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.