Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Finnish Frame of Mind

The Finnish public education system is the envy of the world. In the triennial PISA tests administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Finnish students regularly place at or near the top in science, math and reading. In contrast, American teens usually finish near the middle (grade C) among students from 57 countries.

What can explain this in a country about the size of Montana and with a population of less than 6 million? Perhaps Finns start school early to get a head-start on their peers from around the world. Maybe they are “homeworkaholics” whose ideas of fun are to dissect frogs, master long division and study the classics for clues to character building. Or perhaps parents relentlessly drive their children to succeed in school, because failure would make them pariahs for life.

Actually the opposite is true, as several reports, including this recent one in the Wall Street Journal (link may require subscription), reveal. Finns don’t start school until age 7, a year later than most U.S. first-graders. Homework is light, rarely more than a half-hour a night, far less than what the average kid in the U.S. has to contend with. Finnish parents hardly get excited about how their kids are doing in school. They rely on the system to do its job, and if a student is falling behind, why then, it is the school that has to step up to the plate, not them.

Finnish students are certainly not lacking in the fun department. As Ellen Gamerman reports in the WSJ, the youth dye their hair, waste hours online, surf Google for answers and listen to rap and heavy metal. They are as passionate about extracting maximum excitement from after-school hours as their U.S. counterparts.

But surely something has to account for why, by the ninth grade, Finns are way ahead in math, science and reading, on track to becoming “among the world’s most productive workers.”

The reasons are as prosaic as they come. Finns place premium value on teacher training. Would-be teachers must hold masters' degrees and have to compete hard for the privilege of teaching. Over 40 candidates may compete for a single position. Teachers are rewarded more with freedom to pursue their creative ideas than with higher salaries.

Once in the system, teachers can rely on mentors to hone their craft. Gamerman quotes an OECD educator in defining the traits of Finnish teachers: “In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs.”

Finnish educators also believe in ensuring that all students have a solid grasp of the basics before moving on to higher grades. There are rigorous programs in place for helping lagging kids to catch up and they almost always work. The emphasis is more on preventing students from falling through the cracks than on special programs for the gifted. A school principal observed, "We don't have oil or other riches. Knowledge is the thing Finnish people have.” And they make the most of it.

There are lots of no’s in the Finnish education system: No fancy pedagogical theories, no honor societies, no off-beat classes with exotic names, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and little or no standardized testing. However, there are plenty of hands-on science and a lot of questioning, critical thinking and extra playtime.

It is probably unfair to compare Finland with the U.S. After all, Finnish educators work with a near-homogeneous, relatively small student population. Failures can be quickly detected and corrective actions urgently applied. American teens, on the other hand, are far more diverse in aptitude and ethnicity and pose formidable challenges to attaining a minimum level of proficiency. More important, American teachers, on the average, are nowhere near as well-trained as their Scandinavian counterparts and do not enjoy comparable status in society.

There is also the negative effect of politics in many American schools that causes many gifted educators to give up on the teaching profession.

The Finnish educational system has its flaws. The demands of a global economy and the need for innovation are causing some educators to question whether what has succeeded so far can continue to hold in their country. Opinions are being increasingly heard that “Finland needs to fast-track its brightest students the way the U.S. does, with gifted programs aimed at producing more go-getters.” A principal complains that “parents also are getting pushier about special attention for their children.”

The occasional serpent in paradise sometimes rears its head too: an 18-year-old shot eight people inside his high school in southern Finland last November before turning the gun on himself.

Still, the Finnish back-to-basics approach to high school education, with a no-frills curriculum, a love of reading and a culture that promotes self-reliance early, constitute a timeless prescription for success. Educational fads will come and go but these old-fashioned ideas and values will endure.

P.S. Here is an excellent source of information about the Finnish School System.

I thank Tom Hanson, Editor of OpenEducation.Net, for making me aware of his organization and the good work it is doing.

For more postings on the state of education in our schools and colleges, please visit my prototype Website and login with Username "myguest" and Password "welcome". I am looking to transform the prototype into a one-of-a-kind educational and social networking Website for our kids with the help of some top-notch (and idealistic) Web 2.0 programmers. The content is all ready to go. Anyone interested out there willing to advance a good cause?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Finns have found a way to excel. There is no reason why we cannot emulate some aspects of their school system here in America, even though our student population is far more diverse and the challenges are more daunting. As a college professor, I see high school students come to math classes unable to handle fractions and decimals. This has got to change. Accountability and more student-to-student instructions will go a long way, along with great teachers of course, to prepare our kids to face the challenges of the 21st century.