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Finland's education system well worth studying

Photo of Finnish school from Flickr 

Use the “F” word in any conversation about public education it is bound to result in a lively discussion.

The “F” word is “Finland”.

Here is a country of five and a half million people and a public education system with no high profile comparison based standardised testing, fewer school hours than any other developed country and kids who enjoy more playtime within those school hours than might seem reasonable to us.

Teachers – who are compensated somewhere around the mid point in international comparisons of teacher salaries – are unionized, but not subject to external inspection or assessment.

National curricular guides are sometimes no longer than two or three pages. Teachers decide the what and the how of what they do in their classrooms: to teach.

A chaotic system headed for failure – right?

Well, apparently not. Beginning in 2001 and continuing to the present day, Finnish kids have been the stars of the 65-country Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Finnish kids routinely position their country’s school system in the top two in literacy, math and science.

In 2001, they placed first in all three categories.

In 2009, Finland placed 2nd, three points behind Korea and two points ahead of Canada. The U.S., meanwhile, placed 14th.

Finnish results for math in 2009 again placed them second to Korea with Canada 5th and the U.S.22nd.

The real surprise came in 2009 in science results with Finland 1st, ahead of Japan and Korea, with Canada 5th and the U.S. 17th.

This is why the Finnish education system has been the subject of more research over recent years than global warming.

The Finnish education system fascinates U.S. educators, frustrated by a testing heavy structure driven by the failed “No Child Left Behind” conservative political initiative which emphasizes comparison of test results state by state rather than excellence in teaching.

On the other hand, Canada’s PISA results could be attributed to more of a statistical difference than anything else.

Canada’s results are world class, and our kids do very well on the PISA tests.

But there are significant features of the Finnish education system which are well worth considering:

  • Finnish children do not begin school until age seven. For the next nine years, they all attend public school. There are no private of charter schools in Finland.
  • All Finnish children learn three languages: Finnish, Swedish and English.
  • After age 16, students attend either a high school which leads some to university or a technical school which leads others to the trades.

Finnish schools recognize the fact (obvious to every parent everywhere) that children learn in different ways and at different rates. Individual differences are accommodated.

In fact, almost half of Finnish children receive individual “special” support with every teacher having received specific training during their teacher development programs.

There is no stigma attached to students receiving individual support. Class sizes average 20.

Every teacher in Finland has a Master’s degree with the top 10 per cent of university graduates going into teaching -- a profession which enjoys the same prestige as the legal and medical professions.

Only one in 10 applicants for teacher training is accepted. It is easier to get into a medical school.

Teachers are not externally assessed and enjoy what they describe as a trust relationship with their school-based administrators – all of whom do some teaching.

There are national assessments involving about 10 per cent of the student population with the results being focused on where additional support might be needed.

Finnish teachers are fully involved with students during the relatively short four-and-a-half hour instructional day. As one principal explained during a recent Dan Rather report, “It is important for the adults to be with the children and to intervene quickly, say in the case of teasing or bullying”.

Children arrive in their first schools at various stages of readiness emerging from a national culture which is described by Finnish Ministry of Education curriculum specialist Irmeli Halinen as “a reading culture”.

Seventy-five percent of Finns read a newspaper every day and the country has the highest rate of library usage in the developed world, with Finns checking out an average of 17 books a year.

Tempting as it is then, to idealise a school system which is based in a culture so different from our own, with less diversity and less poverty, the Finnish school system has emerged from the Finnish way of life based first in a philosophy about children that understands that children need to be allowed to be children and second that it is excellence in teaching, when all is said and done, which makes the difference.

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