Seeing the trees within the forest


“It’s a good day to be a Canadian” Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish face of education, informed the crowd of three thousand educators gathered in Vancouver for the Learning Forward Conference. Polite, somewhat reserved,  Sahlberg has been in high demand as a speaker now for years. Also polite was the applause that rippled through the ballroom. Eating lunch at the table I was seated at were four other Canadians and five educators from the San Francisco area. Knowing smiles and tempered head-nods from the Canadians, thumbs up and ‘congratulations’ from our American colleagues. It was a good day to be a Canadian. “I’ve heard every day is a good day to be a Canadian” continued Sahlberg. A good-natured chuckle bounced lightly from the stage to the back of the massive hall. Again, it was true. Every day is indeed a good day to be a Canadian. The reason, interwoven in the Fin’s keynote address for the day, was connected to today’s release of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 results. Half a million fifteen-year olds from 72 countries around the world took part in the assessment and, as an educator, I downloaded the report early this morning to pour over the results. Canada scored very well  in the three areas assessed: Science, Math, and Reading. Top ten in each subject. And yet, even while in attendance at an international conference on education, the results where neither news, nor new to me. I’ve known for a long time that students in Canada are fortunate to attend our classrooms. Canada has an excellent education system. Just don’t ask me to explain why exactly. In fact, the entire notion of a “Canadian education system” is a bit of a misnomer. Education in Canada is a provincial responsibility, so looking at the PISA results for Canada is much like looking at a forest, it is vast, diverse, and beautiful. But if you are interested in duplicating the Canadian experience to match the PISA results you can’t just plant your own forest. You need to plant trees.

As an educator in British Columbia for all of my career, I have no better understanding of how Canada scores so well on the PISA tests than anyone else. All ten provinces of Canada had students participate in the assessment. The collective results of the students indicates that going to school anywhere in Canada, from coast to coast, one can be assured that they will have an opportunity to learn about science, maths, as well as become literate. Our three territories did not participate in PISA so I can’t make that claim from coast to coast to coast. So the Canadian forest of PISA results is, partially, limited in scope. As are the results for many of the countries who participate in the assessment. China, a country with extreme inequity in education attainment, limits their participation to four major areas where children all attend school and the success rates are high. The trees they do test are tall and healthy. And it is the trees that we need to examine if we are to look for the better ways to grow a forest.

The last two rounds of PISA, in 2009 and 2012, have pointed the edu-agronomists toward Finland. Edu-tourists, as Sahlberg calls them, booked flights to the Scandinavian country en-masse to dissect the pedagogy of Finnish teachers, learn about Finnish education policy, and gain a glimpse into the early education lives of Finnish children. They wanted to know how to grow a better tree, one that would grow quicker, be more resilient to the elements around it, one that would grow in infertile ground. During his keynote, Mr. Sahlberg joked that now he could turn the edu-tourists toward Canada. As an educator in Canada those words were both amusing and alarming. Amusing in the sense that there is nothing special to see in my school. Alarming because many of the three thousand conference participants were nodding in agreement with his statement as they stared out the window at the snow-capped north shore mountains of Vancouver. What if they actually listen to the Finnish legend and come to BC to examine our school system? What will they find? What will they take away that will help them grow better trees in their forests back home?

British Columbia, when you disaggregate the data, scores very well in the PISA results. Every three years, as the results come out, I have the same two thoughts and a wonder. We have outstanding teachers and a citizenship that values education, but how the heck do we get such good results with such a diverse population of learners, many of whom are English Language Learners or students with special needs? Perhaps that is what I will tell the edu-travelers when they visit my school. To shore up my argument, I spent the better part of two days at the conference prying into other education systems and comparing them to my own experiences here in BC.

The success of our students is, first and foremost, the result of the quality of teachers in our system. I was at one presentation yesterday where it was mentioned that 60% of the teachers in their system were ineffective or incompetent to the point where they ‘needed to go’. The system was an inner-city district in a major US city. I didn’t question the number, simply reflected on my own experience over the years. In BC we do have our share of teachers who struggle, but 60%, no way! Not even close. Two percent? Five? Ten percent, one in ten teachers so bad that we would label them incompetent? I don’t think so. Our teachers have excellent training, have a significant amount of autonomy in their instruction, and are well supported in improving professional practice through collaborative inquiry and other professional learning opportunities. Some of the systems I have learned about over the past two days seem to remove teacher autonomy, instead opting for a very prescriptive model of instruction. Other systems seem to leave teachers on their own to grow as professionals. Yes, I could definitely provide countless examples of quality teaching in my school and district for my edu-tourists to see.

Another source of pride to be found in the PISA results is how well we score when equity is considered. In BC, the difference between our high achieving students and our low achieving students is smaller than in many systems. Again, I was both amused and alarmed. I was pleased to know that we are closing the achievement gap and improving results for some of our struggling learners, but alarmed to know that we are doing much better than most of the school systems around the world. Canadians value equity. It is one quality that we share with our Scandinavian friends. We see the success of our neighbors and strangers as a good thing, something that helps us all. In education, our system is better when we can help all learners be successful. Sahlberg encouraged the conference attendees to place “Collaboration before Competition”. Our education system in BC does this, and it does it well. The edu-tourists will hear that often when they visit my school. They will see students supporting and recognizing the efforts and successes of their classmates. They will see sportsmanship and good will at our sporting events, and they will witness teachers helping other teachers with ideas and strategies that might work for a reluctant learner. The Canadian value of equal access to excellent programs and quality experiences for all of our students is a strength of our public school system that we often do not champion. I look forward to sharing that Canadian value with our visitors.

British Columbia has a very diverse population. In addition to our Indigenous learners, students come from all ethnic backgrounds and cultures. We are a multicultural system with outstanding results. We should be very proud of that. Our diversity is one of our greatest strengths. And that diversity has forced our system to respond to the unique needs of our learners.

That we have a high achieving system that is also equitable is amazing. Students with special needs and students who are English Language Learners are nurtured and supported in our system. An inclusive education system that we should be trumpeting from the rooftops. There are no shortages of programs and models of instruction in BC for our edu-tourists to experience.

The PISA results are only one indicator of the health of our forests. Other indicators might shine the light on different strengths or areas in need of improvement. In the end though, I believe that the trees that are growing in BC are healthy and strong. As Pasi shared, “Today is a good day to be a Canadian”. Perhaps he needs a break from being an edu-tourist host. If so, I have a great school for him to visit….but book early as I have a feeling space will be limited.

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