Every conversation about education in the U.S. takes place in a minefield. Unless you’re a billionaire who bought the job of Secretary of Education, you’d better be prepared to answer questions about racial and economic equity, disability issues, protections for LGBTQ students, teacher pay and unions, religious charter schools, and many other pressing concerns. These issues are not mutually exclusive, nor are they distinct from questions of curriculum, testing, or achievement. The terrain is littered with possible explosive conflicts between educators, parents, administrators, legislators, activists, and profiteers.
The needs of the most deeply invested stakeholders, as they say, the students themselves, seem to get far too little consideration. What if we in the U.S., all of us, actually wanted to improve the educational experiences and academic outcomes for our children---all of them? Where might we look for a model? Many people have looked to Finland, at least since 2010, when the documentary Waiting for Superman contrasted struggling U.S. public schools with highly successful Finnish equivalents.
The film, a positive spin on the charter school movement, received significant backlash for its cherry-picked examples and blaming of teachers’ unions for America’s failing schools. By contrast, Finland’s schools have been described by William Doyle, an American Fulbright Scholar who studies them, as “the ‘ultimate charter school network'" (a phrase, we'll see, that means little in the Finnish context.) There, Doyle writes at The Hechinger Report, “teachers are not strait-jacketed by bureaucrats, scripts or excessive regulations, but have the freedom to innovate and experiment as teams of trusted professionals.”
Last year, Michael Moore featured many of Finland’s innovative educational experiments in his humorous, hopeful travelogue Where to Invade Next. In the clip above, you can hear from the country’s Minister of Education, Krista Kiuru, who explains to him why Finnish children do not have homework; hear also from a group of high school students, high school principal Pasi Majassari, first grade teacher Anna Hart and many others. Shorter school hours—the “shortest school days and shortest school years in the entire Western world”---leave plenty of time for leisure and recreation. Kids bake, hike, build things, make art, conduct experiments, sing, and generally enjoy themselves.
“There are no mandated standardized tests,” writes LynNell Hancock at Smithsonian, “apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school... there are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions.” Yet Finnish students have, in the past several years, consistently ranked in the top ten among millions of students worldwide in science, reading, and math. “If there was one thing I kept hearing over and over again from the Finns,” says Moore above, “it’s that America should get rid of standardized tests,” should stop teaching to those tests, stop designing entire curricula around multiple-choice tests. Hancock describes the results of the Finnish system, and its costs:
Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.
Moore's camera registers the shock on Finnish educators’ faces when they hear that many U.S. schools eliminated music, art, poetry and other pursuits in order to focus almost exclusively on testing. Though lighthearted in tone, the segment really drives home the depressing degree to which so many U.S. students receive an impoverished education—one barely worthy of the name—unless they luck into a voucher for a high-end charter school or have the independent means for an expensive private one. In Finland, says the Minister of Education, “all the schools are equal. You never ask where the best school is.”
It’s also illegal in Finland to profit from schooling. Wealthy parents have to ensure that neighborhood schools can give their kids the best education possible, because they are the only option. Many people in the U.S. object to comparisons like Moore’s by noting that societies like Finland are “homogenous” next to what may seem to them like maddening cultural diversity in the U.S. However, Finland has incorporated (not without difficulty) large immigrant and refugee populations---even as its schools continue to improve. The government has responded in part to rising immigration with educational solutions such as this one, a "national initiative to reinforce Finnish higher education institutions (HEIs) as significant stakeholders in migrants' integration."
The subtantive differences between the two countries’ educational systems may have less to do with demography and more to do with economics and the training and social status of teachers.
In Finland, writes Doyle, no teacher “is allowed to lead a primary school class without a master’s degree in education, with specialization in research and classroom practice.” Teaching “is the most admired job in Finland next to medical doctors.” And as Dana Goldstein points out at The Nation—a fact Waiting for Superman failed to mention---Finnish teachers are “gasp!—unionized and granted tenure.” Perhaps an even more significant difference the documentary glossed over: in Finland, “families benefit from a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that includes universal daycare, preschool and healthcare, all of which are proven to help children achieve better results at school.”
Hundreds of studies in recent years substantiate this claim. It would seem intuitive that stresses associated with hunger and poverty would have a pernicious effect on learning, especially when poorer schools are so egregiously under-resourced. And the data says as much, to varying degrees. And yet, we are now in the U.S. slashing breakfast and lunch programs that feed hungry children and deciding whether to uninsure millions of families as millions more still lack basic health coverage. Most every American parent knows that quality daycares and preschools can cost as much per year as a decent university education in this country.
It seems to many of us that the atrocious state of the U.S. educational system can only be attributed to an act of will on the part our political elite, who see schools as competition for fundamentalist belief systems, opportunities to punish their opponents out of spite, or as rich fields for private profit. But it needn’t be so. It took 40 years for the Finns to create their current system. In the 1960s, their schools ranked on the very low end---along with those in the U.S. By most accounts, they've since shown there can be systems that, while surely imperfect in their own way, work for all kids, embedded within larger systems that prize their teachers and families.
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In 2009 the UK's education policy directors suffered a significant blow. The PISA tests (OECD Programme for International Study Assessment) results were published, ranking the UK way down the international league table in reading, maths and science.
In total 65 countries were assessed; the UK scored: 25th in reading, 28th in maths and 16th in science. The overall best performer in the 2009 test was the region of Shanghai, China. Results from PISA suggested that school autonomy in defining the curriculum and assessment methods relates positively to overall performance. Additionally, the PISA data reported that creating homogeneous schools and/or classrooms through selection is unrelated to the average performance of education systems.
As if these facts weren't enough to send policy makers and directors into a whirlwind of confusion, it was also noted that UK ranked as 8th in the table for spending per pupil, but had a 23rd position average overall – this raises the question: "Who does score consistently highly and how do they approach the delivery of education in a pedagogic, political and cultural sense?"
One western country that has excelled in PISA ratings consistently over the years and is highly regarded across the globe as a leading education nation is Finland. Their sustained success has for many years prompted educationalists to consider how they have achieved this.
The reasons behind Finland's success are complex, not because they have one particularly incomprehensible approach to education, but instead, the evolved working parts within their system, framed within their cultural backdrop complement each other tremendously. Therefore an explanation, in my view, cannot be plucked out of their model in isolation, as each element is interdependent and inherently contingent on various other tacit and inconspicuous aspects that ultimate play a significant role within the mechanics of the model. It is this complexity that has perhaps been the source of difficulties experienced by authorities attempting to directly emulate their system.
In Finland teaching is a prestigious career. Children aspire to be doctors, lawyers, scientists and in the same breath teachers. They are respected and appreciated; they are highly qualified (requiring a Masters degree for full time employment) and job selection is a tough process with only best candidates gaining the posts.
The Finnish curriculum is far less 'academic' than you would expect of such a high achieving nation. Finnish students do the least number of class hours per week in the developed world, yet get the best results in the long term. Students in Finland sit no mandatory exams until the age of 17-19. Teacher based assessments are used by schools to monitor progress and these are not graded, scored or compared; but instead are descriptive and utilised in a formative manner to inform feedback and assessment for learning.
Great emphasis is put on pupil and teacher trust and well-being. Outdoor, practical learning opportunities and healthy related physical activity sessions are a regular feature in the curriculum: helping to maintain a healthy body and mind.
Finnish schools receive full autonomy, with head teachers and teachers experiencing considerable independence when developing and delivering their own individual curricula: suited to their setting. Combinations of alternative pedagogic approaches, rather than mere instructional methods are utilised by the teachers. The pedagogical freedom experienced facilitates greater creativity, pro-activity and innovation.
This naturally allows a greater degree of individual emotional well being, that no doubt plays a role in fostering positive learning role models and environments: positively shaping the minds of teachers and pupils alike.
Finland's Ministry of Education's philosophy has been to trust the professionals, parents and communities to guide their own policy: and it would appear that their investment has paid off.
From this secure base, in which high quality teachers are appreciated and trusted to do their job effectively as they see fit and political agendas are deflected, there emerges an impressive education system to be proud of that serves its students, communities and country very well.
All students in Finland receive a free education from when they start at seven years of age until they complete their university studies. During their educational journey all pupils receive free school meals, resources and materials, transport and support services.
Professional Learning Communities are integral to sharing and spreading good practice in a collaborative manner. The systematic introduction of languages is also striking and very effective. Pupils will often begin learning a third language by 11 years of age and some a fourth at 13.
A no child is left behind approach means that all classes contain a mixture of ability level pupils, with most classes containing two or more teachers who focus on those needing additional support. By having professionals working in conjunction, the needs of the pupils can be better met within a happy and familiar environment. Many teachers also stay with a single class for many years, moving with them through the school.
Many institutions are combined primary and secondary schools with no major unsettling transition stages; this also allows a consistent ethos and common language to pervade. Students address teachers by their Christian names, do not wear uniforms, and are encouraged to relax in their surroundings.
As with any system there are of course strengths, areas for development and ideological conflict. The Finnish system is aware of this and prides itself on positively evolving with the pupils' needs and interests at the heart of all decisions.
The Finnish system's success is built on the idea that: "less can be more". This may appear counter-intuitive to many within other educational systems in which standards and effectiveness are measured in standardised data and evidence trails. The absence of corrosive competition and an egalitarian ethos inherent in the Finnish culture has surely played a role in shaping this very impressive system.
With PISA 2012 on the horizon, the outcomes are sure to provide more food for thought for all educators and policy makers around the world.
• Adam Lopez is a primary school teacher at Langstone Primary School in Newport, South Wales. Adam has used Comenius funding from the British Council this year to create a multilateral international partnership/project that has allowed teachers to visit an array of countries and provided a shared curriculum for the pupils.
If you are interested in creating your own international schools partnership and learning in an international community there are many schemes funded by The British Council that can make this happen.
• This article was amended on 21 May 2012. When this piece was first published it included a reference to 80% of Finnish pupils going on to university. This figure is unverified so has been removed.
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