The Global Search for Education: How to Improve – From Finland

Posted by: C.M. Rubin, The Global Search for Education

July 10th, 2015

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The Global Search for Education (GSE) is a regular contributor to the Edmodo Blog. Authored by C.M. Rubin, GSE brings together distinguished thought leaders in education and innovation from around the world to explore the key learning issues faced by today’s nations. Look for a new post every Friday and join the Global Search for Education Community on Edmodo to share your perspectives with their editorial staff.

2015-01-13-cmrubinworldfinland6500-thumbAll schools in Finland are primarily public schools, with cities and municipalities as the proprietors. The reasons for a proprietor to seek school improvement, according to Mikko Salonen, “can include factors such as poor learning outcomes, poor feedback from parents, decreased attractiveness, leadership problems, conflicts among personnel, or possibly even decreased well-being among pupils or staff.”

Salonen has extensive experience in the pedagogical field as a teacher, a principal and a leading expert in school improvement. He is a member of ENIRDELM and collaborates with advisors to the Premier and Minister of Education of Ontario, Dr. Michael Fullan and Dr. Andy Hargreaves (Winners, Grawemeyer Award in Education, 2015).

His work includes developing leadership programs for individual schools, both as a trainer and as a consultant. He describes his expertise as being able to tackle three types of problems: successful schools wanting an outside sparring partner or coach to promote internal collaboration strategies; schools wishing to further develop specific sectors of their activities; and finally, schools that have more significant problems. He recently spoke with GSE to share what he has learned about improving schools.

Mikko, how would you describe your goals?

My mission is that teaching and education at a school should develop. I want to promote this as a school developer, a trainer, and a consultant on school leadership. I believe my mission will significantly boost the development of society.

It is important to me for children and young people to learn while they are at school, and to see it as a worthwhile experience. It is also important to me for professionals, teachers, and other school personnel to know their professions and develop their professional skills together. I want everyone in a school to experience a sense of joy and to learn.

Setting goals in my work always starts with wanting to operate in an ethical manner to promote sustainable change at school. In some situations, the school itself has not understood the need for outside help with their problems. In these kinds of cases, the initiative will often come from the school’s proprietor.

2015-01-13-cmrubinworldfinland3500-thumbWhat are the basic elements of your roadmap in order to achieve your goals?

The school itself, and specifically its personnel, are the agents of change—not me! In this sense, my approach is very much the same for schools that are having problems and those simply wanting to develop their activities. I am there to help and guide them in their professional process of change.

At the beginning of a process of change, I usually work with a school’s administration. We define the current state of the school, setting the goals for the development and assistance process. At this point, the school’s proprietor may also be involved. We go through what my role is in the process and how much money and time is available.

In the next phase, the launching of the activities, the players—the entire community—is approached and the process is made visible. For the school’s leaders and the whole working community, an intentional interruption is needed. The need for development must be internalized, all the way down to the level of the individual, with each individual responsible for change. In the starting phase of this process, the aim is the setting and understanding of the main goals, and naturally, visualizing how the main goals can be achieved together.

After the launch of a school’s actual development process, the different problems are defined as individual development questions that promote the main goals of the work through deliberation and collaboration. Learning by doing is the way to build an answer to why the process was embarked upon. In this way, the initial problem disappears through goal-oriented and systematic action, and at the same time, the school’s capacity to face similar future challenges grows.

In consulting on the development of schools and in guiding development, the question ultimately involves the directing of learning of individuals in the community, and the entire community. Often when a new culture is built, it is also necessary to unlearn old practices that do not work. Learning by individuals and the community is a method of change for development work.

2015-01-13-cmrubinworldviherkallioschool1500-thumbWhich strategies do you think have been the most effective when improving poor performing schools in Finland and why?

The goals of working with poorly-performing schools and their leaders need to be specified carefully with the leadership and personnel. A written survey on the activity of the school helps to define goals. These often describe what the problem is, but their weakness is that they do not bring solution models with them.

In difficult situations, I often conduct individual interviews with personnel and administrators. In such interviews, a consultant is able to talk to individual people in confidence about perceived problems as well as their proposals for a solution. In the interviews it is also good to raise the question of how the person in question is willing to act or to help the community in solving the problem.

The outcome of the interviews is summarized and presented to the leaders and personnel. The process helps the community and its leaders to set goals for the development project.

We need to keep in mind that nobody wants to work in a poorly functioning school, or to lead such a school. People often even feel shame at the prevailing situation. For this reason it is important for a consultant to promote confidence in a better future for the school and to strengthen the feeling that the school is not alone, or that it’s not being left alone with its problems.

2015-01-13-cmrubinworldfinland2500-thumbWhat mistakes have you seen made? What did you learn from them?

Change in schools is a very complex event with many factors having a simultaneous influence, while some are beyond our capacity to influence. It is important to recognize and to have a healing influence on what we can affect. It is also important to learn to live with what we cannot influence.

In guiding change, a consultant must be successful in creating a realistic sequence of events—a process that leads to a desired change in the school’s activities. For this to succeed, it is important to build a systematic structure for the school’s process of change, and the sequence of events needs to be consistently guided in this structure. However, a school or a school’s leaders cannot always follow the plan in the structure systematically enough. In such situations, consultants themselves might have to take on greater responsibility than usual, even to maintain the process temporarily.

Many development processes in schools have failed because of a lack of time. Processes of change, originally intended as learning processes for people, have turned into projects, with a report as the only final result—not a change in how people act.

An unwieldy process of change can lead to failure. Resources needed for development are depleted, or the basic task of a school starts to suffer. When this happens teachers, as conscientious people, choose between development work and working with their pupils.

It is also important to know how to correctly steer resources into development. Sufficient collective concentration is needed on what really needs to be done. For this purpose it helps, occasionally, to systematically pause and evaluate the quality and results of what has been done.

In the development of a school it helps to have an ability to interpret information from evaluations and questionnaires. It can often happen that the information is simply not believed, or it is rejected and pushed aside.

Many consultants have the tendency to be all-knowing and all-powerful. The consultation process might become derailed if the consultant takes too powerful a role or focuses the work wrongly.

Continue the conversation in the Global Search for Education Community on Edmodo



C.M. Rubin and Mikko Salonen

C.M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, “The Global Search for Education” and “How Will We Read?” She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland, is the publisher of CMRubinWorld, and is a Disruptor Foundation Fellow.

(All photos courtesy of Konsulttipaja Oy)



20 responses to “The Global Search for Education: How to Improve – From Finland”

  1. Great article about change in school. Really like the fact that students were considered the change agents, since they are the the primary reasons.

  2. Laura says:

    Very interesting post! Clear and concrete ideas and suggestions, which put first teamwork, participation of all members of the educational community.

  3. Thanks for a really interesting read. Changing schools is no easy task — especially when they are poorly functioning, and most in need of change. It would be fascinating to hear more about strategies for promoting confidence, and for building a sense that the school is not alone.

  4. Tara says:

    Very True. Wonderful blog!

  5. Kari Kuebler says:

    Great post! Amen, change comes from within and needs to be the agent of the schools admin and teachers alike. I agree that teamwork and internal drive is the key!

  6. I believe that we frequently do not give the time needed for change to happen. In the U.S., we quickly jump from solution to solution in hopes that a positive impact will happen, but lack the investment of time necessary for change to occur in a positive manner. We love quick-fixes, but are easily discouraged.

    I greatly appreciate the acknowledgement that time and continued focus (with deliberate pauses) help to truly create effective change.

    • Hi Michelle,

      I definitely agree. When it comes to major changes, there are so many pitfalls that you can run into when you go too fast, and (as Kari mentioned above), building the team is a big part of this process.

      Online communication has helped us go faster, too. This helps build teams, but can also mean some stakeholders may feel discouraged when the needs they see aren’t addressed in pace with the changes they see taking place.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking comment –

  7. Katie Waite says:

    Interesting read. It’s so frustrating that many leaders don’t understand how to initiate and implement change without creating more work!

  8. Denise Hickey says:

    Very interesting and informative post! Change is not always easy, but it is necessary.

  9. Andrea says:

    “The school itself, and specifically its personnel, are the agents of change” I think this is so important to remember. Teachers and some admin these days feel so much like they have no say, no ability to change the way the school operates. Bringing in some one who can help open some eyes and listen without having a bias is helpful. Sometimes Admin needs help for a million different reasons.

  10. Elissa Malespina says:

    Great article! Really informative.

  11. Jody Urbas says:

    I love the idea that when discussing school problems it is about discussing the ideas people have for solutions. Too often, people only focus on the negative and stop trying to figure out what they can do to help solve the problem.

  12. SJohnston says:

    I agree that change in a school environment is hard. I also believe that changes do not only need to occur when a school is performing poorly academically. What is often overlooked is physical environment and community. If a school as strong data, no one wants to look behind the curtain. The article mentions, unlearning behaviors in order to learn new ones. I wholeheartedly agree with this!

  13. Ms. Campbell says:

    Michelle Sparks is exactly right. I teach at a low performing school and we jump from program to program and from one initiative to another. It is important to give a school time to actually make changes. It doesn’t happen overnight.

  14. Emily says:

    I found this statement interesting: “The need for development must be internalized, all the way down to the level of the individual, with each individual responsible for change.” To mean this means stakeholders will include not only teachers and administrators, but parents, students and perhaps, individuals from the outside community who may have an impact on the school’s change and development. Great article!

  15. Ms. Arandez says:

    “The goals of working with poorly-performing schools and their leaders need to be specified carefully with the leadership and personnel. A written survey on the activity of the school helps to define goals. These often describe what the problem is, but their weakness is that they do not bring solution models with them.”

    I agree with Mr. Salonen that the problem of a poorly performing school needs to be identified before a change can be made. He mentioned a written survey which I think is important to feel the pulse of the members of the community that is involved in the school. Do the administrators know or recognize the problem? Do the staff know the problem and recognize it as a problem? The education of our children involves many – as they say, “it takes a village.” If people within the organization see the problem and recognize it, then, concrete steps can be made to remedy the problem.

    Mikko also mentioned that there are some factors that is “beyond the capacity to influence” and I’m reminded of a conversation that I had with an administrator (about how the role of the home can actively become part of the school’s realm of influence) in the past that we cannot change how parents think. But we can. We are educators and who is to say that education stops with the student. Some parents were very young when they had kids…kids themselves. Some parents need help with parenting skills. WHile the school is not directly responsible for educating parents, it can provide the venue for it. Invite parent leaders to speak about good parenting, psychologists about adolescent behavior; procedure for policies around problems involving students (absentee students, behavior problems, scholarship or financial aid), etc…

  16. Ljiljana Lez-Drnjevic says:

    Deep understanding and ontinued focus helps to create effective change. Unfortunately, there is a lack of understanding in our ministries. Sometimes everything is on the teacher’s back – to collaborate, to engage, to teach, to involve love, trust and positive attitude.

  17. Merewyn Patrick says:

    This article helps give focus to a task that I’m about to embark on with our school. We are looking to make a lasting change in the way we teach our children. I will be sharing this article with the parties involved with writing this grant. Thank you for sharing such great insight on what it takes to make the “change” a positive role in the community.

  18. Luca Raina says:

    Truly wise interview. Each change is complex. Even more in school because many are involved. I think that often in low-performing schools the teachers are unmotivated. it is important to focus on the gratification of these teachers by giving them tools and additional resources in order to better lavoare. A motivated teacher, technology and knowledgeable is the key to a school of high yield.

  19. Holly says:

    I think this line is one of the keys to the success, ” The school itself, and specifically its personnel, are the agents of change.” Creating leaders and empowering those leaders to create change makes initiatives more meaningful and more likely to succeed.

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