Note: This Blog entry summarizes and expands upon a wonderful article in the September 2011 Smithsonian Magazine by LynNell Hancock titled “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” Links to Ms. Hancock and the article are below.
The small country of Finland has greatly improved the reading, writing, and science literacy of its children over the past 10 years – partly because teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to help children learn. Teachers in Finland consider themselves to be preparing children for life. Ninety-three % of Finland’s students graduate from academic or vocational high school (17.5% higher than the US); 66% go on to higher education (highest % in the European Union) and yet Finland spends 30% less per student than the US.
Finland’s schools were not always wonderful. Until the late 1960s, most children left school after 6 years (Finland was emerging from under the Soviet Union). As Finland charted its future, a dream emerged – every child would learn in a good public school, no matter where that child lived, – everyone would be educated, and school resources would be distributed equally.
Some say this tiny, ethnically homogeneous country cannot be compared to large, ethnically-diverse countries. However, when LynNell Hancock visited Finland schools for Smithsonian Magazine (September 2011 issue), she found schools similar to Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive in Espoo ( a suburb of Helsinki) where more than half its 150 elementary students were immigrants – from Somalia, Iraq, Russia, Bangladesh, Estonia, Ethiopia, and other countries.
Finland’s education success has inspired and confused many – and even irritated some American educators and administrators. What is it about Finland and its educational system that seems to work? Let’s take a look at a few of the differences:
TEACHERS: Teachers in Finland are considered professionals, and respected on a par with doctors and lawyers. They all obtain their Masters degrees in education, paid for by the state. Autonomy and respect make the job attractive.
STRATEGIES: Teachers use many methods to support children. If one method doesn’t work, they have the autonomy to consult with colleagues and try another method. This could mean combining classes. It could mean using new materials, or old materials in a new way. If a child needs special help, the child receives that help. Nearly 30% of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help sometime within their first 9 years of school. Teachers ensure children have time to play outdoors, even in the middle of winter – we value play, say the Finns.
CONTINUITY OF CARE: Elementary teachers often stay with the same group of children for a number of years in contrast to US teachers who usually have different groups of children every year.
TESTS & COMPETITION: In the US, government officials, business people, and philanthropists like Bill Gates put money into private sector ideas that involve competition. Indeed, President Obama may be on the same path with the “Race to the Top” initiative which requires states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers.
This would not be tolerated in Finland. In fact the goal of Finnish education is to teach children to learn how to learn, not to learn how to take a test.There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland (except one at the end of high school senior year). There are no rankings, no comparisons, no competition between students, schools, or regions.
Note: What does this mean for learning? In the worldwide 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores, Finland was second in science, third in reading, and sixth in math out of nearly 1/2 million children worldwide. United States scores have been in the middle of the pack for the past 10 years.
DISABILITIES: The Finland national goal for the last 5 years has been to mainstream all children – to teach all children in the same classrooms, with lots of special teacher help available to make sure no child is left behind. Only the most severely impaired receive segregated learning.
DUAL LANGUAGE LEARNERS: The only time dual language learner children are pulled out of regular classrooms is for Finnish as a Second Language or occasionally for special “preparing” classes taught by experts in multicultural learning especially for children who are just learning the Finnish language.
Note: All children in Finnish schools learn Finnish and Swedish, and then a 3rd language (usually English) beginning at age 9.
ACCOUNTABILITY: Finland turned over the accountability and inspection of its schools to teachers and principals. All schools are organized into one system of comprehensive schools (Peruskoulu) for ages 7-16. Resources are distributed equally so children from rural areas receive the same education as children from affluent suburbs and inner cities.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
It’s not perfect – Finland economics are suffering, and a huge influx of immigrants has strained the system. Still, there are questions to be pondered, and maybe even a lesson or two to be learned by those of us who grew up in and espouse the western ideal of competitive education. It’s not easy to look at a system so different from our own, and take heed of what they might do better than our way. It’s easy to see the differences – it’s just not easy to accept that there might be some better strategies.
I’m not advocating the US switch to the Finland system of education. I believe there are significant differences between our countries. For example, Finnish schools provide food, medical care, counseling, taxi service if needed – and student health care is free. OK – I really, really wish we could do that for every child in the US. But I’m practical enough to realize that’s not going to happen.
But I do wish our government officials, business people, and philanthropists would occasionally dream beyond our system and imagine what it might be like if we could incorporate some of those strategies that seem to work so well for Finland. Unfortunately, we aren’t the leading country in education – not by a long shot. But we can do better – so I end with a plea for every parent at every school that’s not working that well: Read about other school systems – like Finland – and ask yourself – what is one small step our school could take to enhance how it treats students, how it treats teachers, how it supports learning?
To read the entire wonderful Smithsonian Magazine article by LynNell Hancock, click HERE
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