What does bottom-up, teacher-centered education policy change look like?

Now that I have been in Helsinki for over a month, I have had time to get situated within my research group, the LUMA Centre. Though I have a number of first impressions of the Finnish education, something I have been particularly fascinated by is the ways in which current Finnish education policy changes center the teacher and university researcher as sources of knowledge and change.

To step back for a second, it is worth providing a little bit more of a context on the history of the LUMA Centre. LUMA Centre Finland is an umbrella for 13 LUMA Centres in all science and technology universities. The boss of it is my supervisor, Professor Maija Aksela from University of Helsinki. Many people call her “Mrs. Luma” because she promoted the birth of first LUMA Centre and the network. Her motto, and the motto of LUMA Centre, is “Together, we are more!” Accordingly, the goal of the LUMA Centre network is to inspire a life-long love of learning math, science, and technology within students, through the use of interdisciplinary, project-based learning in formal and in-formal learning settings.

The LUMA Centre model embraces a truly collaborative approach. In my office, academic researchers (professors, PhD students, masters students, etc.) conduct research on science teaching pedagogy, ICT (i.e. educational technologies), sustainability/environmental education, etc. that all directly supports the education of future teachers at the undergraduate and graduate teaching programs at the University of Helsinki. They also have a chemistry lab on campus (ChemistryLab Gadolin) that supports frequent educational visits from schools and families in the area, and virtual science clubs for those living in regions of Finland with less access to physical labs–all of which are also constantly being researched and improved by the team at the university. All of this happens in conjunction with the Finnish Ministry of Education, National Board of Education, the private sector, libraries, museums, other science centers, the Finnish media, and a number of other international collaborators.

All of this is situated within the broader context of the Finnish education system requiring that all primary and secondary teachers to procure a Masters degree in teaching. Becoming a primary school teacher in Finland is roughly as competitive as going into medicine or law, given the acceptance rate into the undergraduate degree program currently hovers around 10 percent.

This context on the LUMA Centre’s position within the broader scheme of the Finnish education system is critical to understanding the dynamics of the initiative that I will specifically be studying because it reveals the extent to which teachers’ voices and experiences are valued within the Finnish model. Because they receive such rigorous training, they are entrusted with much more control over what actually happens at the level of curriculum development.

In response to national shifts in curriculum towards phenomenon-based, interdisciplinary pedagogy, the Ministry of Finland funded the LUMA Suomi program–a development project from 2014-2019 designed to develop in-service teacher supports to allow currently practicing teachers throughout Finland to have a voice in the ways that these broader policy goals will become reflected in actual teaching practices.

That’s where my project comes in. The result of this development program has been 37 different projects across Finland–all being developed through collaborations between university researchers and primary and secondary school teachers, and according to current education research. My goal is to both assess the current impact of these projects, and to think critically about ways to improve and expand their reach.

When the development project first started, professors and graduate students applied to be sponsored to develop their own projects. Those who were selected then worked with at least four teachers in two different schools in their area to develop a mutually-beneficial project that would allow for the development of curriculum that could be employed locally and scaled nationally.

The content of the project range, for example, from the development of pedagogical tools for teachers to bridge gender-gaps in their STEM classrooms, to nature field trips that integrate outdoor research with environmental research methods. The goal of these programs, however, is the same: to motivate/inspire students to develop a lifelong love of learning, and, more specifically, a passion for learning math, science, sustainability, etc.

Coming from the context of American test-based accountability and Common Core, I have found this model for policy change intruiging. Rather than steering curriculum from the top-down and then approximating outcomes through testing, the Finnish model relocates the source of this policy change at the level of the classroom and the university. If teachers, professors, and university students are the ones actually physically in classrooms where curriculum becomes employed, then it makes sense for them to have a voice in the way that such curriculum is developed.

My role over the next academic year is to provide some sort of impact assessment of this development program. While I am still narrowing down the specific scope of my own research project, I have a few questions at this stage of research:

  1. What is the regional impact of LUMA’s development programs? The goal is to reach 80 percent of districts in Finland with these projects by 2019, so I want to explore and map the relative regional impacts of various projects (including online courses) to better understand which groups of students might have the most/least access to such programs.
  2. What are the challenges to bottom-up education policy reform in the context of Finland’s shift towards phenomenon-based learning? I am interested in hearing teacher experiences here to learn more about what the strengths and weaknesses of this model are in ways that will inform the growth and improvement of the programs.
  3. Are these development projects effective at motivating student interest in STEM subjects? I think another interesting avenue of future research would be to survey students involved with these projects to get a sense of whether or not the current model is effectively achieving its broader ideological goals.

Stay tuned to hear more about how this project develops!

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