02/27/2017 11:15 EST | Updated 02/27/2017 11:17 EST

Ontario Should Learn From Finland's Example On Smaller Class Sizes

Currently, the public education system in Ontario seems more focused on looking good to the public than actually being the best it can be for the children. That focus on performance-based school culture is largely rooted in standardized testing, which rules the day. When we focus on "looking good" rather than "being good," we have a perpetual problem. Our children pay the price in their education, and we pay the price from our wallets. This testing comes at a great cost to taxpayers, when that money could be better spent to truly serve our children.

As teachers, we have been endlessly told that "that's just the way it is" when it comes to standardized testing. But what if instead of accepting endless measurement through this testing and associated expenses (costing us millions of dollars annually), we looked elsewhere in the world to what works for children and modeled ourselves after that? It is not enough to know better, we must follow through with that knowledge.

That means advocating for what we know is right for children, because contrary to many loud and opinionated voices, teachers do know what they're talking about, and they do know their students.

small classroom

Ontario should look to Finland. They are now doing something right, but they weren't always #1 in education. In the 1970s they made a conscious systemic decision to focus on learning rather than performance. These days, small groups of Finnish students are tested periodically, and Finns take mandatory exams in their late teens; however the focus of their education system is unequivocally on learning rather than performance and the idea that "less is more." Remarkably, this shift away from an emphasis on test performance drastically improved Finland's international rankings in education, creating a pattern of Finland consistently being a world leader in education.

When I was a child, I read a quote that has stayed with me for my entire life. It applies to our education problems in Ontario today. Henry David Thoreau said, "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." We need to use our resources of energy and time in the most effective way. So many of us are striking at the leaves of the problems in our education system, rather than at the roots of those problems. It's exhausting and it's not getting us anywhere. The biggest root problem is large class size. Smaller class sizes are the best way to lay the foundation for getting it right. Finland's class sizes typically consist of 20 or fewer students.

Students at a Disadvantage, Awareness of Privilege, and Applying That Awareness

But what about the person who says, "I did just fine in a class of 35! What's the problem?" When a person says that big classes are fine, they are often seeing that through the paradigm of their own privilege, even though they likely don't realize it. Child poverty in Ontario is greater now than when I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. The number of Ontario students who are disadvantaged in the area of mental illness has increased as well. The majority of teachers report that anxiety issues alone, let alone various other mental illnesses, are a pressing concern for them in serving their students. Ontario teachers have been advocating for some time to achieve class sizes that reflect the reality of the needs of our children.

Smaller class sizes are the best way to take care of the needs of students in our Ontario public school system.

Smaller classes would benefit the disadvantaged -- the impoverished, the mentally ill, etc. The number of Ontario students and their families in crisis is substantial, and we are not doing as well as most other affluent countries in ensuring children's' well-being. A decrease in class size will help our Ontario population who is increasingly disadvantaged in several ways.

Helping the disadvantaged is also beneficial to the advantaged. Everyone wins when we help each other succeed.

Smaller class sizes are the best way to take care of the needs of students in our Ontario public school system. Apply what we know about privilege in taking action for smaller class sizes. And everyone benefits.

Smaller Class Sizes - Opportunity for Improved Practice and Timely Responsiveness to Students

Sometimes something is more than it appears to be. A smaller class size appears to be just that -- a smaller class. But it is so much more than that. It is a greater opportunity for connection and responsiveness to our students.

empty classroom

My practice improves when I can tailor my programming to a smaller group of students. Some excellent approaches are just not effective and/or possible in a large class.

Building a good relationship with each of my students is integral to figuring out the nuances of their learning style and challenges that they face. Many of these challenges cannot be seen or understood in large classes, due to the number of students. The time for 1:1 and small group instruction yields more than meets the eye.

It's like sitting down to dinner with your family, to eat. Yes, you fed your family. But you also talked about your day, learned who your children played with, and generally gained insight as to the feelings in their hearts and the thoughts in their heads. That helps you to be a truly responsive parent or caregiver. In a class of 20, a teacher can achieve a lot more for his or her students. It is the vehicle by which the teacher can drive instruction in a way that truly reflects the needs of the people in the group. It allows deeper understanding of the children as individuals, and timely responsiveness.

Ontario, let's take the money we spend on standardized testing, and reroute it to smaller class sizes.

Want to see a performance? Go to the circus. Schools are for learning.

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