The closing session focused on what the Finnish and U.S. educators learned from one another in the workshop. John Staley and Heidi Krzywacki led the discussion, in which the participants reviewed what they had heard about teacher preparation and development in the two countries and commented on what they saw as the primary similarities and differences between the two systems. This chapter summarizes the discussion and highlights some of the points made by the participants.
Both U.S. and Finnish participants remarked on significant differences in the ways teachers are prepared in the two countries. Staley noted that the Finnish approach, in which teachers are engaged in research and asked to develop a thesis, provides them with a firm foundation to be well equipped to take on changes they encounter in the course of their career. “We don’t really have that in the United States,” he pointed out. In the U.S. system, formal structures are put in place to guide teachers in making changes, and “tell them what to do,” he added. This makes changes more difficult for U.S. teachers, he suggested, because they “don’t have the same set of tools.” Krzywacki agreed that the connection between academic study and fieldwork in Finnish universities is a major difference between the two teacher preparation systems.
A U.S. participant also noted that there is no systematic way of training teacher educators in the United States. These individuals usually have a Ph.D. in mathematics education, one person commented, but have not been specifically prepared to educate prospective teachers. There is little sharing of practice, that person added, and each university develops its own approach to teacher preparation. A Finnish participant suggested, however, that there is not as much coordination across Finnish institutions as there could be.
Both countries put a lot of effort into professional development, noted Staley. He observed that the nature of the programs offered is similar in many ways, but in Finland it appears that the national curriculum provides coherence in much of the professional development teachers receive. Many activities are developed to help teachers become comfortable with new material, such as coding. However, Krzywacki pointed out that there are many other areas in which teachers need ongoing development, and programs are not well coordinated to meet these needs. She was struck by the difference in scale of the two systems and commented that, if the Finns wanted more cooperation among universities and other institutions that provide professional development, they could have it, because the country is not very large.
Krzywacki also pointed out that, because many of Finland’s professional development activities are short term and done on a small scale, there is very little research on their effectiveness. She suggested that mathematics teachers in both countries would benefit from professional development that is more closely related to their everyday classroom practice and addresses the areas where they need the most help.
Staley also noted that there are similar challenges in the two countries, particularly finding time for teachers to do professional learning activities and reimbursing the substitutes who cover their classes while they are absent. He added that in both countries teachers have opportunities to develop as leaders who can share their knowledge with their colleagues.
As a closing discussion, each country group took time to meet and reflect on what they had learned from the 2 days of discussion and then came together to share their summaries and highlights.
Role of Teachers
U.S. participants were struck by the degree of autonomy and trust that Finnish teachers have in their own classrooms. A U.S. participant commented that the autonomy Finnish teachers are granted is on the level generally granted only to university-level professors in the United States. “In any skilled profession, you let people be autonomous when they are recognized as having the knowledge and skills to do what they are supposed to do,” that person remarked.
Finnish participants were struck by the impact that assessment has on teachers’ practice in the United States, identifying that as a major difference between the two countries. Instead of trusting teachers to meet standards, some Finnish and U.S. participants observed, the U.S. system holds teachers accountable for specific outcomes. A U.S. participant added that teacher evaluations are often based on assessment outcomes and not on how they employ what research has identified as effective teaching practices. This pressures teachers to focus on test preparation rather than on teaching for understanding.
On the other hand, Staley noted that teachers in both countries face similar classroom challenges: helping students deal with problem solving, identifying which instructional methods are most effective, providing access to all students so they can learn at their own pace, and keeping students engaged in and enthusiastic about mathematics. Teachers in both countries face equity challenges, he added, and need to help more language minority students and those with special needs to be successful in mathematics.
A participant commented that teachers in both countries “need more mathematical knowledge.” Another participant noted that teachers in both countries face the challenge of integrating their mathematical and pedagogical knowledge so that they can teach most effectively. Krzywacki observed that teachers in Finland could benefit from more lesson study like the examples that were presented by the U.S. participants.
Autonomy of Teachers
Staley pointed out that the autonomy of teachers in Finland seems possible because of the coherence and structure at the top levels of the system. The national curriculum and the resources that come with it provide clear direction. Teachers are actively involved in developing the curriculum and other resources, so they know them well. This provides the freedom for
Finnish teachers to “go forth and do their work,” he suggested. The strong accountability system in the United States does not allow teachers the same freedom in planning their instructional pathways, he added.
Another participant agreed that the coherence across the system, beginning with the Ministry of Education and Culture, provides the foundation for teacher autonomy at the classroom level in Finland. This person added that in Finland the curriculum is developed by education experts and teachers, whereas in the United States, policy makers and politicians, such as state school board members, often have the authority to insert or remove specific standards and content from the curriculum. One effect, in this person’s view, is that teachers may not fully respect the process through which the U.S. standards are developed. U.S. teachers may, in some cases, choose to ignore certain aspects of the standards, a participant noted. A Finnish teacher described how important it is for him to have the liberty to use his own knowledge and experience to solve problems that arise in the classroom.
Another participant pointed out that there may be more coherence within individual states than across the entire United States, and acknowledged that teachers are not trusted to make many decisions for themselves in U.S. classrooms. Krzywacki noted the two countries are very different in size, and that seems to be a factor in the degree of influence that researchers and research-based knowledge have in the decisions in each nation.
A concluding remark from a participant was that educators in both countries seem to value the same type of instruction and, despite significant differences in their training and the structures that govern them, they share the challenge of teaching children how to solve problems and love mathematics. Box 8-1 summarizes the differences in mathematics instruction between the educational systems in Finland and the United States discussed in the report, as identified by workshop speakers and participants.