity was breathtaking.  If I were a faculty administrator I would find out what ignites the playful passion in each faculty member and then facilitate each faculty member’s pursuit of that passion.  And that may mean simply leaving them alone.  One consequence of this type of PD is adminstrators don’t need to police their staff so tightly; a trusting environment exists more naturally. And paperwork/documentation is reduced.  And teachers feel worthy, respected, and empowered. (When’s the last time that happened?)  Unfortunately, this PD approach seems to be too bottom-up for administrations that are increasingly top-down minded.

PBL Example: Solar Cars

I confess: I am a fan of solar energy.  At my former school my students and I retrofit a solar panel on a golf cart and made a Solar Gadget Charging Station.  I also did solar car projects.  I mean the small car kits you get for under $10 each.  You can get them from places like Kelvin and Pitsco.  I love these companies.  These are what I call real STEM supply companies.  (Places like PASCO are great, if you have an unlimited budget.  But everything is built for you already.)

In previous years I’ve done solar car projects with 6th, 8th, and 12th grades.  (The 12th graders worked together with the 6th graders.)  I was always a hit, and I’m thinking of doing one again this year.  But I don’t know if the students learned anything; I didn’t teach the classes – I just made the project happen.  So I got to thinking of details and how to make it better.

Students would work on groups of 2-3 and would get a set of common raw materials: solar panel, motor, pulley, etc.  They would have to construct a vehicle to some requirements/meet some challenges.  They would have to prepare a presentation (probably online) and present it to an audience (parents, teachers, etc.) and answer questions from “judges” orally.  Then I started thinking about the physics content — what could they learn?  Here’s what I came up with rather quickly:

  • Scientific Method: How are you using the SM in optimizing your car’s performance?
  • Measuring Skills: distance, mass, time
  • Energy Conversion: How many energy conversions can you find?  (start with nuclear)
  • Energy: Measure the KE of the car.  Debate solar as a renewable source.
  • Efficiency: How efficiently does the car use solar panel’s energy?  How efficient is the solar panel?
  • Electricity: What are the voltage – current characteristics of a solar panel?  What is the SP’s maximum power?
  • Electromagnetism: How does a motor work?
  • Thermal: How does soldering work?
  • Kinematics: Generate position-time and velocity-time graphs of cart (via video analysis)
  • Technology: digital data acquisition equipment, video analysis, website design
  • Engineering: building the cart, I guess.  Collaboration.
  • Machines: What is/are my transmission (pulley) ratios?
  • Dynamics: What forces act on the moving car when…?  What are the benefits & drawbacks of friction?
  • Rotational: (do “something” with the rpm of the motor?)
  • Modern Physics: What is the Photoelectric Effect?  How does relate to the SP?
  • Work and Power: What is the work done against gravity climbing a ramp? How powerful is your car?
  • Research: How have other’s made solar cars?  What worked well for them?  How does an electric car work?
  • Investigative Activity: How does the power from a solar panel (or speed of the car) depend on the area exposed to light?

I stopped there.  You might squeeze out some more.

Okay PBL and SBG experts out there:

Is this a worthwhile use of class time?  Could this be mated with a SBG format?

Please comment.

p.s. I get my DMMs from Kelvin too for under $3 each.  If you use these in your electricity unit, this is definitely the place to get them.