Best Teachers Not Necessarily the Smartest

Pasi SahlbergFinnish primary school teacher education programs that lead to an advanced, research-based degree are so popular among young Finns that only one in 10 applicants is accepted each year. Those lucky students then have to study for five to six years before they are allowed to teach a class of their own…

Last spring, 1,650 students took the national written test to compete for those 120 places at the University of Helsinki. Applicants received between one and 100 points for the subject exams taken to earn upper-secondary school leaving diplomas. A quarter of the accepted students came from the top 20% in academic ability and another quarter came from the bottom half. This means that half of the first-year students came from the 51- to 80-point range of measured academic ability. You could call them academically average. The idea that Finland recruits the academically “best and brightest” to become teachers is a myth. In fact, the student cohort represents a diverse range of academic success, and deliberately so…

Indeed, the University of Helsinki could easily pick the best and the brightest of the huge pool of applicants each year, and have all of their new trainee teachers with admirable grades.

But they don’t do this because they know that teaching potential is hidden more evenly across the range of different people. Young athletes, musicians, and youth leaders, for example, often have the emerging characteristics of great teachers without having the best academic record. What Finland shows is that rather than get “best and the brightest” into teaching, it is better to design initial teacher education in a way that will get the best from young people who have natural passion to teach for life.

The teaching profession has become a fashionable topic among education reformers around the world. In England, policy-makers from David Cameron down have argued that the way to improve education is to attract smarter people to be teachers. International organizations such as the OECD and McKinsey & Company, Sir Michael Barber for Pearson, and in the US, Joel Klein, former New York education chancellor now working for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, have all claimed that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. These are myths and should be kept away from evidence-informed education policies and reforms.

A good step forward would be to admit that the academically best students are not necessarily the best teachers. Successful education systems are more concerned about finding the right people to become career-long teachers.

—Pasi Sahlberg
Q: What Makes Finnish Teachers So Special? A: It’s Not Brains

H/T: Pasi Sahlberg: Finnish Teachers Are Not “the Best and the Brightest”

4 thoughts on “Best Teachers Not Necessarily the Smartest

  1. This does not quite make the case that not-brains is right. Unlike the English-speaking world, Finland offers prestigious and sought-after programs for teachers; this appears to be their most important component of teacher education. Less does it make the case of educational privatizers and ‘reformers’ though, as this is a thoroughly public program with attention to the more pragmatic, less intellectual qualities of teaching.

    What’s more important, Finland does not treat teachers as public policy whipping-boys. The constant flack from these ‘critics’ of American education would tend to drive away people with the most career options in America, and those same critics never seem to be first in line in advocating for notably prestigious education scholarships. Full scholarships are OK for MBAs and basketball players though.

    Look not at what they say they value, but look instead at what they actually value.

    • The whipping-on-teachers thing IS weird. I can’t quite get it. Most people had at least a few teachers they really loved, who really helped them as kids. I can think of at least five, and that’s just in grade school/junior high, when I lived in a really poor school district.

      I suspect a lot of this is coded racism. No-one wants to tell a pollster “I’ll be damned if another one of my tax dollars goes to black school districts, they all end up criminals anyway.” But when politicians go after “teachers,” it appeals to those voters who think their tax money is wasted on minorities. (It isn’t, of course — it’s wasted on the military, and every dollar we spend to help poor kids pays off bigtime, as I’m sure you know. Just wanted to make clear I know it too!)

      • That’s an interesting observation. But I think the hatred of teachers is based upon the American delusion of the rugged individualist. We don’t need no sticking teachers, because some people will succeed regardless. We also don’t like teachers because they tend to be liberal. And they are the main workers left who are still unionized. Never dismiss this stuff coming from the top down. Americans are great followers.

    • This is all in the quote, though. Teachers in Finland are treated well. But the broader point is that our push to get the brightest students to go into teaching is the wrong approach. I know from my experience that generally, the most brilliant professors were relatively bad teachers. There seems to be a perfect level of brilliance for teachers: very smart but not super smart. Regardless, there are a lot of qualities that a good teacher needs (eg, communication ability) that are not well correlated with intelligence.

      But I do think the main issue is that we don’t get the best teachers here because we don’t value them and, as you say, we treat them as whipping boys.

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