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How Finland Schools BC in Education

Lessons for teachers in its approach, where students are taught to be citizens, not consumers.

Crawford Kilian 26 Mar

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Education is Finland is based on an equal society that maximizes the talents of everyone. Photo: Shutterstock.

Imagine some beer-league hockey team from Whitehorse or Gaspé playing every team in the NHL, and out-skating, out-shooting, and out-scoring them all. And then doing it again, and again, for over 10 years.

You would expect the beer-leaguers to come under intense scrutiny from the intensely embarrassed pros. Who the hell are these guys? Who's their coach? How hard do they train? What's their secret?

That's been the attitude of the world's educators toward Finland for the last decade, ever since the students in that remote northern country began to turn up at the top of the world academic standings in exams like PISA and TIMSS that test for literacy, math and science skills. What's more, their approach is almost the exact reverse of what we're told is the only way to success.

So Pasi Sahlberg's remarkable book Finnish Lessons is getting a lot of attention from educators. My own copy is hopelessly defaced, with orange highlighter on almost every page. Sahlberg himself, to judge from his website, doesn't see much of Finland these days; he's too busy evangelizing the Finnish Way to North American teachers and politicians.

The greatest value of his book is not his description of what Finnish schools are doing now. The test scores can tell us that. But he also shows us how the schools achieved their successes, and where they might go from here.

Sahlberg shows that those successes were a long time coming. In 1952, Finland's schools about as good as Malaysia's and Peru's. It took years of debate for the Finns to recognize that their schools were mediocre -- not bad, but not good enough for a small country in a big global economy.

Then, through still more debate, Finland decided that the route to national survival would not come from training an elite class of academic superheroes. It would come through equality, ensuring that every kid from Helsinki (latitude 60º) to Utsjoki (latitude 69º) gets a consistently good education, and goes as far in school as he or she can.

A market-free school system

To survive in a free-market world, however, those kids would learn in a market-free system. They were to be citizens, not consumers; they would compete with the world, not with each other.

"Fostering the well-being of children starts before they are born," Sahlberg says, "and continues until they reach adulthood. Day care is a right of all children before they start school at age seven, and public health service is easily accessible to all during childhood. Education in Finland is widely seen as a public good and therefore protected as a basic human right to all in the Constitution."

Careful research and discussion preceded every step as Finns overhauled their teacher training and educational philosophy. "To rush this process is to ruin it," Sahlberg warns. North American educators, scarred veterans of half a century of school fads, should take heed.

It took over 30 years before Finnish kids started to beat the world. After laws passed in the 1960s, starting in 1970 a generation of teachers was recruited and trained from among the best students in the country. General respect for teaching certainly helped, but the real attraction was teacher autonomy: The teachers in every school -- not some Helsinki bureaucrat -- would decide how to teach, what to teach, and how to assess their students.

How attractive was this? Significantly, for a country with about the population of B.C., Finland has 14 universities -- eight of them with teacher-training programs. About 660 students are admitted yearly to those programs, drawn from 6,600 applicants. Polls show young Finns think teachers, male or female, are good marriage material.

Stealing from the best

Equally significantly, Sahlberg frankly admits that Finns themselves have contributed relatively little to the education theory and practice learned by student teachers. Instead, they steal from the best, including some Canadian ideas and practices -- we do well on the international exams, though we trail the Finns. They apply those practices pragmatically, keeping or dropping them based on results.

Sahlberg traces Finland's international test results since the 1960s. They were "average" until a reading literacy study in 1988 put nine- and 14-year-old Finnish kids in the "top performer" class. In the 1990s, math and science exams showed them "above average." By 2000, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was in place, covering literacy, math and science, and the Finns have largely owned the podium ever since.

That success left the Finns as surprised as the rest of us, because they hadn't been going for the gold. Like happiness itself, their kids' high scores were a by-product of the search for something else -- an equal society that could maximize the talents of everyone, from hip Helsinki kids to the Sami kids in Utsjoki (population 1,281).

Sahlberg points out that his colleagues still have doubts about the PISA tests: "Many teachers and principals in Finland have a skeptical view of international measurements and benchmarking tools. They perceive teaching and learning as complex processes and are aware that quantifying their effectiveness is difficult."

Part of that skepticism may come from a larger skepticism about what Sahlberg calls "GERM" -- the Global Education Reform Movement. Sahlberg calls it "a new educational orthodoxy," inspiring reforms in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. GERM's premises include improving student performance through national curriculums, as well as competition between schools and accountability for their results.

GERM, Sahlberg says, promotes standardization, focus on core subjects, prescribed curriculum, transferability of ideas from the corporate world, and "high-stakes accountability policies for schools."

B.C. educators will recognize the Fraser Institute as a major Canadian proponent of GERM theory. But that theory is the antithesis of Finnish education, which has neither national standards nor prescribed student outcomes, and relies on trusting teachers, not making them "accountable."

In Finland, schools cooperate rather than compete. The only major exam Finnish students face is at age 16. The whole idea of high-stakes exam results, accepted by most industrial nations, is anathema in Finland.

Instead, highly trained teachers take their kids as they come, assess them personally, and teach them accordingly. Thanks to Finland's narrow income gap, only 3.4 per cent of Finnish students are in poverty, compared to 21.7 per cent in the U.S., 13.6 per cent of Canadians -- and 14.6 per cent of British Columbians.

Beating the world on the cheap

In Finland, there is indeed a free lunch for every kid in the system. Special education for special-needs kids is not something that parents must fight for, but just another service -- delivered early, to solve the problem and get the kids up to speed as soon as possible. Education is free right up through grad school, including foreign students. (The Finns are remorseless headhunters, looking for all the talent they can recruit.) And they do all this on 5.6 per cent of the Finnish GDP, compared to Canada's 6.1 per cent.

Seen in this light, the BCTF's endless demands for social justice are not some goofy utopian dream; they just want to teach in Finland, or at least produce Finnish-quality graduates.

Sahlberg makes a persuasive case for social cooperation as the highest form of international competition. The Finns are committed to an egalitarian knowledge economy built on highly educated, creative, unpredictable workers. So schools (all public) share their good ideas. Finnish educators work closely with Nokia and other high-tech corporations -- and criticize them when they get complacent. The Ministry of Education and Culture is always thinking ahead to what kind of skills the country will need, and created a university of the arts this year to meet some of those needs.

More personalized learning

Sahlberg's own vision of future Finnish education is not especially high-tech: "Finnish school must continue to become more pupil-friendly so that it allows more personalized learning paths. Personalization doesn't mean replacing teachers with technology and individualized study. Indeed, the new Finnish school must be a socially inspiring and safe environment for all pupils to learn the social skills that they need in their lives."

So rather than resting on its laurels, he says, Finland's future schools should offer a personal road map for learning; less classroom-based teaching and more use of tablets or smartphones for access to facts; development of interpersonal skills and problem solving; and engagement and creativity as pointers of success.

In other words, Finland plans not just to maintain its lead, but to lap the field. It will do so by preparing students to make their own decisions about themselves and their country's future, instead of simply falling into the ranks demanded by today's corporations.

That's pretty ambitious thinking, whether the Finns admit it or not. Sahlberg tells the story of Finland's minister of education paying a call on her Swedish counterpart in the early 1990s. The Swede told her that by the end of the decade, Sweden's education system would be the best in the world.

The Finnish minister said her country's goals were much more modest. "For us, it's enough to be ahead of Sweden."  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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