Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Real Lesson to be Learned from Finland

The world of education is all a flutter about Finland! Year after year, Finnish students finish at the top of international assessments. Educators from around the world are beating a path to Finland in hopes of finding the magic elixir to their success.  

Granted … Finland is a great place to visit, but we all can’t live there! The fact of the matter is … that’s what it would take to duplicate its success. There are about 5.3 million people who call Finland home; 93% are Finns and 7% are not. 100% of its population attend or have attended school and 93% graduate. It boasts a 100% literacy rate. Wow-za! Who wouldn’t want those numbers? Throw in the fact that Finland is one of the wealthiest countries per capita in the world and has the smallest gap between their lowest and highest achievers … and you have a grand slam!

Think this all happened by accident? Do the Finns possess superior genes? Is it something in the water? No. I don’t know. And no. And why would I be writing about this anyway? Finland does not provide ‘gifted’ education per se. All children are included in the same classroom with few exceptions. The simple answer is that I believe there are lessons to be learned, but that it won’t work everywhere. This last point is significant because there are countries (my own included) that seem to think imitation will bring the same results to their shores.

After weeks of research on my part, it appears the Finns have managed to create a public education system that resembles homeschooling in the U.S., but on a grand scale … the best of both worlds. Finnish children are nurtured both at home and at school. They do not start school until the age of 7 and are expected to be reading by that time. 75 minutes of each school day is dedicated to outdoor recess. They are not bombarded with high-stakes testing and the avalanche of test prep that surround these tests. How ironic that other countries currently choose an approach to surpass Finland that is the antithesis of the Finnish system?

Teachers are well-educated; an education subsidized by the government. The majority of teachers in Finland possess master’s degrees. Teachers belong to a strong union. Teachers earn the respect of the public. They receive professional development on a weekly basis. At the elementary level, teachers and students bond by staying together as a class for up to 5 years. To ensure that each child succeeds, Finnish teachers are given the freedom to control their own curriculum and methods of assessment rather than dictated to by a national policy deeply entrenched in the numbers game. When teachers are encouraged to be creative and innovative, students are the benefactors.  

In the U.S., a disturbing trend has emerged to eliminate gifted education by saying that all children should receive gifted education ala Finland. Perhaps in a perfect world where all children began life in a setting such as Finland, this could be an achievable goal; but they do not. To impose this logic on a school system without Finnish parameters is ridiculous.

This country is witnessing the loss of a generation to the lunacy of No Child Left Behind where the best and brightest were not only left behind but ignored. And we wonder where all the gifted under-achievers came from? This one piece of legislation alone is one of the greatest travesties bequeathed to our children from a system controlled by wayward politicians and the burgeoning peripheral industries that supported NCLB’s testing mania.

If the world wants to compete with the likes of Finnish students, it should look beyond the test scores to understand that the key to success is ‘mastery’ of content in the early years of education rather than ‘exposure’ to content because instructional time is reduced for test preparation. Pasi Sahlberg of Finland’s Ministry of Education and author of the book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? states that, “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test.” This is the real lesson that should be learned from Finland