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Finland’s education system is failing. Should we look to Asia?
Finland's recent decline in international test scores has led many to question whether its education system is truly the best.
- Finland scored high on the original PISA education assessment, but its scores have slipped in recent years.
- Critics argue that Finland's success came from earlier education models, not from headline-making features like late start times, lack of homework, and absence of test assessment.
- Asia's rigorous education system is now eclipsing Finland's PISA scores. Which approach is the right one? Which is truly shortsighted?
In 2000, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) released the results of its first survey of education attainment. Administrated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the triennial assessment tested the skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds around the world.
That year, Finland handily came out as a top performer, scoring high in math and science, and number one in reading. The United States' performance that same year, for comparison's sake, could best be described as middling. These results led many to claim that Finland had the best education system in the world. Educators and politicians swarmed to the Nordic country in the hopes of discovering the source of their golden touch.
Then things took a turn, and Finland's standings began to slip. Between 2006 and 2012, its scores in science, reading, and math fell sharply: 18, 23, and 29 points respectively. PISA 2015 saw further drops; meanwhile, other top performers have remained relatively steady.
"Finland was on a downwards slope, not an upwards one," writes Tim Oates, director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment. "All the assumptions in 2000 seemed to be of Finland at the top and on the rise, not on the way down. And that was mistaking PISA for a longitudinal study, rather than a cross-sectional one."
While Finland remains a top performer, it has lost its luster in the eyes of many experts, bringing criticisms of Finland's education system to the debate.
The real lesson from Finland
Finland's meteoric rise certainly had some cause. Looking in, many claimed it to be reforms dedicated to school autonomy and pupil-led education. They pointed to the system's lack of centralized accountability and features like late start times, lack of homework, absence of test assessment, and a culture that celebrates the teaching profession.
For Gabriel Heller Shalgren, research director at the Center for the Study of Market Reform Education, this view lacks hard evidence. According to him, Finland's initial successes resulted from educational standards instituted in the 1970s and '80s, well before the above policies could take root.
In a monograph titled "Real Finnish Lessons," he notes that Finland's teaching system was centralized and teacher-dominated up until the '90s, meaning decentralized reform came too late for it to be responsible. Instead, Finland's late developments in industrialization and economic growth bolstered the country's educational performance. Late developments, Shalgren points out, that mirror those in East Asia.
Shalgren does agree with some popular explanations, such as Finland's reverence of teachers. However, he notes this is not a recent phenomenon and stems from the role teachers played in the country's nation-building process, way back in the 19th century.
"Overall, the strongest policy lesson is the danger of throwing out authority in schools, and especially getting rid of knowledge-based, teacher-dominated instruction," writes Shalgren. "[T]he story from Finland backs up the increasing amount of evidence, which suggests that pupil-led methods, and less structured school environments in general, are harmful for cognitive achievement."
For Shalgren, the decline in Finland's recent test scores results from reality finally catching up to Finnish fantasies.
Asian education systems pulling ahead
As Singapore, China, and Japan overcome Finland, especially in math and science, countries like Taiwan are quickly closing the gap. This has led some to wonder if Asian education systems have improved over Finland's in meaningful ways.
Finnish native and Asia correspondent Hannamiina Tanninen has attended schools in both countries. She agrees that Finland's education system is one of the world's finest, especially regarding its quality teachers. However, in her TED talk she argues that Finland must learn lessons from East Asia if it is to stay relevant:
- Students in Asia start their education earlier, work harder, and work longer. Simply put, the more time students put into developing skills and knowledge, the more of both they will acquire.
- Finland's education system lowers the bar accordingly to match a student's talent and skill set; East Asian systems require students to work to meet a universal standard and catch up if necessary.
- East Asian systems promote competitiveness and center educational strategies on excelling. In Finnish culture, such open competitiveness is less socially acceptable.
- Finland strives to make learning fun and creative; however, Tanninen argues that this approach may be disadvantageous. It may, for example, sacrifice long-term educational gains if success is always measured on a student's instant gratification.
"When did [Finland] subscribe to an idea that there is a glass ceiling that says, 'Good enough'?" Tanninen said. "Where as in Asia, I don't remember any of my professors saying, 'Okay, good enough.' It would be, 'Okay, Hannah, work hard; you can go further.'"
The gender gap in Finland's education system?
Despite Finland's dedication to equality, its performance gap score continues to languish below the OECD average.
In an analysis titled "Girls, Boys, and Reading," Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, notes Finland's gender gap in reading is twice that of the U.S. While Finnish boys score the average, Finnish girls score nearly double that, meaning the country's superiority in reading literacy rests solely with one gender.
Interestingly, boys typically score higher on math and science, both in Finland and other OECD countries. However, Finland's latest PISA scores have girls outperforming the boys in both subjects (though the score differential was significantly less than in reading).
"Finland's gender gap illustrates the superficiality of much of the commentary on that country's PISA performance," writes Loveless. "Have you ever read a warning that even if those policies contribute to Finland's high PISA scores—which the advocates assume but serious policy scholars know to be unproven—the policies also may be having a negative effect on the 50 percent of Finland's school population that happens to be male?"
This gap extends beyond PISA scores. In Finland, more women enter higher education and obtain higher levels of education overall.
No doubt many factors are at play, but one pointed out by Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator and scholar, is that boys simply don't read for pleasure. "Finland used to have the best primary school readers in the world until the early 2000s, but not anymore," he told The Washington Post.
A time frame that matches Shalgren's point that pupil-led pedagogy may have diminishing effects.
Finland's education system the best? Wrong question.
Of course, these criticisms and others are part of an open and ongoing dialogue—not just about Finland's education system but about efficient pedagogy the world over. They make noteworthy points, but there are counterpoints on the other side, too.
For example, Andreas Schleicher, OECD director of education, disagrees with Shalgren's analysis. He believes Finland's recent declines are modest compared to the headway made when the country switched from traditional education.
While Asian education systems may be surpassing Finland's, their uncompromising schedules and test-driven milieu may be shortchanging their futures for short-term gains. That's the argument made by journalist and political scientist Fareed Zakaria.
"[We] should be careful before they try to mimic Asian educational systems, which are still oriented around memorization and test taking," writes Zakaria. "I went through that kind of system and it's not conductive to thinking, problem solving, or creativity."
And Finland's gender gap, though stark, is in keeping with larger trends. Girls outperform boys in all countries, and the debate is ongoing as to how social, biological, and cultural forces perpetuate the gap.
The point isn't to argue that Finland's education system isn't valuable. Rather, it's that "educational tourists" look to Finland, see what they wanted to see, and don't bother to ask the questions Finland itself continues to grapple with. As Tim Oates points out, there are important lessons to be gained here. But insights should harmonize with an understanding of Finland's culture, its history, and a wider range of evidence, not simply be a laundry list of fashionable factoids.
Oates's conclusion is fitting: "In the case of [Finland's education system], people have been seriously misled by stories told by people who have looked at Finland through their own, restricted lens. The real story of Finland is more subtle, more challenging, and far, far more interesting."
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
A team of marine biologists has discovered 16 species of "ultra-black" fish that absorb more than 99 percent of the light that hits their skin, making them virtually invisible to other deep-sea fish.
The researchers, who published their findings Thursday in Current Biology, caught the species after dropping nets more than 200 meters deep near California's Monterey Bay. At those depths, sunlight fizzles out. That's one reason why many deep-sea species have evolved the ability to illuminate the dark waters through bioluminescence.
But what if deep-sea fish don't want to be spotted? To counter bioluminescence, some species have evolved ultra-black skin that's exceptionally good at absorbing light. Only a few other species are known to possess this strange trait, including birds of paradise and some spiders and butterflies.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.
"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told Wired. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"
After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told Wired. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."
The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL
But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as Wired notes.
Other fish—like the oneirodes species, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like C. acclinidens only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.
Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.