Michael Lawrence

“In Finland, every school is a good school.”

I’m speaking with Geelong Author Michael Lawrence between the sounds of pop music and helicopters flying over Waterfront bay. Michael is an avid music fan, having taught for 30 years in English and music across a wide variety of schools and year levels. His first book, Showtime, documents Cold Chisel’s performances and reformation in 1998. At the time, there were no books on the band and Michael decided he would fix this oversight. Luckily the book was perfectly timed as the band was planning a comeback and Michael was able to network with DJ Billy Pinnel and worked with the band to have up-close access to their journey.

 “If you want to do something about it, then write something,” Michael says.

This brings us to the topic of his latest book ‘Testing 3,2,1: What Australian Education Can Learn From Finland’. In Australia, 30-50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years after graduating. Meanwhile, 90% of Finnish teachers remain in the profession for their entire career. Hoping to find the secret to Finnish success, Michael accepted an invite into their schools to bring their knowledge back to Australia. After arriving the Finnish teachers asked questions about standardised testing and ranking students Michael didn’t have answers for, prompting him to look at our education system and find the answer.

One of the main differences between Australian and Finnish schools is the flexibility of the curriculum. When asked about what period of history they teach, Finnish teachers responded, “from the beginning of time until now”. If a teacher does not think the students are interested in Shakespeare, they find another topic that the students are interested in and follow that instead. The only way a student can fail in Finland, Michael tells me, is if they do not have a sustained interest in any topic after graduation. In comparison, the NAPLAN test has been critiqued by teachers unions as an ineffective measure and source of anxiety in students. While theoretically the test creates a quotient of all Australian students, the consequences include at best fostering negative mindsets about their abilities and at worst serious mental health issues in Australia’s young people.

Intrigued, I asked Michael for his opinion on the shift to remote learning due to the COVID-19 lockdown in comparison with Finnish students. “Finnish students haven’t stopped learning,” Michael tells me. Where Australian students may have stepped back from their studies, Finnish students kept charging forward. “It’s about taking ownership over your studies.” Finnish self-directed learning can be incorporated into an Australian curriculum, Michael demonstrates. In a lesson about the Middle Ages, Michael encourages the students to choose groups and select a topic to present to the class. One group chooses the Black Death, and because they chose this topic they worked hard, were enthusiastic and succeeded in the task.

Michael’s new book was honoured as the Book of the Month by Maggie Dent, a writer and speaker on education and parenting. Maggie describes ‘Testing 3,2,1,’ as an “excellent, balanced exploration” of Australia’s education system. In 2021, Michael plans to partner with the international arm of Tampere University to bring this thinking into Australian schools.

If you want to know more, check out the Facebook page What Australian Education Can Learn from Finland and join the conversation.

Further reading:

‘The Challenge to Retain Second-Career Teachers’, University of Melbourne, 2020 https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/the-challenge-to-retain-second-career-teachers

‘Finland: Teacher and Principal Quality’, National Centre on Education and the Economy, 2020 https://ncee.org/what-we-do/center-on-international-education-benchmarking/top-performing-countries/finland-overview/finland-teacher-and-principal-quality/

‘Teachers and principals give NAPLAN a fail in education union survey’, The Age, 2020 https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/teachers-and-principals-give-naplan-a-fail-in-education-union-survey-20200903-p55s6j.html