”One week in Dundee / and the world’s your lobster”
There will be winds of change for the Finnish upper secondary schools in the autumn, as electronic final exams and a new curriculum are introduced. This will be accompanied by a thorough digitalization of studying that is already in progress. With respect to Philosophy, my major teaching subject, the new curriculum will double the number of obligatory courses and give argumentation skills a much more central role. As a reluctant witness to the current low standards of Finnish public discussion, I welcome the shift of emphasis with open arms.
At such a turning point I decided to look abroad for some professional insights. In March I left for Scotland on an Erasmus exchange program to familiarize myself with the Scottish school system and to observe how my subjects – Philosophy, Religion, and World View Education – are taught there. Why Scotland? The good reputation of the Scottish school and the familiar language played a major part in the decision, as did my falling in love with Scotland two years ago on a holiday.
The search for a suitable target school was not a simple one. Geographical considerations narrowed the pool of options, as I preferred the school to be located in a city with an airport (Glasgow or Edinburgh) or at a maximum two hour bus or train travel from there. In addition to such practicalities, I searched for a school that offers courses in Philosophy; unlike in Finland, Philosophy is not a compulsory subject in the Scottish curriculum, and it isn’t taught at every secondary school. However, Religious and Moral Education (RME) is compulsory, and the optional Philosophy courses are usually connected to it; the combination is generally named Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies (RMPS). Another difference from Finland is that all the students participate in RME, and there is no nonreligious alternative to it (cf. World View Education). There are some denominational (Catholic) schools in Scotland, but I was on the lookout only for the non-denominational ones. I also hoped to find a school with a high ranking in the national league table for school results.
I got very lucky with Grove Academy, Dundee, whose Rector Mr. Graham Hutton and RMPS Principal Teacher Mr. Gerard Dillon kindly accepted my request. Grove Academy is a renowned secondary school with an honourable 126-year history. Currently Grove resides in 2009 built premises and enrols over 1.200 students aged between 12-18. The school is located in Broughty Ferry, a wealthy suburb – “Snobbish”, said the taxi driver – about 6 kilometres from the Dundee centre.
Dundee is a former industrial city that lies on the north bank of the firth of Tay, about 100 kilometres north (only slightly over an hour by train) from Edinburgh. Dundee is the fourth largest city in Scotland with a population only slightly bigger than in Jyväskylä. The Finns most likely know Dundee for its marmalade and two Scottish Premier League teams, one of which, Dundee United, Mixu Paatelainen still managed during my stay. Unfortunately Mixu was sacked in May.
I really enjoyed myself in Dundee, but because the days were long, there weren’t too many opportunities for a lively leisure. I however managed to visit a bookstore, go to movies, eat in several restaurants and of course watch football in a pub. The most memorable culinary experience was an alternative haggis, where the lamb’s internal organs were replaced with vegetables(!). The unorthodox version tasted just as good as the traditional one.
My exchange at Grove Academy was a one-week job shadowing. I had the pleasure to shadow Mr. Dillon, the aforementioned RMPS Principle Teacher, who turned out to be a passionate educator with excellent storytelling and consciousness-raising skills; his classes were interesting in their own right, not only from a professional point of view. I also followed classes by other RMPS teachers, participated in a departmental meeting, and had the opportunity to meet the Rector. The atmosphere at the school was amicable and casual, but good manners were duly observed. My stay there was very pleasant and useful, and I’m grateful to my hosts for their friendliness and hospitality, which I hope to be able to reciprocate in the future.
The most striking difference from Finland was the dress code, especially for the male staff and the students. Male staff members were expected to wear a smart shirt, a tie, and smart trousers and shoes; many also wore a suit. In Finnish schools such a high standard is rarely met, and when it is, it is mostly head teachers that live up to it (I admit having sometimes taught in a hoodie and smart shorts). Students too wore a smart uniform, although slight variations from the norm were permissible.
The pros and cons of a school uniform are debatable, but professionally more interesting are the pedagogical and organisational differences. I’ll present below my take on the three most fascinating discoveries that we could learn from.
The Principal Teacher and a deep collegial collaboration
The Grove RMPS teachers spend a lot of time together at work and collaborate in depth. For example, they share their teaching material with each other. On Mondays there is a departmental meeting, where current topics and pedagogical questions are discussed. Colleagues are well informed about what is going on in each other’s classes.
Responsible for the collaboration and the teaching at any given department is the Principal Teacher, a middle management role between the Rector and the other teachers of a department. In the RMPS department there were three teachers and a student teacher all supervised by Mr. Dillon, the Principal Teacher. In Finland collegial cooperation is somewhat random, and to my liking it is too dependent on individual teacher’s personalities and interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, we don’t have principal teachers to lead the troops.
Argumentation-centric approach in the textbooks and the classes
In Scottish RMPS the emphasis on argumentation is strong. This is evident for example in the philosophy textbooks, whose chapters consist mainly of arguments, counterarguments and thinking exercises related to a theme; the Finnish textbooks are more theory- and concept-centric in comparison, and the exploration proceeds in a narrative. In the class, at least at Grove, phenomena are approached argumentatively, and there is lots of debate. Faulty reasoning is identified straight away. Even if philosophy is unable to find any indisputable truths, it doesn’t follow that every argument and opinion is equally good.
Overall, the emphasis on good argumentation is stronger in Scotland than in Finland, even though it is considered important here as well. Fortunately the new Finnish curriculum will pay more attention to the students’ argumentation skills. Interestingly enough, argumentation is not taught in Scotland (at least at Grove) as a distinct topic except in the optional higher courses. Rather the emphasis on it is present everywhere. However, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, for we are speaking of a country whose population is only about the size of Finland but which has nevertheless produced such giants of thought as David Hume, Adam Smith, and Thomas Reid. One could say that the focus on good argumentation comes for the Scots to some extent as a part of a cultural legacy.
Raising ethically aware and active global citizens
I was happy to notice at Grove that ethics was taught first and foremost as a practical discipline. In this and many other ways the school is raising students that are ethically aware and on their way to become active global citizens. I think this is something worth aspiring to. Here Grove Academy is true to its proclaimed school ethos, a part of which is stated in the school handbook as follows: “REACH out to the wider world and make a difference to others”.
I’ll give just a few examples. In written exercises, the students often aren’t required to state the facts of the matter but rather to think about what they could and should do about it. The school participates in the Inspire>Aspire: Global Citizens in the Making program that supports the development of the students into self-knowing, ethically oriented global citizens. The school also organizes international projects, such as a few weeks long voluntary working trips abroad (this summer to Uganda), and takes part in Lessons from Auschwitz project that includes yearly visits to Germany. On the whole, Grove is open to the world. No wonder then, that the students were very interested in their exotic Finnish guest.
I was very interested in their school community as well. After eleven years of teaching in a row I felt that I had to go far to see near again. If I didn’t return as a better person, then probably as a better teacher – at least I returned as a many experiences and friends richer cosmopolitan in the making, who spoke with a strong Scottish r [arr!] long after landing on home ground.