Back in August, I was surprised to see an article from the Smithsonian about the high quality of Finnish primary education and the so called “Finnish model”. Why was I surprised? Because (1) in Estonia, education reform is important, and (2) I had not heard that we have a potential reform model just next door. Today I bumped into a second article on the same subject. This one is from WP.
In this era of cheap and rapid information flow, we know that finding models is like finding gold. Why? It helps shape policy discussion, giving focus. Even more important, it gives us a framework for testing the model and sharing results over time. It is the basis for connecting people in a network (a McGuffin). So finding the above is like finding gold. And here is the kicker - it costs us nothing to learn about the model. Zero. But there is a corresponding risk factor. Because everyone has relatively equal access to great models, we should expect more intense competition in applying them to get great results. Therefore, we can lose out if we are not engaged in the “gold rush”. That losing out will produce a gradual sagging effect as our relative wealth compared to neighbors shrinks or is stagnant instead of growing.
Back to education - my question is how quickly can we stimulate some debate in Estonia about the applicability of the Finnish model? Who will take this project on and how will they persuade people to talk about what we could do better over time with this information in hand? Or do we just sit still and ignore what is going on next door to us?
And to be honest, I am not sure of the answer. What is the problem? Some might say that the answer is obvious. I am not sufficiently well connected to the right people to access policy making. And because I cannot claim any great expertise in education policy, perhaps I should be denied such access lest I create unwanted “noise” in the sensitive and profound policy discussion that may be going on. But wait a second, Just who are the right people in this kind of discussion? I would argue that they are the people who have a stake in the quality of our system - especially parents and kids. But employers as well to access better qualified employees. And entrepreneurs. And … Hey wait a minute! We all have a stake in this because the quality of education shapes our future. And how well plugged in are “we” to policy makers? Who takes responsibility for building an ongoing dialog between these groups that facilitates generation and application of new ideas? Who rings the alarm bell when our neighbors appear to have a better idea of what is needed than we do?
Aha! We now can see a bit more clearly the public space or “OI” problem. The public space needed to facilitate the conversation that I just described does not exist. Here is another zinger - because the connectivity needed to make this public space effective requires lineage, it needs an internet platform. I see that as an opportunity for someone - to start using a digital platform or interconnected platforms to get this type of dialog going and make a record of it over time.
Or … could we argue with a straight face that we already do better than the Finns? I don’ t think so. But if I am wrong, I would be delighted to present this case to the international media in order to get a discussion going about how our under appreciated Estonian model beats the pants off the much praised Finnish one. That type of PR problem could be easily fixed and if this is the sad state of affairs, it should be corrected pronto. Just give me the tools to make the case!
FOLLOW - A clarification to my comment that a certain public space does not exist - I do not argue that there is no dialog. To the contrary, I witnessed an exchange about the quality of education between Mr. Lukas and a group of rather emotional parents and teachers just the other week . And I am sure that such exchanges occur regularly. My point is that these exchanges are not moving the ball forward. They are not well informed about what is possible to do based on experiences from around the world. Indeed, the Finnish model was not mentioned. Instead, they tend to repeat complaints that our system isn’t good enough or repeat claims that we are doing the best that we can with limited resources. I don’t know about you, but I am not satisfied with this because there are no lineage effects to the discussions. But they create two rather unfortunate other types of effects. First, they create the impression that something is happening when it is not. Second, they leave one with the feeling that nothing more could be done. Well, the Finns might disagree on that one.
2d FOLLOW - What do I mean when I say that “there are no lineage effects to the discussions”? Put most simply, the discussions are not accountable to any specific set of standards to be achieved over time or models that can get us there. Therefore they tend to be overly assertive and less open to learning from the exchange. Because we cannot track the learning, we cannot accelerate it.
3rd FOLLOW -Of course, the Finns are not the only ones on the planet with good schools. Where else does one see success stories and why? Good question. I happened to bump into this article today about the recent success in the New Orleans system. A common thread between the Finnish and New Orleans stories is upgrading teacher performance. My sense is that the Finns have made a much larger investment here, but even the smaller investment made in New Orleans has paid off so far.