Fewer things better


Kim Ki-hoon, the Korean English teacher making millions a year

Are we trying too hard to educate our children?  Yes, we’re trying to do too many things and most are not helping. That’s in part the conclusion of Amanda Ripley who wrote a book on education throughout the world entitled, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way., whose work was profiled today on NPR.  As is often the case when comparing educational systems, schools in Korea and Finland draw much of the attention, given the higher scores school children there achieve on standardized tests. As I’ve written in a previous post, the schools in Finland are a riddle for American educators who go to visit and learn – how can they do so well without all the solutions being advocated in the U.S. : school choice (more private and charter schools), rewards for the best teachers and schools, high-stakes testing to identify success and failure. Instead, Finland focuses on turning out excellent teachers, paying them well, offering a lot of local support, and encouraging the best college students to go into teaching:  a few important things done well.

South Korea is quite different, with a heavy emphasis by all stakeholders on children focusing on high achievement, even if that means long hours after school and on weekends in private tutoring sessions.  Earlier this month there was a profile in the Wall Street Journal of an English teacher in South Korea who makes millions of dollars a year through his subscription video service and after-school tutoring sessions.  The Korean educational system could hardly serve as a model for the U.S., but American foreign language teachers would be happy to see that kind of pay. In the end, we all know it comes down to the quality and commitment of teachers – the trick is to figure out how we become more successful in filling our schools with dedicated and competent teachers and in ensuring they receive reasonable pay, support, and respect.

Heavymetal fans: Go learn Finnish

made-in-finland-2008I’ve been working for a number of years to get to the point in Russian that I can read one of my favorite authors, Leo Tolstoy, in the original. For stylistic masters like Tolstoy or Proust, a lot gets lost in translation.  Apparently for some fans of Finnish heavy metal band Hevisaurus, it’s just as important to learn the language to appreciate the subtle nuances in their lyrics. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the popularity of Nordic heavy metal bands has led a number of young people to learn Finnish or Norwegian, the native tongues of many heavy metal bands.  According to one U.S. fan cited in the article, Michael Brown,

Finnish bands perform with a “dark woodsy resonance” that he has come to love, he says, and “the poetic and obscure nature of the Finnish tongue really gave it a unique wave.”

It’s not that Finnish is an easy language to learn.  It’s not part of the Indo-European family of languages but rather belongs to the Uralic group, along with Hungarian and Estonian. As a consequence there are fewer recognizable cognates for English native speakers and the grammar has a notoriously steep learning curve, being heavily inflected, with its 15 (!) cases. Norwegian (an Indo-European language), in comparison, is a piece of cake, with a very simple grammar, similar to its Scandinavian cousins, Danish and Swedish. Heavy metal fans would be well advised to keep that difference in mind and try to find Norwegian bands to like.

The article speculates that there is a connection between the often apocalyptic nature of heavy metal lyrics and Nordic culture:

Olivia Lucas, a Harvard doctoral candidate who is working on a dissertation about Nordic metal, said people “simply want to understand what the culture is like that has produced this music.” It doesn’t take long, she said, to draw a parallel between the melancholy and gloom that underpins Finnish metal and the wider Finnish psyche. “Finns are comfortable with this feeling, and don’t feel pressure to be cheerful all the time,” Ms. Lucas, 25, said. Their music “embraces this view of the world.”

According to the article, Norwegian “black metal” is even darker in tone and was long tainted by an association with violence.  Nowadays, however, it has gone mainstream, with the Foreign Ministry of Norway giving its trainees seminars on black metal because there are so frequently questions about it raised at Norwegian embassies throughout the world.

The article brought to mind for me an interview earlier this year on NPR with a black woman, Laina Dawes, a fervent heavy metal fan, who wrote a book on her struggle to find acceptance as an African-American woman in the mostly male and white heavy metal scene.

Real equality


Finnish school (From Smithsonian)

Americans like to think of themselves as valuing personal freedom and equality of opportunity, but also praise individual initiative and personal success.  Individualism and entrepreneurism, core American ideals, foster competitiveness. In the ongoing efforts to improve American schools, these values tend to rise to the surface in the measures most often advocated – school choice (more private and charter schools), rewards for the best teachers and schools, high-stakes testing to identify success and failure.  So far, the results have not been impressive.  In international rankings, including the PISA surveys, US students tend to be at best in the middle of the pack. It may be that marketplace competition which works in the business world doesn’t translate well to schools.

A country that perennially ranks near the top in PISA tests, Finland, like the US an individualist culture, has a quite different approach to education. The small Scandinavian country is an outlier among the countries at the top, which are mostly from collectivistic cultures in Asia (South Korea, Singapore, China). The Finnish approach does not feature school choice — there are no private or charter schools — standardized testing, or teacher accountability.  A recent article in the Atlantic on Finnish schools cites one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, on the current buzzword in US education, accountability: “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish… Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”  Teacher performance is monitored by individual schools, mostly by the school principal.  Teachers are given a great deal of individual responsibility and design their own testing.  All students go to public schools at no cost and all schools have essentially the same financial resources.  Ironically, the talk by Sahlberg that is the main source of information in the article was given at Dwight School, a private, for profit secondary school in New York that costs $35,000 a year to attend.  Teachers in Finland, as in many cultures, enjoy relatively high pay as well as considerable prestige.  That seems to make a difference in the quality of teachers.  The irony of the Finnish success story is that in their school reform efforts they did not set out to achieve excellence, but rather wanted to provide an equal education for all students, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds or family educational levels. There may be a lesson there for US education reformers: real equity rather than more differentiation.


Speaking Latin

popeWhen Pope Benedict announced this week that he was stepping down, he did so in Latin.  The small group of reporters listening to the Pope on a live feed at the Vatican scrambled to understand what they quickly saw was a significant announcement.  Italian reporter, Giovanna Chirri confirmed for her colleagues (and the world through a tweet) that in fact the Pope had announced he was resigning.  My Latin teacher in high school would have jumped at the opportunity to point out – “You see how useful learning Latin can be!  You could be the first to announce to the world something that hasn’t happened in 600 years!” The reporters’ scramble reminded me of the press conference where Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Giddy suddenly quoted Nietzsche in German, “Was mich nicht tötet, macht mich stärker” (What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger). Reporters back then were also struggling to understand.

The Pope’s announcement has led to a flurry of interest and news stories about Latin, not often in the news these days. Latin of course is still studied in schools and universities.  There is a radio station in Finland that has been broadcasting a program in Latin for a number of years.  But learning Latin is quite different in nature from learning Spanish or any other living language, and not just because it is no longer spoken, As Annalisa Quinn puts it, “Latin serves as a cultural signifier — if you are studying classics, you announce either your wealth or your devotion to the selfless pursuit of knowledge. In movies and books, knowledge of Latin or Greek is a little bit like glasses and knitwear — a kind of shorthand for intelligence.”  Aside from the cultural messaging, learning Latin can actually be useful,  even if you’re not a Vatican reporter. It is an essential enabler of classical studies, but also is an excellent way to learn about the nature of language and linguistics, and to learn about the etymology of words in English and many other languages (as my Latin teacher hammered home at every opportunity). According to the Telegraph, Pope Benedict is one of the last truly fluent Latin speakers – apparently not all the cardinals present at the announcement actually understood the momentous news.