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Woog's World / Taking notes in the global classroom

Published 11:02 am, Friday, November 30, 2012
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Finland, according to those who study such things, has one of the best educational systems in the world.

The United States does not.

But while Finland's schools operate on a national model, ours do not. Each state -- and, in places like Connecticut, each town or city -- controls its own curriculum, sets its own hiring policies, and adheres to its own standards.

Westporters value education. We have high standards and are proud of them.

So we should be particularly proud that when a flock of Finnish educators wanted to see an American school system that works -- in fact, wanted to learn from it -- they came here.

The visitors arrived earlier this month. They were in the U.S. as part of a program run by Columbia University's Teachers College. Deb Sawch -- a former Staples High School English instructor, now a doctoral candidate and co-director of Columbia's Studies in Educational Innovation project -- has helped develop partnerships with schools in five of the highest performing systems in the world.

Westport is partnering with Teachers College too. Our school system's 2025 initiative -- a task force of 40 teachers and administrators, working to sharpen students' critical thinking skills in order to solve real world problems -- is one benchmark we can use as we measure ourselves against school systems in places like Singapore and Shanghai. And, of course, Finland.

The Finnish delegation was headed by Jari Lavonen, head of the department of teacher education at the University of Helsinki, and director of the Finnish Graduate School for Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry Education. His research centers around motivation and the use of technology in science education.

"The Finnish educators wanted to see high-performing American schools," Sawch said. "They were looking for how schools are organized, how teachers are trained and supported, and how students interact with staff and with technology."

Visiting Staples classrooms in a number of disciplines, the Finns were very impressed with the amount of collaboration, critical thinking, questioning and debate they saw. In Westport's high school of the 21st century, teachers do not lecture. They guide the process of student reflection and discovery. Those skills are paramount for success, educators say.

In an Advanced Placement U.S. Government class, for example, the Finnish visitors watched students synthesize complex documents, then argue for or against the abolition of the Electoral College. The social studies instructor took notes as students ran the class as a Socratic seminar. "They were gracious to each other, but they really got their points across well," Sawch noted.

There was similar student input, collaboration and questioning in calculus and physics classes.

"Students were eager to learn, and appreciated what they were doing," Lavonin said moments after observing a math class. "This was not an easy topic. The calculations were not routine at all. They were trying to understand a deeply complex problem. Too often teachers say, `This is the way to do it.' Here, the teacher talked about the process they could apply. If you understand the process, you can apply it in many different ways."

"This is a real feather in our cap," said Lisabeth Comm, townwide director of secondary education, referring to the day-long visit. "The Finns wanted to see what we are doing. They liked the fact that students are asked to do use critical thinking in social studies, science and math classes. They were impressed with our use of technology, like Smart Boards."

Collaboration works in many ways, of course. Westport mathematics director Frank Corbo recently returned from Scandinavia. Thanks to a full scholarship from Phi Delta Kappa, he joined 45 administrators on a visit to Finnish and Swedish schools. Soon, he'll present his findings to Westport's 2025 Task Force.

"It's all part of our desire to benchmark ourselves against the rest of the world and challenge our students and teachers to be the best," Comm said.

"The world is increasingly complex," Sawch noted. "If we don't understand how students learn, we won't be able to prepare them to live in the world they'll inherit. Students can't learn on their own. They have to collaborate."

"Countries can't be silos either," she added. "We all have to work together. What other systems do can inform our practice, and we can do the same for them."

The highest-performing schools in the world are teaching students more than facts, or even skills like analysis and synthesis. They're teaching students to be life-long learners. As educators do this, they also teach their own colleagues and institutions how to be better.

It is a collaborative process. The top schools in the world are learning from each other.

And Westport is part of that very vital -- and very international -- work.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.