Skinning Cats

Yesterday I commented on a post by Anson Burlingame on the subject of education in America.  The gist of my opinion on what’s wrong with it was that our system fails to engage parents well and, more importantly, fails to tailor education to the vastly different needs, skills and talents of the students.

As chance would have it, NBC News last night featured a segment on the number one

Flag of Finland

Flag of Finland, via Wikipedia

country in the world for education, Finland.  In that highly-socialized country, the high-school drop-out rate is less than 2%.  The students graduate high school speaking, on average, four languages (including English).  How do they do it?

Turns out that their method has less to do with categorizing students than with applying human resources to the problem.  Finnish teachers make less than American teachers, but this is misleading because of the different standards of income.  They pay their teachers about what they pay doctors, lawyers and financiers.  And, there are an average of three, count-’em, three teachers per classroom.  The assistant teachers counsel and tutor those who need it to keep up.

The segment also mentioned that the country had been successful in engaging parents in the educational effort, but didn’t say how.  That might be worth a follow-up.

There is a long-recognized principle of management at play here, and I recall it from my

War production workers at the Vilter [Manufact...

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

management studies.  Before WWII, I think it was in the 1930’s, there was an efficiency study done by Western Electric in a factory that employed women.  They sat in a large “wiring room” and worked on transformers and other components of telephone systems.  The purpose of the study initially was to apply different changes to the work environment to determine which best improved the work output.

They changed the lighting.  They changed the

working hours.  Break times.  Table arrangements.  Types of work.  They found a completely unexpected result.  Productivity improved, no matter what they changed! The

Portrait of a chartreux cat. 4 months old.

Image via Wikipedia

study concluded that it was the ATTENTION that made the difference, not the changes themselves.  We humans are social animals, and nothing affects us so much as attention by others.  In my opinion that is precisely what is in play in Finland.  (Probably explains the current tattoo fad as well.)

I still think my comment to Anson’s post is valid, but there is clearly more than one way to skin a cat, and Finland found one.  Good for them.  Maybe we have learned something.  Again.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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6 Responses to Skinning Cats

  1. Jim says:

    That study in a Western Electric factory is known as the ‘Hawthorne effect’.
    [ ] Other studies have confirmed the reality of this effect.

    The analogy of the Hawthorne effect to Finnish education is more remarkable for its imprecision. Changes in lighting, wall color, etc. are relatively passive interactions with the subjects. The attention provided by Finnish teachers is very active – it is intensely personal and bi-directional.

    Since passive attention is so effective, it seems unsurprising that active attention has been an important part of Finland’s success.

    My own experience with tutoring confirms th value of a better student:teacher ratio. Students whom I have tutored have consistently succeeded on their own after one or two sessions. I work with them, not to ‘master skills’, but to identify mental and emotional barriers in their learning. A single teacher with 20-30 students CAN NOT work routinely in this way.

    Please pardon a plug for my blog on this topic:
    [ ]


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    I have been a “tutor” of sorts most of my life. In my retirement I have interacted with poor kids, rich kids, college kids, etc. The intense one-on-one environment is effective in some cases and not such in others. Usually it all boils down to ATTITUDE on the part of the student having trouble no matter what their IQ might be.

    To BEGIN to change such negative attitudes is the first step in reforming education, IMHO. As a first step refer to my blog and subsequent comments. I love Turner’s blog refering to the “the trenches” in public education. Very apt description IMHO.

    I have found as a hard nosed substitute that I CAN as a “teacher” control those “trenches” with my “warrior hat”. As a substitute I was intolerant when kids “goofed off” or even went farther into belligerence. “You can’t make me do that. It’s not FAIR” Lower the boom to pay attention, answer oral questions, sit still and take notes during a “lecture” etc. and you hear that crap all the time.

    One geometry class at JHS acutally had two chess boards set up. Rather than listen to a lecture on the subject, work problems at their desk, etc students expected to be able to play chess, put on makeup, talk gossip, etc. Imagine “Reactor Red” (me) in such an environment and the number of “referals” passed out to the belligerent malcontents.

    Then look at the results of such referals.

    One kid, a good athelete was told (along with the rest of the class) to work problems 1 -10 in the text book. When completed they could quietly “talk” while others completed the assignment. The “kid” within 5 minutes closed his book and started chatting with a friend. I asked if he had completed the assignment. He said yes. I reasked the question very specifically and warned him to be honest. He said “yes” again. I looked and he had done NOTHING. I refered him to the Asst. Principle for lying.

    10 minutes later he was back in class with a check in the box for “counselling”. After school that day I went to the Asst Prin. (politely) and asked what “counseling” meant. The kid was told not to lie again and the matter was closed. I was also told that “coach” would make him run some extra laps at practice.

    I was considered a renegade to even put a kid in a postion where he had to be honest. When he was not honest I was criticized for “burdening the system” with such a matter.

    Now how many teachers, REAL teachers, would have even laid down such a challenge and refered the kid for real discipline, even parental notification God forbide, for lying. It just doesn’t happen my friends, at least not in JHS or any middle school I have observed in Joplin.

    Bad attitudes are simply endured by teachers and the lowest common denominator prevails in classes. To me it is as simple as that, for starters. And I don’t care how many kids are in the class. Any teacher MUST CONTROL THE TRENCHES and be given the power to do so IMHO. Barring physical abuse the system must demand that teachers do so and back them up to the hilt when they carry out such directives.

    How does an administrator check such demands are being met. Start by dropping by a classroom and see how many kids are playing chess in geometry class seems a good first step to me.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Your experiences remind me of the classic movie, “Blackboard Jungle”, with Glen Ford.

      Clearly the problem is multi-faceted, and a substantial part of it has to be the very permissive society we live in. Since WWII it has been a cultural meme in America that children must be nurtured so that they have “a better life” than their parents. Seems to me that this has turned into permissiveness. One might be tempted to blame television and the communications revolution as well, but then there is the example of Finland. That seems to contradict what is happening here.

      My instincts are the same as yours regarding behavior in the classroom. However, as you point out, discipline in the school system has no teeth. Lack of teaching and leadership skills are doubtless part of the problem, but I think it goes deeper than that. There is something rotten at society’s permissive core. It didn’t get there overnight and it will be a long time afixin’.

      In the case of the lying student, I wonder if the kid’s parents were told about his transgression and, if so, whether there was any action or reaction on the homefront?



  3. Good post. I may ask my daughter read this get her take. (She’s 14, and a great student, almost all A’s).

    By the way, Jim please don’t really skin that kitty. She looks like ours.


  4. ansonburlingame says:


    I was told that the kids parents WOULD NOT BE NOTIFIED. In the view of the Asst Prin the offense did not rise to that level requiring such. I did not argue with him but did pass on the information to the Principle later on when giving him examples of my observations at JHS.

    I too am firmly in agreement with you that Public Ed issues, the bad ones, reflect very negatively on our current society. In SOME case I have many union experiences that reflect the same attitude in the adult community. I have also seen it in non-union professional employees.

    Then try to draw parallels with our “entitlement” society at almost all levels.

    There is a cultural thread running deep in all those issues. The sky is NOT falling but it sure gets dark outside a lot “earlier” than in the past it seems to this OLD MAN.



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