In this interview in the New York Times yesterday, Nitin Nohria, the first Asian Dean of Harvard business school, was asked to respond to a statement about the “narrow” academic trajectories American students were expected to stay on in order to be successful. His response was that it was “quite sad that we put children through this extraordinary stress. It takes a long time to discover what you are really good at.”
Similarly, my colleague, Barbara Laird, a high school level science teacher in New York, commented on a post of mine by questioning whether we “give our students the space and time needed to grow.”
I have been learning from conversations with both Finnish teachers as well as fellow fulbrighter, Karen Lee, that in Finland they seem to be addressing this issue in a preferable way to the United States. For starters, only about fifty percent of Finnish upper secondary students attend traditional high school after age 15, while over forty percent attend vocational schools instead. Because the culture is not one of competition (in fact, many seem to frown upon our competitive nature) and laborers are recognized as vital members of the community, vocational schools are viewed as honorable paths for students to embark down. The fact that would most please both Nohira and my colleague is this: if students change their minds, they have options. There is hardly a “narrow academic path” that students are all packed onto, which completely disregards students’ interests; they can change schools or return to the traditional schools if they feel they have chosen something that does not suit them.
This striking difference from American schools stems from the fact that Finnish schools are focused on honoring student choice, and it only logically follows that this helps create students who are intrinsically motivated to learn because they are active participants in navigating their educational paths, rather than passive recipients.
I’m not saying their system of providing time and choice is perfect by any means, but it certainly seems like a step in the right direction…