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Doing education right

We should take the approach of Finland on how to instill the love of learning to kids so that they will become lifelong learners,” a reader recently wrote.

She led me to do some research on Finland’s education system. That country has indeed drawn attention from education observers, analysts and policymakers worldwide, for the rapid improvement in their young people’s scholastic performance since the 1990s, with Finnish students topping international tests.

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In 2000, the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment, a standardized test given to 15-year-olds around the globe, showed Finnish youth to be best in reading worldwide. By 2003, they were leading in mathematics, and in 2006, Finland showed best performance in science, besting 57 countries. To this day, its superior education system is credited for Finland’s ranking among the highest in economic competitiveness.

The United States outranked Finland in education outcomes back in the 1960s, but has since languished in rankings below dozens of countries, leading American education reformers to look to Finland for useful lessons. Here at home, we have been agonizing over our educational system over the last three decades, especially as our students’ performance in international tests had declined for most of that period. Much hope is pinned on the K-to-12 reform that added two additional years to basic education.

What is so good about Finnish education? From my scan of writings and documentaries on it, a few key principles appear to stand out.

At the center of it all are the country’s teachers, selected from the top 10 percent of their graduates, and all required to earn a master’s degree in education. As such, they occupy the same high stature in society as doctors, scientists and other professionals, earning comparable pay.

And yet, “teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers,” observed LynNell Hancock in a 2011 Smithsonian magazine article. “Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students.”

The same is reportedly true of Finland’s students: They spend less time in classrooms than most of their peers in the western world, and are given very little homework or none at all. And yet their experience proves that less is more. Pasi Majasaari, a high school principal, points out in a documentary that students “have a lot of other things to do after school… like being together, being with their family, doing sports, playing music, reading…”  Finland’s students have the shortest school days, and the shortest school years, in the western world, spending only three to four hours a day in school.

Education in Finland is described to be more about cooperation than competition. “While most countries see the educational system as one big Darwinian competition… there are no lists of top performing schools or teachers” in Finland, writes Mike Colagrossi in an online blog. Schools do not foster “an environment of competition—instead, cooperation is the norm.”

Even as Finland’s students excel globally, the gap between the weakest and strongest students are smallest in the world, according to a survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Parents need not shop around for the best schools, because standards are the same all over Finland.

Finland’s schools, with highly diversified multicultural students, employ no standardized tests. All schoolchildren in Finland are graded individually, based on a grading system set by their teacher. Students are not taught to pass standardized tests, but “to find their happiness… finding a way to learn what makes you happy,” declared Finnish teachers interviewed in a documentary.

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The only standardized test, the National Matriculation Exam, is a voluntary test for students given at the end of nine years of basic education, after senior high school. Overall progress is tracked by the Ministry of Education and Culture, which samples groups across different ranges of schools.

Someone summed it up thus: In Finland, education is not about teaching; it’s about fostering lifelong learning.

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TAGS: education, Education System, Finland, lifelong learners
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