Inside the World's Best Classrooms
I’ve spent the last two years learning about the best education systems in the world – from the inside. This book is about my journey, living with teachers, listening to parents and learning what education looks like in completely different cultures. It was a particular moment in a year 11 Science class four years ago that set me on this journey. They had their exams coming up in a few months, and we still had a lot of material to cover. Abdul, a boy who was quick to grasp concepts but slow to do classwork, put up his hand.
“Miss, why do we sneeze?”
My first instinct was frustration. Here we were with the whole of the digestive system to cover by Friday, and he was asking me irrelevant questions.
“We don’t have time for that Abdul”.
He slunk back into his seat. On the train home, my only time for reflection, I worried about that encounter. What had I become? When did the interests of children become irrelevant? I thought that it might be when schools were threatened with takeover if they didn’t get the required number of C grades, and yet, we were told by politicians that this was the kind of thing they did in the ‘top performing’ systems.
In that case, I thought, maybe we shouldn’t be copying the top-performing systems. I signed up for a Masters degree, keen to learn more about how education systems could be run better, and discovered something that came as a shock: these countries were not doing what our politicians said they were doing. They were designing education in a completely different way, different from us, and different from each other. And yet despite their differences, they were all getting top grades in Maths, reading and Science.
I had to find out more. I read a lot of reports and studied a lot of graphs, but they didn’t give me any idea about what education actually looked like in each place, only about what policies were ‘officially’ followed (I know from experience that these are not the same thing). So I decided to go and have a look for myself. I emailed teachers in Finland, Canada, Japan, Shanghai and Singapore (countries which are regularly at the top of the education-superstar charts) and asked if I could come and help out in their schools. I spent at least three weeks in schools in each country, teaching, watching, listening, and asking lots of questions. The teachers became my friends. I stayed with many of them. And I came to learn what education is really like in these places.
In this book, I’ll take you on a guided tour of these education systems, painting a picture of school life, and making sense of the theories, facts and figures through the stories of real teachers and children. I’ll invite you to reflect on the goals of education in light of these varying possibilities, and provide you with some clues about how these countries came to be so successful.
Please pledge if you think this is an important book to ‘get out there’, even if it’s just so that politicians can’t keep making stuff up!
Tyvestä puuhun noustaan
A tree is climbed from its base. (Finnish Proverb)
‘Oh I’m sorry I’m late, that’s not very Finnish of me!’ Kristiina hurried over to find me under the clock at the central station in Helsinki, just a couple of minutes after our arranged meeting time. Kristiina is a typical Finn in many other ways; modest, articulate, reliable and quite private, and yet she had taken a punt on me – an unknown English woman who wanted to come and teach at her school – and had given me the confidence that my trip was not such a hare-brained idea after all. We chatted excitedly about plans for my month there, including my teaching schedule and Zumba class, and were then joined for tea by Elsa, a friend of hers who was also a teacher. Both spoke perfect English, of course, and their only English-language queries were about the names of obscure plants that I hadn’t even heard of.
Back at the house, I was welcomed with a ‘show’ by Kristiina’s two blonde daughters, Elina, six, and Venla, four, who leapt around the sitting room, twirling and dancing. Later that evening, I had the first of my ‘Finnish lessons’ with Elina. Yes, she was six, and no, she couldn’t quite read yet, but she had a picture book of everyday objects with the Finnish name written under each one, and she traced the letters with her finger as she ‘read’ each word. ‘Sateenvarjo,’ (umbrella) she said, and then looked at me expectantly. ‘Sateenvarjo,’ I dutifully repeated.
Elina hadn’t been taught to read yet, because she hadn’t yet started school. In Finland, children don’t start school until the August of the year they turn seven (so the starting age ranges from six-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half). Before then, nearly all children attend a year of kindergarten, which is where Elina spent her day, and many also attend state-subsidised preschool in the years leading up to that. The next morning we dropped off Venla, Elina’s little sister, at one of these preschools, and I went in with Kristiina as she needed to have a chat with one of the teachers. The courtyard we walked through was full of sandy children in bobble hats, bright coats and wellies, running around, pouring water through little plastic windmills and digging holes in the sandpit with great concentration. On the door there was a sign asking a question, surrounded by lots of words that made no sense to me (despite my Finnish lessons with Elina), and I asked Kristiina what it meant when we passed it again.
‘It means, “You only played today?” and it gives all the reasons why play is helpful for children. Children don’t do formal learning at desks in preschool or kindergarten, they learn through playing.’
‘How can that be?’ I thought to myself. ‘How can 15-yearolds from Finland be coming near the top in international tests of reading, maths and science when all they did was play until they were seven? Surely they ought to be a couple of years behind teenagers in England (who start school at five), not ahead… ’
Orange book: upcoming
Friday, 25 November 2016
This is the first time I’ve addressed a letter to ‘the people who have access to my shed’.
You are made up of the people I love, live with and work with, alongside strangers who thought the book’s premise sounded interesting. All of you took a chance and paid money for a book that did not yet exist, and for that I am very grateful.
I’ve been a bit quiet, I know. But there has been a lot of work…
Sunday, 21 June 2015
To the wonderful people who have got the ball rolling,
A huge thank you for supporting my book! It is only day 3, and already 34 people have put their faith and money into Cleverlands.
I launched the project on Friday at the Sunday Times Education Festival where I was speaking about education in Finland, Japan and Singapore. As I was speaking for just half an hour, I had only 10 minutes to paint…
These people are helping to fund Cleverlands.