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Finland's Super Kids

Why are they smartest in the world? Actually their school system is what's super, and BC could learn a thing a two.

Crawford Kilian 26 Jan

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Everyone agrees that Finland -- a small, cold, northern country with about the population of B.C. -- is, as the BBC once called it, an "education superpower." Only South Korea really matches the Finns on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the accepted yardstick for comparing school achievement around the world.

Even more remarkably, Finland's success isn't just a product of a few elite schools, or a wealthy social class; as PISA notes, "No other country has so little variation in outcomes between schools, and the gap within schools between the top- and bottom-achieving students is extraordinarily modest as well. Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background or socio-economic status. For these reasons, Finnish schools have become a kind of tourist destination, with hundreds of educators and policy makers annually travelling to Helsinki to try to learn the secret of their success."

The envy is worldwide, with media in Britain, the U.S., and Israel all drawing unflattering comparisons between their own schools and the Finns'.

Perhaps the strongest endorsement of all is the major new report "The Learning Curve," by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Drawing on PISA and many other sources, The Learning Curve shows Finland beating almost everyone else -- and not even spending as much as many other countries.

The only jurisdictions that rank with Finland are Asian: South Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan. Yet Finland seems academically lax -- especially by the cram-school standards of the Asians, fixed as they are on exam after exam. The Finns discourage homework and standardized testing. Yet on international tests like PISA, they do brilliantly.

Podium dreams

Canada actually does quite well too, generally standing right behind Finland and the Asians, and well ahead of the Americans. But at sixth or seventh, we're still also-rans. Even if we can't own the podium, we can dream of bronze or silver. What are the Finns doing that we're not?

First of all, they've got a head start: Finland's education policy developed in the 1970s as a consciously long-term project. North American educators and politicians are pushovers for quick fixes and the fad of the week. Who remembers the Cuisenaire rods and New Math of the 1960s, or B.C.'s Applied Academics program in the 1990s? Whatever their political changes, the Finns have stuck to the program.

Second, they both value teachers and make demands on them. As The Learning Curve says: "Respect for teachers... is ingrained in certain cultures such as those in Finland and South Korea. It can also be built in a society through policy choices."

In effect, Finland and South Korea recruit teachers the way armies recruit paratroopers -- from the best and most ambitious. In Finland, teachers come from the top 10 per cent of graduating students. Just to qualify for a teaching position you need a master's degree, and you'll do serious professional development throughout your career -- assuming you land a teaching job in the first place.

Third, Finland treats teachers like professionals, which means trusting their judgment. The government sets the desired outcomes and keeps an eye on teachers, but how they reach those outcomes is up to them. The degree of teacher autonomy in a Finnish elementary or secondary school would look like red revolution in B.C.

While South Korea pays its teachers well above the national average, and expects them to teach huge classes, Finland stays to the average salary, keeps classes small, and doesn't keep teachers or students in class very long. (The Learning Curve says Italian students "go to school three years longer" in class hours.)

Education for the Hunger Games

Here's a critical difference between Finland and South Korea (and Canada): We and the Koreans are training our kids for the Hunger Games, a kill-or-be-killed ordeal. Those who pass the final exam not only survive but maintain or improve their social status. Too bad about the flunk-outs.

This is the foundation of all the Fraser Institute school rankings and Macleans lists of top universities. Their premise is that only the best-educated survive in an individualist, cut-throat world where there is no such thing as society. So good parents feel driven to get their kids into the top kindergartens just for starters, no matter what the cost to their kids or to other people's kids.

Finland imposes that Darwinian process on its teachers, but not on its students.

By contrast South Korea, which was largely illiterate at the end of the Korean War, is now a major industrial power because its leaders made education serve a national economic goal -- a goal imposed by its military rulers in the 1970s, and achievable only by an education forced march that continues to this day.

But as a recent article points out, Finland's high academic scores are just a by-product of its cooperative, egalitarian school system -- not the goal itself. Finland, as The Learning Curve says, made "a commitment as a nation to invest in learning as a way of lifting its commitment to equity. They wish to lift the learning of all people: it is about a moral purpose that comes from both a deeper cultural level and a commitment at a political-social level. In other words, education is seen as an act of social justice."

As expressed in the schools, that act of social justice seems shocking to educators in other systems. Finnish kids don't start school until they're seven. In elementary, they get 75 minutes of recess every day, and free hot lunches (for teachers too). They aren't really tested for their first six years in school, but three out of 10 get extra help when their teachers see they need it. The only mandatory standardized test they take is at 16, which qualifies them for college. The high school graduation rate is 93 per cent, and two-thirds of all grads do go on to college -- which is free.

No pedagogue's paradise

Finland is not a pedagogue's paradise. Opettaja, the professional teachers' magazine, reports that teachers and administrators often battle over who can speak publicly about school issues. Google "teachers" on the English-language pages of Finnish news agency YLE, and you'll find stories about unruly and hungry students, unprofessional teacher behaviour, the problems of teaching in poor neighbourhoods, and protests from the teachers' union over funding cuts.

One Finn recently dismissed The Learning Curve, saying Finnish success is based on the language's phonetic spelling and a relatively homogeneous culture; the Finnish model is therefore not exportable.

Never mind the spelling and the culture; importing such a model to B.C. would be politically explosive.

Political show-stoppers

After all, it would have to be a long-term project, not fully operational until perhaps the 2040s. Every government between now and then would have to leave it alone. Good luck with that dream of social justice.

Today's teachers would have to be grandfathered into the new system. But many of the old-timers would choose early retirement rather than put up with the brainy, aggressive young MAs coming into the schools. Those young teachers wouldn't be attracted by the starting pay, but by the freedom to meet the general curriculum goals set by the government. Like doctors and engineers, they'd work without the supervision of senior bureaucrats.

Today's parents would have to give up their vision of school as competitive arena; the local school would be the only school, and it would be as good as any other in the province. Without endless tests, they'd have to accept the teacher's judgment about how their kids are doing.

A little-noted aspect of Finnish education is that a single teachers' union represents everyone, from kindergarten to university. In North America's academic caste system, our university Brahmins would reject the idea out of hand.

Similarly, education policy is set at the national level (by the Ministry of Education and Culture) and municipalities look after their local schools. No B.C. school boards would welcome their own dissolution, and few municipalities would want the chores of school administration.

Still, B.C. educators can dream. If Finland could change its education culture by changing its education policies, then maybe we could, too -- and if we changed our political culture at the same time, so much the better.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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