Learning for Learning’s Sake

educational-headerStudents in Finland are incredibly independent and self motivated.  When they are asked to perform a task they don’t wait for someone to tell them specifically what to do and how to do it.  They don’t feign incompetency so that someone eventually does the task for them.  And when something is put in front of Finnish teenagers they get started on it right away with almost a sense of relief instead of complaint.   It is as if most of them were simply waiting for the teacher to stop talking so they could start the work.

As far as I can tell, a typical Finnish student would much rather be working than listening.  I am not the only American teacher who has noticed this marked difference between Finnish middle school/ high school students and those found in the U.S.   We have all been initially extremely bothered by the amount of Finnish teenagers on their phones during classroom instruction.  Instead of listening to the class lecture, a good majority of the Finnish students are watching videos, playing games, texting or on facebook.  Most teachers don’t seem to mind and they definitely do not confront the students or redirect them during lecture.  ( To be fair, some teachers have a stricter cell phone policy than others, but on a whole in-class cell phone usage is a LOT higher in Finland than the U.S.)   As an American teacher seeing kids on their phones in class feels like bugs crawling all over my skin.  It takes everything in me to not ask the students to put away the video game and listen to the teacher.

I have asked a few teachers about this and they simply state that it is up to the student to decide if they want to listen to the lesson. It is not the teacher’s job to force them to pay attention.   The teacher then said that these students (14 to 18 years-old)  are seen more like adults than children.  They explained that it would be inappropriate to force an adult to get off of their phone or take a phone away from them during a professional lecture or meeting.   They give that same respect to these teenagers.  The phone is their personal property.  The students have the choice to listen or not listen and the consequences will be found in their overall marks.

That trust in the student to make their own choices is astounding and so foreign to me.   We have all heard the phrase; “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.”   However teachers in the US are trained to believe it is our duty to force everyone to “drink the water”.  It is seen as a personal failure if we can’t get our students to decide to learn.   I feel like the amount of students not listening to me in my class is a reflection of me as a teacher not a reflection on the students as learners.  In Finland it is the opposite,  the decision to learn or not to learn is made by the student, not the teacher. hmmmm.

All the same, it still really bothers me when they are playing video games/ watching movies during class lecture.   HOWEVER, those same kids who were distracting me the whole lesson with their phones put the phones away VOLUNTARILY when they are actually given something to do!  As soon as a tangible assignment is placed before them they start working and paying attention.  All of the phones get pushed aside and the learning begins.

They also know that these assignments are more than likely not going to be collected or graded.  No one asks how many points the assignment is going to be worth.  No one asks if it is going to be for a grade or how many of the questions they have to do to “pass”.   They are doing these assignments because they were asked to do them.   If they finish with the suggested math problems they may even look in the back of the book for more practice problems.

This is the exact opposite of an American classroom where kids pay attention (or at least pretend to listen) during the lesson, but then do not do the work after it has been assigned.   For some of them it is like pulling teeth to get them started on the work, others rush through and try to get it done as fast as possible without any real thought or effort.  During the work time is when they are tempted to be on their phones or talking to their friends.  ( Maybe this is also because we don’t give them any breaks during the day.)  They also inevitably ask me if the assignment is going to be for a grade and  how many points the assignment is worth.  They need to know to what extent the assignment will affect their grade, so they can choose if it is worth doing or not.

Grades are not that big of a deal in Finland.  I have tried to talk to some students and teachers about grades and how their grades are earned and it doesn’t seem to concern either the students or the teachers too much.  In Finland the competition for grades isn’t really there.  None of the students really know who makes “good grades” and who makes “bad grades”.  I mean they can tell you who is smart/ works hard, but the grades are not the “end all be all” of a student’s existence.

I know growing up I found most of my identity in those A’s I earned.  I worked like a maniac to make sure that I earned a perfect grade point average and I felt like a failure if I lost even a few points on an assignment.   It didn’t matter how much I actually learned on that test that was an A- instead of an A+……all I could see were those points I missed and I instantly tried to calculate how much it was going to affect my overall grade and how much I needed to do to earn more points to compensate.

This is our problem.  We have trained our students in the U.S. to see an assignment in terms of monetary value, where grade point average is the currency.   Even the best students don’t do the work because it is going to help them learn, they do the work because it is going to give them points (money).  In a truly American style we have systematically removed all intrinsic value of learning and exchanged it for a capitalistic incentive.

Those with A’s have worked hard, earned the points, put in the hours and hours of work and by all measurable means are “successful”.  Those who don’t care or buy into the grading currency system didn’t do the work because it isn’t important to them to save up “A”s in the bank.   And no amount of coaxing them to do the work will help.  They simply don’t care what is in their academic “bank account.”   They don’t see how that “bank account” is going to help them in the real world and they don’t want to waste their time doing what is perceived as arbitrary work.

The book Freakonomics describes the social implications of exchanging a moral incentive with a fiscal one.   The book says that when society gives a monetary value to something that was once perceived as a moral obligation, society looses that moral obligation forever.   The book talks about how a daycare, who was fed up with tardy parents, started charging a late fee. However, the fee made parents more likely not less likely to be late.  Before the fee, parents felt guilty for being late and really did make an effort to be on time.   However, the fee took away the moral obligation in the minds of the parents.   The fiscal incentive was not as strong as the moral one and once the guilt was removed parents were willing to pay more to have their children stay longer.  The daycare took away the fee and tried to go back to as it was before, but what they discovered is that once that moral incentive was taken away, it was gone for good.

In our grading focused, exam-centric, data driven education system we have removed that moral incentive to learn from our classrooms.  In an effort to “trick/ force” our students to learn we assign points and grades and homework.  Hundreds of points can be assigned to one project if we really want them to do the assignment.  What we gain are stressed out students with too much homework,  teachers with tons of grading and students who simply give up.    We give our students all of these inauthentic incentives to do the homework but we never show them WHY they need to LEARN the material.

I wonder what would happen if we took a page out of Finland’s book and we assigned less.  What would it look like if we took the pressure away from the students.  Maybe instead of  just trying to get the work done and fill in the correct blanks so that they can get the “points/ gold star”  they would think about the content.   Maybe instead of assigning so much work that they must stay up past midnight every night just to get it all done, we can give them a few assignments in class in which they can authentically attempt to understand. Maybe if we gave them the freedom and choice to learn or not learn , they would actually take school more seriously.   Maybe if we slowed down and did less, we would give the students the option to really learn the material and the content just for the basic joy of learning.  Maybe then our students would learn for learning’s sake!

9 thoughts on “Learning for Learning’s Sake

  1. that was a wonderful post on learning. And WOW, they’re allowed to keep their phones … that’s like pretty liberal of them. But I’m wondering,’ What if the children want to listen nothing at all?’ Will they actually ever learn?

    I write wordPress tutorials at http://www.ayeshajamal.com

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    • I think it goes back to, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” How, exactly, are you going to MAKE a child listen? Weekend detention? Thumbscrews? Sent to bed without supper? Sent to work chopping weeds in the cornfield for a week? I feel like somewhere we lost sight of education and learned the lesson of re-education camps. Back about 1960 I read about how the Chinese Communists, after their victory in 1949, went about training the cadres they needed as low-level managers to control the people. It involved the same techniques used in “brainwashing” American prisoners in Korea (except for the waterboarding, but that was always used to extract false confessions). Hard physical labor, restricted nutrition, forced recitation of memorized texts, and limited sleep. OK, we don’t make our students perform hard labor — in fact many of them would be better off if we did. Still, what I read about the current state of American schools, especially some of the charter chains, makes me awfully glad I finished high school in the 1950s.

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  2. I really appreciate your texts. As you, I’m also in Finland for a period of 5 months, to learn about their educational system.
    Your previous text, 11 Ways Finland’s Education System Shows Us that “Less is More”, is a good summary for the subject; I’d like to translate it into Portuguese and put in my blog, linking to your original, with your permission, of course.
    Please, contact me.

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  3. As a Finnish university student that grew up with the educational system here and then spent a semester at college in the States I find this highly interesting! I’ve noticed a lot of the things that you mention myself, whereas some of them are so natural to me that I’ve never thought about them. Looking forward to reading more about this topic!

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  4. Hello,

    I find your blog very interesting, since I´m a Finnish teacher and teacher educator working with teachers who have an immigarnt background.
    I´d like to also recommend to you another blog written by an American teacher working in Finnish school:
    http://www.taughtbyfinland.com/

    Wishing you all the best,
    Maija

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  5. Hi…I have apreciated so much your two last post and would be so grateful if we could try a meeting to exchange some ideas and experiences…I am in Finland also to understand better their educational system (I’m from Brazil) and we are participating in a special tailored program to brazilian’s teachers from vocational education…as you, I’m math teacher also and so worried in serve this knowledge in the applied sense…iwe are here for 5 months (since February) in Hämeenlinna, but it doesn’t matter to me move to another place if you guess this meeting is possible…Thank you a lot for your attention and for sharing your experiences…

    Diego

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    • I would love to meet up with you. I have been wanting to visit Hameenlinna. Or you would also be welcome in Helsinki. Please send me your email address and we can plan a good time to meet up!

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  6. Pingback: Understanding Americans… | Elämää Amerikassa

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