By Patricia H. Kushlis
If you haven’t watched Sir Ken Robinson’s “Changing Education Paradigms” yet, take the next few minutes to do so. It’s well worth the investment.
The video is entertaining. It’s shorter than a coffee break or recess - that is if American schools still have recesses. And whether intentional or not, Robinson’s video of how education should be perceived in the US and the UK reinforces the Finnish approach to public education as described in Lynnell Hancock’s article “A+ For Finland” in the Smithsonian Magazine’s September 2011 issue.
Don’t think that just because Finland is a small, wealthy country with a homogeneous, largely middle class, blond, blue-eyed and majority Lutheran population all marching to the same beat that therefore, Finnish kids should, ipso facto, consistently excel on the internationally recognized PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) exams. That myth of the stereotypical Finn is simply not true - although they speak an incredibly difficult language for non-Finno-Ugric speakers to learn and Finland’s immigrant population numbers only 4% of the total.
In comparison, Finland’s northernmost Nordic neighbor, Norway, has PISA results similar to America’s own. Norway also follows the US educational, corporatist, super-competitive model too so, let’s see: This might suggest that there’s something fundamentally wrong with this approach – as Robinson and Hancock both suggest – and that a new educational paradigm is desperately needed.
Why is it that year after year Finnish students perform far better than American, British and Norwegian students on those pesky exams -all three groups of whom remain stuck somewhere in the PISA middle? It's not just money. Finland spends “about 30 percent less per student than in the US.”
One of the most interesting aspects in Hancock’s article about the Finnish system is that the Finnish approach to K-12 education works in some of the poorest and ethnically diverse immigrant neighborhoods as well as with the children of the country’s middle and wealthy classes. Not only do all the kids perform extremely well in a comparative sense, but 93% of Finnish high school students graduate as compared with 75.5% in the US and 66% go on to higher education – the highest in the EU.
As Hancock tells us, Finnish kids are not subjected to the current American mania of “No Child Left Behind” teach-to-the-test competitive education which – among other things - seems to have produced wholesale cheating by certain teachers in certain school districts who surreptitiously changed answers to raise their students’ test scores. This, of course has neither improved the quality nor image of US public education.
The Obama administration’s reforms that basically make teachers accountable for their kids test scores doesn’t seem to have helped much either but since they've hardly had time to take effect it may be too soon to say.
Regardless, “teaching to the test” seems, in my view, to have primarily benefitted the standardized testing companies whose markets suddenly expanded exponentially under “No Child Left Behind.”
Why do Finnish schools leave others in the dust?
Here are a few things that Hancock discovered (supplemented by some recollections of my own):
Most Finnish K-12 teachers are professionals who have been “selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s (university) graduates to earn a required degree in education.”
The current system was begun forty years ago at a time when the country decided that to become globally economically competitive all Finnish children needed strong basic education from the very beginning.
Most Finnish schools are small and the teachers know every student. “If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else” and as many as 30% of Finnish children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school.
Sometimes teachers move up the grades with the same students – a tried and true approach first introduced by a Russian educators years ago when the Soviet Union still existed if I remember correctly. This connects the school, teacher and family in ways the US system of “here today, gone tomorrow” teachers does not.
A Finnish teachers’ primary goal: to try and “catch the weak students” before it's too late.
Moreover, government officials running the schools are educators.
They are not reinvented business people, military officers or politicians. Every school has the same national goals and the same financial support. Except that the schools in poorer and immigrant neighborhoods receive special subsidies that permit more individualized attention for students most in need – just the opposite of the American system which financially rewards the wealthiest districts.
Because the quality and commesurate status of Finnish teachers is so high, every school kid has access to the same quality education regardless of location or economic status. The differences in achievement “between the weakest and strongest (Finnish) students are the smallest in the world.”
Another major difference: learning how to learn
The Finns prepare “students to learn how to learn, not how to take a test” according to Pasi Sahlberg, former math and science teacher who is now an official in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture and author of the forthcoming book Finnish Lessons due out this fall.
Meanwhile on the home front, there is significant government support for families. Financial subsidies include three years paid maternity leave, child support, free day care and pre-K for all. This is not new either and it is one important way the country is attempting to deal with an aging and small population spread over a large country - but where winters are long, cold, dark and hard the further north one goes.
And although some Americans would erroneously and derogatorily label Finland as socialist because it has a vibrant social safety net – the country, in reality, is not only democratic but has a mixed capitalist-socialist economic system that has sustained economic ups and downs over many years.
Finnish kids, therefore, rarely show up at school hungry or homeless. Furthermore “schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Student health care is free,” reports Hancock.
Unlike students in China, Japan and Korea, Finnish kids are not given much homework – at least not in the lower grades. They don’t enter the classroom until age seven (but most attend Pre-K where socialization is a major focus) and the school day is shorter than in America. But education not only occurs in the classroom. Outdoor playtime is mandatory regardless of the weather and kids learn lessons outside from practical demonstration and hands on experimentation as well as in the classroom.
These range from math to environment and orienteering. Finns are eminently practical people – and the orienteering lessons my son learned when he attended a Finnish private school years ago (the few private schools also follow the national curriculum) likely saved him from becoming hopelessly lost when he wandered off one evening as a fourteen year old on our first evening on a sightseeing visit to Bruges.
Reinforced concrete-style educational building blocks
The Finnish educational building blocks are significantly different from those in the US. First graders study math, Finnish and science as well as music, art, sports, religion and textile handcrafts. English (or French, German or Russian) begins in the third grade. Swedish, the country’s second official language, is added in fourth and by the fifth grade, Finnish schools have added biology, geography, history, physics and chemistry but nothing has been dropped. The classes become more advanced as the students’ progress through the grades.
Both boys and girls learn basic cooking, woodwork and sewing during their grad school experience although Hancock doesn't mention this. They also retain their individuality.
Colored sweatshirts, rabbit ears and a stuffed mouse
Various colored sweatshirts and jeans were the “uniforms” of choice when my son attended school in Helsinki and where he studied Finnish as a foreign language until his final year (equivalent to sophomore year in an American school) when the principal rightly decided enough was enough and sent him and another foreign student to the Finnish for Finnish kids’ class.
Hancock reported seeing one young girl wearing rabbit ears in class for no particular reason and another with a small gray stuffed mouse on her desk to remind her of home.
Children may also enroll in non-school based activities after classes are over. And the school my son attended had a variety of popular clubs. The country, for instance, has an excellent comprehensive program of private musical instruction which provides education and training at all levels. Not quite from cradle to grave, but almost.
On the other hand, summer vacations are shorter than in the US but then, that leaves less time for students to forget what they learned the previous school year.
Before I worked in Finland from 1988-92, I had heard the following saying “to be born a Finn was to have won the lottery.” It wasn’t always like that- as Hancock and others have explained - but the Finnish educational “experiment” that began forty years ago has certainly paid off in spades.