It’s not the curriculum – It’s the whole system

Change is the only constant in our lives.  When we are conscious of change, it is challenging.  We challenge our decisions, our ethics, our sense of morality, and (hopefully) our goals.  We, as individuals, change, and we, as a society, change – sometimes converging, sometimes diverging.  We are also guilty of attempting to impress change unto others; sometimes altruistically, sometimes selfishly.  The most difficult change to impress upon others is a change in a way of thinking – ethical changes – moral changes.  


Education has the power to illicit change – to shape the minds of the next generation – to lay the foundation for progress and success.  Parents entrust educators to aid in the rearing of their children.  However, our education system often fails to recognize its place in the long-term development of children and settles for simply attempting to upload information into students’ brains without regard as to its value or usefulness. We must take advantage of the childhood years – the years of which a child’s brain is still changing — the years in which a child’s moral compass is steered.  We must not simply teach our children fact-based lessons. We must also teach them how to think and how to learn.  
Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist, theorized that there are six stages of moral development grouped into three levels of morality:  pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.  The first stage, typically occurring throughout infancy, is one in which one’s moral compass is based on the idea of obedience to avoid punishment.  As children progress to the pre-school years, their sense of morality is based on self-interest – actions and decisions are made based on the idea of rewards and personal benefit.  During these early stages, the child’s mind is malleable.  Adults can illicit certain actions and behaviors from our preschool children by appealing to their moral code – implementing punishments or rewards to promote behaviors that match the parent’s or educator’s moral codes and expectations. 

Individuals in the second stage, typically school aged children, are heavily influenced by social expectations and rules.   It is during this second stage that we, as a society, most heavily influence our children.  We must take this opportunity to instill a sense of morality in our children so that they may grow up to be ethically responsible adults.  We must teach them to set goals and to work towards those goals independently.  We must instill a sense of grit and determination in our children before they reach their teen age and adult years. 

We must look at our education system not as a mechanism to train children for standardized tests, but rather a setting in which we can — we must — instill a sense of morality in our children so that they may grow up to be humane individuals and responsible members of society.  This ideology is one that is absent from our own education system, but it is the foundation of the Finnish education system – an education system which, over the last twenty years has become an education leader across the globe – a system which yields more successful and capable adults than our own.  93% of Finnish students graduate from peruskoulu, or their compulsory education, compared to 79% of American students. 94% of these students continue to upper-secondary school, completing the equivalent of an American associates degree. 

The Finnish education system believes that all students must be offered a fair chance to succeed and learn, and all students are capable of this.  PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results show only a 6% between-school variance in performance compared to a 23% between-school variance in the US (Sahlberg, p. 65), demonstrating that equity in education across socio-economic bounds is indeed possible.  The average 11-year-old child in Finland has stronger literacy skills than the average US adult.  Two-thirds of Finnish adults have strong numeracy skills compared to fewer than 50% of US adults.  These results are not because Finns spend fewer hours in school or complete less homework after school – practices that far too many people give undeserving credit to; the success of the Finnish education system is a result of a more productive, more nurturing learning environment that focuses on the teacher and student rather than the system, administration, or policies. 

The Finnish education system focuses on solving problems, rather than simply talking about them.  It places teaching and learning before all else when writing and reforming education policies (Sahlberg, p. 86).  Finns emphasize differentiation and creative approaches to problems rather than simply repeating more of the same.  Students are “regularly asked to show their ability to deal with issues related to evolution, losing a job, dieting, political issues, violence, war, ethics in sports, junk food, sex, drugs, and popular music” (Kohlberg, p. 40) – a striking contrast to US exams and expectations which adamantly avoid biased, sensitive, or controversial topics. 

The Finnish education system focuses on seven competencies; none of these competencies are specific to core subjects but rather provide a framework for the Finnish standards of a successful adult.
  1. Thinking and learning to learn
  2. Cultural competence, interaction, and self-expression
  3. Taking care of oneself and others; managing daily life
  4. Multiliteracies
  5. Working life competence and entrepreneurship
  6. Competence in information and communication technology (ICT)
  7. Participation, involvement, and building a sustainable future

These competencies focus on producing well-rounded ethically responsible individuals.  “Thinking and learning to learn” is perhaps the most valuable skill that we can teach our students; “learning to learn” skills promote a lifelong journey of learning and, as such, continued intellectual, social, and emotional growth. 

It is not so much about what we teach our children but how we teach them and the environment that we teach in.  Students are markedly aware of the effects education decisions will have on their adult lives.  Students are provided career counseling on a regular basis starting during the elementary years, and they become invested in their own education as they make decisions on course selections and academic tracks.  The focus of education is not on grades, test scores, or even the degree but rather the learning outcomes and the practical results their education will have on becoming a successful adult. 

Improvement in our own education system requires a change in a way of thinking.  We must value the learning process rather than the test scores, and we must trust our teachers to know their students rather than attempting to design a “one size fits all” teaching model and curriculum for all students across the nation.  In Finland, teaching is considered a prestigious career – as highly regarded as lawyers or doctors.  Teachers are highly educated, having completed the equivalent of our Master’s degree or higher.  As a result, parents and administrators trust their teaching staff.  Teachers in Finland are allotted tremendous freedom in the classroom, providing them with the opportunity to approach material in new and innovative ways that subscribe to the unique learning needs of each student and community. 

In Finland, specialized education is the norm not the exception.  It is not reserved for the limited population with learning disabilities or deficits; instead, educators in Finland assume that every child, at some point, will need specialized education. This notion keeps students on track, significantly reduces grade repetition and dropout rates, and increases student morale. 

While the education outcomes in Finland have strengthened in recent years, education in the US has steadily declined as it has become inundated with standardized test prep and strict protocols for teachers that leave little room for creativity and differentiation.  Struggling students continue to fall behind without proper support; a problem that compounds over the years.  Advanced students suffer as a result with growing feelings of frustration and boredom as struggling students “slow the class down.”  Thus, the education is ill-fitted for anyone but the child performing at the 50th percentile and, even then, the curriculum and lessons fail to prepare students for their adult lives. 

A new set of standards or curriculum is not the solution; we need to change our way of thinking.  We need to change our approach to education.  As a society, and especially as educators and parents, we need to stress the value of education.  We must focus on the real-world results rather than attempting to quantify student learning with standardized tests.  We must focus on what really matters – Can the student use this information?  Does the student understand what it really means?  How can this knowledge contribute to the growth of the student socially, emotionally, and intellectually?  Does the student understand how to use what they’ve learned in the classroom to achieve personal and professional goals that will help build a brighter, more sustainable world?  


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