finland-vs.-united-states-2009-pisa-results-from-ncee.orgWe are only a few months away from 2015 and even though my three-year-old son is yet to start the ‘serious’ part of his education, I cannot help but wonder what kind of a mental experience he will have during the next 15-20 years. According to the newspapers we are almost drowning in the world of abundant data, big data, so to say, but leaving aside the latest trends and buzzwords, are we really making the best use of our capabilities to enhance, deepen and widen the learning experience of our children?

For example, take this very interesting article from The Washington Post: “Homework: An unnecessary evil? … Surprising findings from new research“. The main point of the article, that there is no correlation between homework and grades, as well as test scores, flies very much agaist the traditional educational patterns, isn’t it? But then I would expect very careful, data driven analyses from people who would argue against the findings discussed in the article. Shall I get such a treatment? I doubt so, because as usual, relying on ‘common sense’ is almost always easier than the painstaking scientific approach and as we all come to expect, experimenting on humans, especially toying with the education practices of children is a very sensitive area, it is always the children that bear the real costs, good or bad. Having said that, I cannot keep myself from thinking that if so much computing power cannot help us with a scientific and data driven approach to enhancing education, then what will?

Speaking of experiments, data and scientific approach, I need to draw the attention of the reader to the fact that one does not have to create experiments from scratch, there is also historical data that let us make comparisons when it comes to asking basic questions about education, for example, is it really the case that “the more hours you study the better for you”? Again, let’s look at the data: “Average school day in Finland is 5 hours long and they have very little homework. Korean students typically are in school from 9 am – 5 pm and then attend additional classes at night.” according to these research. We should keep in mind that both Finland and South Korea consistently share the highest rankings in the international PISA exam given to evaluate students world-wide in reading, math and science. Similar in educational capacity and outcomes, so much difference in the attitude and policies towards the hours of study! Moreover, the findings of that analysis is similar to The Washington Post article mentioned above:

Students in Finland also do less homework than kids in almost any other nation. The average is less than an hour per day! They learn what they need to know in the classroom so they can have plenty of time for friends, family and other interests after school.

Another point that I’ve found very interesting is this part where they talk about the standardized tests in Finland:

Unlike the norm in the United States and many Asian nations, there aren’t a ton of standardized tests in Finland—there is only one right at the end of their equivalent of high school. Progress is charted by exams the teachers devise themselves. “We do have tests at the end of almost every course, but the only standardized test is the matriculation examination at the end of high school,” said Ms. Brander. “We evaluate the students during courses,” she continued. “I usually give marks and oral feedback. Positive feedback is the most effective way to promote good learning!”

And the paragraph above brings us to the final topic I wanted to the touch: As a parent, I certainly want my child to have a better and happier education than I had, and I want educational organizations to take a humane but also a scientific and data driven approach. Nevertheless, are standardized tests the best tools we have, or are they merely a reflection of neoliberal rationalism and free-markets philosophy projected upon our education system? I’ve recently read in an article titled “Professor calls for school to be more than just numbers” that Roger Standaert, professor emeritus of comparative education at Ghent University, has just published a book in which he argues against standardised tests for pupils. According to the article in Flanders Today,

He recently published the book De becijferde school (The School Quantified) in which he attacks what he calls “the cult of measurement” taking over education systems.  “There is a tendency, influenced by East Asia and the United States, to move towards a global education system based on technocracy,” he says. “I’m warning against this sort of technocratic thinking in human behaviour, and education in particular.” The problem, as he sees it, is the increasing reliance on the results of standardised tests imposed on younger and younger children, which have the effect of ignoring children’s individual strengths and weaknesses in favour of whether they fit a pre-determined template. Test results become the single measure of educational success.

I plan to read the book “De becijferde school; meetcultus en meetcultuur” by Prof. Standaert as soon as possible, because, having been educated in a country where centralized and standardized tests were all the rage for so many years, I witnessed their negative effects from many different perspectives, but I also want to know might be a better alternative without so many negative side effects.

From my perspective, these three different articles and the associated research are all tied to the same theme, and they form a bigger picture, giving us some perspective about what we should be doing to shape the education of our children in the upcoming decades. We have very powerful tools at our disposal: lots of data, historical comparisons, the best examples, computational power… But all of these are not meaningful without a caring philosophy and political will, and whether we have them is yet to be seen.