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Two elementary students work with a microscope.


One September morning in 2003, a group of engineers gathered for a marathon brainstorming session at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. Their intent was ambitious; they wanted to dream up a new way to land spacecraft on Mars.

The meeting stretched to three days of scribbling options on whiteboards, and the solution they came to for landing the SUV-sized rover Curiosity was radical. When Curiosity was 10 kilometres above ground, a contraption they called a sky crane would detach. Then rocket engines would slow the crane to 3 kmh, so it almost hovered above ground as it gently lowered the rover on cables to the ground before flying off and crash landing a safe distance away.

The idea marked a dramatic reversal in NASA's design philosophy by favouring a complex, risky technology over the simpler, safer, albeit imprecise, previously used options of airbags and legs. Observers thought it was crazy. But on Aug. 5, 2012, after a nail-biting entry into the atmosphere of Mars, Curiosity landed safely.

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The sky crane typifies a modern sort of innovation; the big, transformative ideas of today are often complicated and collaborative. Innovation is no longer necessarily about inventions produced by a single person, but about collective knowledge and team-based problem solving.

So if innovation requires people who thrive on collaboration, why are our education systems so focused on individual achievement? This question is at the heart of the work of Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish education official and author of Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland. "Policymakers looking for a more competitive economy in their countries thought it required more competition in the school system so that young people can experience what competition means," Dr. Sahlberg says. "That is completely the wrong way."

Dr. Sahlberg argues that if we want young people with the competencies to innovate and make our economy more competitive, we need to model our schools after how innovation actually happens. "Teaching and learning have traditionally been conceptualized as linear, deterministic procedures," he wrote in a paper on economic competitiveness and education. "Innovation is an organic entity. Teaching and learning in schools should rely on principles of active participation, social interaction and reflection."

The reality in Canada, which is unfortunate in Dr. Sahlberg's view, is that students are rewarded for competing against their peers, teachers are held accountable by their class's performance on exams, and schools are compared through widely published standardized test results. Finland takes an alternative approach. Students receive only narrative evaluation instead of marks or grades until Grade 5. Thereafter, their grades rely on how they've performed relative to their individual potential rather than as compared to their classmates. "Teachers stress grades as little as possible," Dr. Sahlberg says. "This means that students 'compete' against themselves, not one another."

One of the ways the Finnish education system accomplishes this is by giving individual teachers greater autonomy in teaching to the needs of their classes, rather than a top-down, test-based system.

Dr. Sahlberg was inspired to write Finnish Lessons when he was working for the World Bank and noticed growing interest in the Finnish education system. Finnish schools owe their fame to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, a report published by the OECD that compares the competencies of 15-year-olds in about 70 countries in reading, math and science. Despite the fact that Finnish students do less homework and spend fewer hours at school than the OECD average, the country consistently ranks among the Top 3, sharing honours with education superpowers, such as China, Korea and Singapore, which are associated with rigid discipline and rote learning. Finland also came in third overall in the World Economic Forum's most recent Global Competitiveness Survey.

Finland's success has made Dr. Sahlberg and his book a hot commodity and he now travels the world delivering its message. "If there is no standardized testing, students can focus on real learning and teachers don't have to worry about preparing their kids for assessments," he said from New York, where he was meeting with educators before flying to Helsinki.

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Dr. Sahlberg sees his country's educational and economic successes as linked. He credits Finnish schools for redesigning learning according to how innovation occurs. In addition to emphasizing collaborative work, Finnish schools have a different conception of knowledge than the traditional one. Teachers don't think of knowledge as a cumulative store of objective information. "It is not primarily what individuals know or do not know, but more what are their skills in acquiring, utilizing, diffusing and creating knowledge that are important for economic progress and social change."

These abstract skills, of course, are more difficult to assess than, say, a student's mastery of fractions. But they are also the competencies employers say are needed. A recent report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. based on a survey of 8,000 youth, educators and employers from nine countries suggested that educators prioritize teaching fixed content, although employers say so-called "soft skills" are in demand, such as problem solving, analysis and communication. In an IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs, "creativity" was identified as the most important leadership quality for the future.

Dr. Sahlberg says that the education reform movement (characterized by teacher accountability and school comparison) has dominated the education debate globally, especially in the United States, Australia and the Gulf region, and de-emphasized the importance of fostering interpersonal skills.

The reform movement, most well known through the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, continues to have a profound effect on Canada, according to Andy Hargreaves who co-founded the International Centre for Educational Change at the Ontario Institute for Studies and is now at Boston College. In his book The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change, he explains that the reform movement gained full force in Canada in the 1990s, most obviously under the Klein government in Alberta and Harris government in Ontario.

"Following the lead of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and before them, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, [the movement] set about centralizing more of the curriculum and introducing more testing to hold teachers accountable," Dr. Hargreaves wrote in an e-mail. "It provided a new generation of consumer-oriented parents with information about the performance of schools, and published rankings of schools to stimulate market competition between them. Instead of measuring what we value, we have got stuck in valuing what we can easily measure."

However, Finland's approach seems to be gaining ground. For his book, Dr. Hargreaves documented high performing education systems around the world. One of his key observations? "Paradoxically, if you want to be more competitive economically, you have to be more collaborative educationally," he says. "This starts in the classroom – teaching the basic skills and habits of co-operation. Then, teachers must give up their individual autonomy for collective responsibility for all students' success."

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Dr. Hargreaves noted how teachers in Ontario have taken this lesson to heart. "Teachers in Ontario told us, 'It used to be my children in my class, now it's our children in our school.' In practice, this means that whenever a child struggles, all teachers who teach and have taught that child pool their knowledge to find a solution."

Join the conversation

On Twitter: Follow us at @CanadaCompetes.

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