Finland, Teachers, and the Best and the Brightest

When it comes to denigrating teachers, one of the charges bandied about is that teachers in the U.S. don’t do very well academically (e.g., their SAT scores are low). In light of that claim, how Finland–Blessed Finland!™–selects its teachers is revealing (boldface mine):

There are those who think that the tough race to become a teacher in Finland is the key to good teaching and thereby to improving student achievement. Because only 10% of applicants pass the rigorous admission system, the story goes, the secret is to recruit new teachers from the top decile of available candidates. This has led many governments and organisations to find new ways to get the best and the brightest young talents into the teaching profession. Various fast-track teacher preparation initiatives that lure smart young university graduates to teach for a few years have mushroomed. Smarter people make better teachers … or do they?

Who exactly are those who were chosen to become primary teachers in Finland ahead of my niece? Let’s take closer look at the academic profile of the first-year cohort selected at the University of Helsinki. The entrance test has two phases. All students must first take a national written test. The best performers in this are invited on to the second phase, to take the university’s specific aptitude test. At the University of Helsinki, 60% of the accepted 120 students were selected on a combination of their score on the entrance test and their points on the subject exams they took to complete their upper-secondary education; 40% of students were awarded a study place based on their score on the entrance test alone.

Last spring, 1,650 students took the national written test to compete for those 120 places at the University of Helsinki. Applicants received between one and 100 points for the subject exams taken to earn upper-secondary school leaving diplomas. A quarter of the accepted students came from the top 20% in academic ability and another quarter came from the bottom half. This means that half of the first-year students came from the 51- to 80-point range of measured academic ability. You could call them academically average. The idea that Finland recruits the academically “best and brightest” to become teachers is a myth. In fact, the student cohort represents a diverse range of academic success, and deliberately so.

Why might this be? Well:

…they don’t do this because they know that teaching potential is hidden more evenly across the range of different people. Young athletes, musicians and youth leaders, for example, often have the emerging characteristics of great teachers without having the best academic record. What Finland shows is that rather than get “best and the brightest” into teaching, it is better to design initial teacher education in a way that will get the best from young people who have natural passion to teach for life.

Yes, we do not want math teachers who don’t know math (though strangely, education reformers are quiet on the subject of biology teachers who don’t know evolution. But I digress). We need teachers who, as Lance Mannion put it, are good explainers (boldface mine):

It was something his kindergarten and first grade teachers had noticed and joked about, affectionately and with admiration. They liked having him in their class, well, because he was a likeable kid, but also because often he could explain a lesson to the other kids in the class better than the teachers thought they could themselves.

“We call him the Little Professor,” his first grade teacher said to me once.

In trying his hand at everything, looking for his own special talent, he was learning how things work so that when the time came he could talk to anyone else trying to do those things and explain how to do them better. His special talent was helping others recognize and develop their special talents.

He was a born teacher.

Teachers don’t have to be the best at things, they have to be the best at teaching things. As Finland realizes, that’s not the same thing–and looking for the former to the exclusion of the latter means you miss some very good teachers.

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2 Responses to Finland, Teachers, and the Best and the Brightest

  1. fionamcgie says:

    But here in the US we don’t want good teachers unless they’re also CHEAP teachers. Many still complain using the old canard about how teachers only work 9 months of the year, and less time per day than most other jobs. No one seems aware of the prep time, the grading time, the time spent taking classes to keep your teaching job, or the fact that most teachers work at least one other job during the summer to pay bills. Teachers have impossible demands yet low pay. Is it any wonder that most young people look at that and think they could do better anywhere else?

  2. jrkrideau says:

    I have often thought that one does not want the ‘brightest’ in a subject teaching it. It may be so ‘easy’ for them that explaining it to someone who does not have as quick a grasp is difficult. Of course we want someone who knows math teaching evoloution or was that knows evolution teaching math but having someone who can teach probably overshadows a really high level of subject knowledge until a student is in late undergrad or even starting graduate school.

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