kitchen table math, the sequel: The Finland Phenomenon on Throwing Curves

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Finland Phenomenon on Throwing Curves

The latest post on Throwing Curves is a review and commentary on the recently released Bob Compton film, The Finland Phenomenon, which bloggers Rosemary and Lynn viewed at MIT last week.


Daniel Ethier said...

I have the DVD of The Finland Phenomenon and I agree with the review on Throwing Curves. Seems like one guy seeing what he wants to see for the most part.

And I recently found a paper comparing classroom instruction in Iceland and Finland. Apparently some people research things like this!

Iceland apparently has bought into all the progressive student centered stuff in a big way. Finland according to this paper is actually a fairly teacher centered system, although less sage on the stage than guide on the stage. Lots of good questioning, lots of interaction, not passive lecture.

And Finland has done quite well on PISA while Iceland, not so well. And a quite different presentation of how education works in Finland. Curious.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know what percentage of Finnish kids live with their biological parents in a stable, long-term situation (including common law relationships)? I have the impression that they don't have the complete family breakdown situations that we have in our worst-performing communities. Poverty is not the problem; it is the dysfunctional behaviors and bad decisions that cause poverty and those toxic cultural "norms" poison the schools. Also, is the Finnish data broken down by area, ethnicity etc? I've seen Swedish data that looks good overall, but Malmo (high population of recent Muslim immigrants) looks very different.

Crimson Wife said...

As of 2002, of all Finnish families with children, 19% were single parent families and 8% were stepfamilies. Presumably the rest were families where the parents were married or cohabiting. Source is here.

Crimson Wife said...

That said, I do think demographics is overused as an excuse for the poor performance of U.S. students when compared to Finnish ones. Minnesota has a student population that is predominantly middle-class children of Scandinavian descent. I don't think that there is a significant genetic difference between Scandinavians and Scandinavian-Americans. Yet Hanushek found that more than twice as many Finnish students as Minnesotan students reach the "advanced" level in math.

That's not demographics- that's something related to what the schools are doing or not doing.

Having used worktexts designed by a Finnish teacher in our homeschool (Math Mammoth), my first guess is that it's related to a stronger curriculum.

Glen said...

Yes, demographics and curriculum are both problems, yet part of the problem with curriculum is demographics. Last year, Palo Alto explicitly argued that since Singapore Math had no Spanish-language version, it could not be used by English speakers, either.

Demographics are hardly the only problem we have--Palo Alto had other silly reasons, too--but I wonder how often Finland rejects a better curriculum for the majority of their kids in order to keep them from outperforming recently arrived kids from impoverished countries.

SteveH said...

Demographics is overused, especially when it's the first excuse pulled out of the hat. PISA testing is the basis of the comparison, so that's where you have to look. Who is tested and what are the questions? If the SES level of the students don't match up, that could be one consideration. However, if the questions are very simple, then you have to ask whether SES level should make any difference.

The test is administered to 15 year olds, so what do they test for? Here is a sample question.

"A result of global warming is that the ice of some glaciers is melting. Twelve years after the ice disappears, tiny plants, called lichen, start to grow on the rocks.

Each lichen grows approximately in the shape of a circle.

The relationship between the diameter of this circle and the age of the lichen can be approximated with the formula:

d = 7*sqrt(t-12) where t>12

where d represents the diameter of the lichen in millimetres, and t represents the number of years after the ice has disappeared.

Using the formula, calculate the diameter of the lichen, 16 years after the ice disappeared. Show your calculation."

At 15, all kids should be past a proper course in algebra. The numbers are so simple that they should be able to do this in their heads. After 9+ years of schooling, and if you don't use any homework, how is this a SES issue? How many would get the correct result if they just gave the equation and asked for the value of d when t=16?

Here is another one.

"A pizzeria serves two round pizzas of the same thickness in different sizes. The smaller one has a diameter of 30 cm and costs 30 zeds. The larger one has a diameter of 40 cm and costs 40 zeds.

© PRIM, Stockholm Institute of Education

Which pizza is better value for money? Show your reasoning."

This is for 15 year olds. Other sample questions I saw were very fuzzy estimation problems, and some were just testing the ability to read a graph.

My impression is that, at a lower level, these questions reflect the competence of a school system. For kids who actually know algebra and geometry, it tests the wrong things. Compare this test to the PSAT test.

To get any real sense of what the PISA results mean, you have to see each question on a real test and look at the raw results. PISA results might correlate with good math students, but I can't imagine that the test should drive teaching and curriculum development.

Anonymous said...

I don't think our educational problems are PRIMARILY caused by demographics. In some areas, such as inner cities, the whole culture is a toxic stew of dysfunctional behaviors which produces more of same through multiple generations. Schools should be doing far more to counteract the local culture, in disciplinary policies, in curriculum choices and in instructional methods but it is unreasonable to expect such students to do as well (on average) as kids coming from advantaged communities. It's both nature (IQ) and nurture; schools can and should do better but they can't fix everything. The same goes for communities with a continuous influx of poorly-educated, non-English-speaking immigrants. Given appropriate curriculum and instructional choices, including homogeneous grouping and acceleration, advantaged kids will learn more and faster; IQ does matter and such kids continue to receive valuable input from their families and communities as they grow. Because of the racial/ethnic aspect of educational achievement (or not) and its political impact, we currently refuse to sort kids by their current academic level and/or their willingness to work. Instead we choose weak/flawed curricula that mask differences in learning and lump all kids together in chaotic, heterogeneous classrooms.

BTW, I've lived in MN and there's resistance to challenging the most able/motivated kids, particularly at the ES level. Let no child get ahead. It's all about masking racial/ethnic differences and increasing graduation rates; actually learning anything takes a back seat and it's not just in MN.

SteveH said...

I call it a "rising tide floats all boats" educational philosophy. They see education as a statistical, not individual, process, no matter what they say about differentiated instruction. They won't stop kids from getting ahead on their own, but they won't do that themselves. They won't separate the willing and able from those who are not. This happens in non-urban areas, but it's not so visable because most students get over the trivial state proficiency level.

There is a CNN segment about how states (via dumbded down testing) are lying to parents about how well their kids are doing. Making comparisons with Finland won't help because one can translate that to mean almost anything. In our state, raw scores on tests are translated to the percent that get over a minimal cutoff level. This is about taking a really bad raw score number and converting it into a percent that looks much better. Our schools claim that this number means that they are providing a quality education.

momof4 said...

It's a perfect storm; fuzzy progressive ideas that are fundamentally anti-academic combined with the political push to equalize results across all racial/ethnic groups. Schools don't enforce appropriate behavior, don't make good curriculum choices and don't explicitly teach kids what they need to know and then disguise the results with ridiculous tests and a large dose of smoke and mirrors.