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US vs. Finland Redux: Technology and the Brain (Part 13 of 14)

After helping found Facebook, Chris Hughes founded Jumo, a social network built around social causes.  I subscribed to education posts from Jumo, and one day I received a newsletter that coincidentally included two related articles--one about US education and one about Finnish education--and they revealed a remarkable contrast.
Maine vs. Finland
Admittedly, the Finland-US comparison is apples-to-oranges (and groan-inducing by now); New York City’s school system alone is larger than all of Finland’s, and the demographic differences between the two nations is profound.  But what remains remarkable here is what each article focuses on when it looks at what is working.
Maine vs Finland, inside vs outside
First, the pictures: in the US, students are sedentary at their desks.  In Finland, students are outside, wrapping their arms around trees...  ...even in the cold, snowy weather!  Already, we see dramatic difference in the two approaches.

And second, the first few paragraphs of each article highlight national progress in notably different ways:
Test Scores vs Brain Science
The math teacher in Maine describes test scores rising and remediation decreasing, while the math teacher in Finland talks about subject matter going “straight to the brain.”  One measures progress by standardized tests, the other assesses effectiveness by considering the way the brain works.

I’ll be among the first to say that the Maine classrooms are clearly doing something right if they’re seeing improvement, but the Finnish teacher's focus on how the mind learns is the important point to me.  An increased understanding of the mechanisms of the brain can and ought to affirm and inform our instructional strategies and curricular arrangements.  If these isolated examples are indicative of national approaches, then we can see from international comparisons which works better.  Knowing what goes “straight to the brain”--in this case: the rich, experiential encoding that comes from wrapping tape measures around trees--is perhaps the biggest boon for educators.

When teachers are hemmed in with systems of assessments and outcomes that restrict opportunities to focus on what works, our discourse in education will naturally default to test scores and remediation.  When we have opportunities, however, to promote conversation and experimentation with what goes straight to the brain, then we may be more likely, more encouraged, to build authentic learning environments.


This is only one small case, I know, and it would be a trap to induce large conclusions from this, but it may yet be emblematic of a way of thinking.  And this is not necessarily an indictment of using technology for teaching; technology can be a powerful tool, but it is a means, not an end.  What is more important than having technology in schools is that we understand how learning works.

A national dialog that marries new tools for educators with the proper engine for learning--what moves the brain, not what moves tests scores--is the ultimate goal.  And this is a cultural shift that we need to make one person at a time.  This we can only do by rethinking why we make the moves we make in our classrooms and what we consider when we plan our classes on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. 

This shift in our thinking--from scores to brain--will validate not only what we do, but also, I suspect, how we feel.  If we talk about learning, instead of testing, we will seek affirmation for our work not in how our students perform on the same external measures that cause the same creative paralysis in teachers as they cause in students, but we will instead seek affirmation for work as educators in the light bulbs that spring on in class, the a-ha moments that signal the deep understanding that comes from knowing--really knowing. 

Here are links to the original articles on Maine (GOOD Magazine) and Finland (Time Magazine).

This is the thirteenth of fourteen posts in a series about the role of cognitive science in education.
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