Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The battle over textbooks

According to Finnish law, education should be free for all. Up to the end of the 9-year compulsory comprehensive school, even all books and other study materials are provided by the state. From then on, in the senior secondary school / senior high school, there are no tuition fees, but students will have to buy their course books, notebooks etc. themselves. This has been an accepted practice for as long as I remember.

Yet, in recent years, winds of change have started blowing. The national high school students' union has started strongly voicing the opinion that, according to the above mentioned law of free education, no teacher can demand a student to buy a course book. Makes sense, doesn't it? Spokespeople from this union visit all the high schools in Finland at the beginning of every school year in August, want to see all the students behind closed doors with no teachers present and tell them about this, among other important matters. Good, somebody's making students aware of their rights.

In our modular, course-based high school curriculum, the cost of course books amounts to several hundred euros per year. Let's take English as an example. During the 3 years of high school, a student will study 8 courses of English, each of them with a separate course book. The books we typically use are produced by big teams of active teachers, university people and native speakers in one of the big publishing companies over many years of involved research into the requirements of our national final examination (the so-called 'matriculation' examination) and the latest trends in language education around the world. They do a good and thorough job, but for this, the publisher asks students to pay €20-30 per book. That times 8 and you will get the cost of English studies in a Finnish high school. And the same routine applies to all other subjects as well. High school course books are big business for publishers in our country.

I probably wouldn't have thought twice about this if it wasn't for a student last week questioning this practice that we normally take for granted. In a big group of 35 students it took me 5 weeks until I noticed that this particular boy, conveniently sitting at the back of the class and hiding behind his rucksack strategically placed in the middle of his desk, didn't own a textbook. He had been fairly active in class, peeping for answers in his friend's book, so little did I suspect anything for weeks. When asked about how he was studying English without a book his replies where:
1) I don't need a book coz I know it all anyway! (He gets average grades.)
2) The guy from the union told us you can't demand us to buy a book.

At first I was furious. How dare he even dream of ever knowing it all in English (naturally, his outburst was just a feeble excuse, but I took it seriously in my anger)! And secondly, I needed to find out the official stand on this.

Principal's advice: No, you can't demand a book. Nor can you use grading as punishment for not having a book.

Colleagues' advice: Just tell him that we are no second-rate school where you can pretend to learn by listening only and without doing any homework. Also, you can give him a lower grade for not doing any homework during the whole course (for English, students have some homework - from the course book - every day).

None of this advice really gave me the answer I needed. I still don't know what to do to be fair. The truth is, today students do learn a lot of English from TV and the Internet. Why should we teachers restrict their vocabulary and knowledge of English to what the course book team, in their great wisdom, deem worth learning? Yet, my experience also tells me that many students are deluding themselves that merely passively understanding a lot of vocabulary from their particular, often limited, fields of interest counts as excellent knowledge of English. "But who needs or uses all this fancy, formal vocabulary that the course books are teeming with?" is a frequently heard, frustrated lament from certain students.

Exactly. Who's to decide which English words each student needs? Should each of them have their own personalized curriculum? Maybe that would make them enjoy learning more and be more motivated. Out with the books, and real use of the foreign language instead! But would that help students reach their optimum grade in the demanding national final exams? Do I, as a teacher, dare to discard the course book and truly innovate? Wouldn't most students - conservative as surprisingly many of them are these days - simply reject the idea? How many parents would oppose? So many questions that I think I will still have to ponder about this some more...

Do the math

Last week of school before our long summer break and time to reward graduating students with various prizes – mainly cheques donated by local or national companies or books from foreign embassies, for example.

Once again I was struck by the striking disparity in these prizes. For decades now, mathematics has clearly been put on a pedestal way above any other high school subject. The best students in mathematics receive a considerable cheque of €1,000, whereas, in comparison, students excelling in their co-operation and people skills in and outside school, or in many foreign languages, get a puny sum of €100 tops.

How revealing of the values of our society. Mathematics and numbers, cost-effectiveness and economic gain rule over softer, humanistic values. I wish that rather than making our students specialize more and more and at an earlier and earlier age, we would start focusing on educating them into more rounded human beings with an appreciation of the arts, a sound philosophical and ethical understanding plus communication and language skills combined with enough cultural sensitivity to be active participants not only in their own countries, but on global arenas as well. Add mathematical and scientific brilliance to that and maybe some of the problems of this world would be approached in brand-new, enlightened and innovative ways.

Photo: Mathematics by Robert Scarth on flickr

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Tolerance, intercultural dialogue and student exchanges

A hectic spring term with two foreign partner groups visiting our school is coming to a close. Time for reflecting on the experience once again. The above postcard found at a bar in Brussels last Christmas came to my mind. More and more I am thinking about the concept of tolerance and the challenges of establishing true intercultural dialogue in these school projects.

On the surface my school is all for organising these visits. But when the guests arrive, it is almost merely the odd few teachers in charge of the visit who have any interaction with the guests whatsoever. Yes, everybody tolerates the guests' presence, but they all remain disappointingly passive, some tantamount to indifferent - no dialogue is initiated. Interacting with the guests is generally considered a disruption to the daily routine, and the charged curriculum just simply doesn't leave even one 45-minute lesson to spare for welcoming the guests into the classroom for some cultural exchange. Maybe I have become far too cautious as well, going to all lengths to avoid any confrontation with my colleagues and consequently organising the guests' schedule so it interferes with the general running of school as little as possible. In fact, after the second visit this spring, one colleague said to me - with all positive intentions - "oh, you really organised the visit well this time, we didn't even notice that there were foreign students here for two weeks!" For me, this of course was an indication that the whole visit had been a total flop from the point of view of enhancing intercultural dialogue. In the words of Daniel Goeudevert, who wrote an article titled 'Nothing from nothing' in 'The End of Tolerance?' (published by the Alfred Herrhausen Society for International Dialogue, 2002, ISBN 1-85788-317-9):

Real tolerance - of the solid variety - is a process. It is not enough to simply bring together people from different cultures, of different ages and sexes. The important thing is how these people treat one another and others...

As for students themselves hosting the guests in their homes, gladly quite a few seemed to enjoy it. However, when the two groups came together at school, as before the separate national groups were drawn together to speak their own languages - yet again, despite our attempts to encourage our group to mingle and mix. I have written about this so many times before - it only occurs automatically and naturally to very few people - young or old - to take the initiative and be sociable and make an effort to get to know somebody in these school contexts. Some students complain that they simply haven't got anything in common with their host or guest. They have little understanding of the fact that we teachers are not matching agents to find soulmates and best friends for life for every participant. Nevertheless, I can appreciate their wish, as unrealistic as it is. One piece of advice for anyone ever doing a student exchange - never, ever let students see the guests' / hosts' photographs before the allocation of families has been done! All young people seem to be terribly fixated on looks - understandably, but sadly. And quite honestly, at the end of the day, when we are talking about a homestay of 1-2 weeks, you should be able to get along with anybody, when allergies and other health restrictions have naturally been taken into account in advance.

At the moment, I feel somewhat disillusioned about the whole business of school exchanges. I keep asking myself whether it really is worth all the extra hours and bother. After 10 years of doing this, still no great snowball effect of booming interest and enhanced learning is in sight. Yet, the same old beaming light still keeps me going, I guess (as I blogged in March) - focusing on the few individuals for whom these projects are life-changing experiences.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Learning is like...

Do you ever feel as though your students see you as their arch-enemy? Particularly our first-graders, fresh out of the compulsory comprehensive school, often find it hard to shed off the image of the teacher as somebody who is there only to make their lives a misery with unreasonable demands on their freedom and freetime. You are the evil witch who assigns horrible homework every single day - damn me if I am to regularly drink that deadly potion! And there am I, so keen to facilitate, help and support those who have found the reason and motivation TO LEARN. Learning is not supposed to be like force-feeding geese in order to be able to enjoy the mouth-watering foie-gras as a reward, is it?

One day, just before lunch, when all my students could focus on was what would on the canteen menu that day, I decided to make a little exercise to find out something about their attitudes towards learning. In pairs they were to come up with an analogy comparing learning to food. Just look at these samples:

Learning is something negative that most students don't like (even infested with worms, although I must say the worm is rather cute)
NB. The good bits (the raisins) at school are your friends and the lunch break, but lessons are the boring, tasteless grey stuff around them. (I've still got a lot to do with my students' English spelling too, it seems! )

And how about introducing 'lifelong learning' when, really, it should be quick and easy for this generation living on the fast lane!

It is a less known fact that despite Finland's brilliant success in the PISA student achievement assessments, our students rank embarrassingly low when it comes to attitudes towards school and learning. 'No pain, no gain' - maybe that's the old belief still perpetuated here.

I want more students to realize what fun learning can be! What triumph when after many trials and errors you finally succeed in learning something new! It doesn't often come automatically and without effort, but that's just what makes it even more rewarding in the end. But then I'm a product of a different generation - I have grown up not just picking the sweet raisins out of the liver casserole, but enjoying the whole plateful. Life has taught me patience and perseverance, but instant messenging can't wait. How are we teachers to reconcile these two worldviews to make school a fun and pleasant place for us all?