Finland, or the primacy of learning


The world offers many stellar examples to countries and / or nations that want to plan their development. Chief among them are the Scandinavian countries. We'll take a look at Finland.

Finnish KindergartenAbout 30-40 years ago, Finland was falling behind in many measures and internationally measured indices. So their leaders got together and somehow managed to get others involved as well in drafting a plan to improve their lot. They came out with strategies in health, education and industry and followed through. Here’s how dallasnews describes those times:

Finland gained its independence in 1917 under the leadership of teachers more than politicians or soldiers. Yet, by the 1960s, public education was so bad that parents were moving their children en masse to private schools. Laukkanen remembers a forecast that predicted by 1972, only one-fourth of Finland's children would be attending public schools.

Funding inequities, vastly different course requirements and low job expectations with Finland's dominant forest industries left many villages with bad schools. "The system was not functioning," said University of Helsinki education professor Jarkko Hautamäki. "People were voting with their feet against the schools."

Parties on the left began agitating for a more equitable system. Parties on the right saw their constituents abandoning the countryside for the cities – reason enough for joining the reform movement. Finland's equivalent of "No Child Left Behind" passed the Parliament in 1968 at the initiative of the conservatives. The law called for a uniform, national curriculum for both public and private schools. The National Board of Education was tasked with "equalizing possibilities so that, wherever you lived, you got the same quality education," Hautamäki said.

Today, Finland is universally recognized as a model in education, a model many other countries are trying to emulate. As it happens, it is a system so egalitarian that most rich countries prefer to ignore it, as the social mobility and human capital efficiency it promotes is often seen as destabilizing.

In Finland every child gets a free meal and tuition is verbotten for elementary (and compulsory) education. The educators working in this system often have masters and advanced degrees. This ensures that higher learning has a strong basis on which to build further.

In contrast, countries such as Singapore have made streaming the cornerstone of their education system. Every step of the way is intensely competitive, and being born in privilege translates into significant advantages. There is even a movie, “I not stupid” which purports to show that students’ self-esteem is tied to their exam results in unhealthy ways.

In other countries (e.g., Germany, UK) where similar comprehensive schools are in existence, the debate is centered on the apparent lack of progress and grade inflation students suffer. Those on the left claim that comprehensive schools take in students from disadvantaged backgrounds without any entry requirement, while the competing schools in systems that allow more choice to begin with have strict entry requirements and as a rule tend to take in students whose parents occupy higher positions on the social ladder. The studies measuring how far the comprehensive schools take their students from the starting point, compared to the more competitive schools are hard to find. It seems however that the Finnish formula of allowing, in essence, only comprehensive schools, is highly successful in equipping students with what they need to compete internationally. According to dallasnews,

By the time Finland's children complete the ninth grade, they speak three languages. They have studied algebra, geometry and statistics since the first grade. And they beat the pants off students from just about everywhere else in the world.

WashingtonPost sees it in a similar light:

Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries. American teens finished among the world's C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they're way ahead in math, science and reading -- on track to keeping Finns among the world's most productive workers. (..) well-trained teachers and responsible children. Early on, kids do a lot without adults hovering. And teachers create lessons to fit their students. "We don't have oil or other riches. Knowledge is the thing Finnish people have," says Hannele Frantsi, a school principal. (..) About the only classroom rules are no cellphones, no iPods and no hats.

But doesn’t this egalitarian model leave the gifted students behind?

Finnish educators believe they get better overall results by concentrating on weaker students rather than by pushing gifted students ahead of everyone else. The idea is that bright students can help average ones without harming their own progress.

The other component of the Finnish system is educators freedom, which makes this job sought after and competitive.

The Norssi School is run like a teaching hospital, with about 800 teacher trainees each year. Graduate students work with kids while instructors evaluate from the sidelines. Teachers must hold master's degrees, and the profession is highly competitive: More than 40 people may apply for a single job. Their salaries are similar to those of U.S. teachers, but they generally have more freedom.

Finnish teachers pick books and customize lessons as they shape students to national standards. "In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs," says Mr. Schleicher, of the Paris-based OECD, which began the international student test in 2000.

Reading is a national sport, even more widely adopted than nude football:

One explanation for the Finns' success is their love of reading. Parents of newborns receive a government-paid gift pack that includes a picture book. Some libraries are attached to shopping malls, and a book bus travels to more remote neighborhoods like a Good Humor truck. (..) Movies and TV shows have Finnish subtitles instead of dubbing.

The differences with other systems, such as the American one, are obvious to exchange students:

[Elina Lamponen] spent a year at Colon High School in Colon, Mich., where strict rules didn't translate into tougher lessons or dedicated students, Ms. Lamponen says. She would ask students whether they did their homework. They would reply: " 'Nah. So what'd you do last night?'" she recalls. History tests were often multiple choice. The rare essay question, she says, allowed very little space in which to write. In-class projects were largely "glue this to the poster for an hour," she says. Her Finnish high school forced Ms. Lamponen, a spiky-haired 19-year-old, to repeat the year when she returned.

What about elitism? Isn’t it necessary? Shouldn’t students be constantly afraid that they won’t make it to college? Doesn’t that act as an incentive?

Finnish students have little angstata -- or teen angst -- about getting into the best university, and no worries about paying for it. College is free. There is competition for college based on academic specialties -- medical school, for instance. But even the best universities don't have the elite status of a Harvard. Taking away the competition of getting into the "right schools" allows Finnish children to enjoy a less-pressured childhood. While many U.S. parents worry about enrolling their toddlers in academically oriented preschools, the Finns don't begin school until age 7, a year later than most U.S. first-graders. Once school starts, the Finns are more self-reliant. While some U.S. parents fuss over accompanying their children to and from school, and arrange every play date and outing, young Finns do much more on their own.

What about innovation and change? Isn’t Finland frozen in time (dallasnews)?

The tracking system was changed in 1985. Students still choose whether to go into university or vocational prep schools, but not until they have completed ninth grade. The reformers are still busy. The latest major overhaul involves higher education, where Finland hopes to elevate its best universities by combining schools of art and design, economics and engineering.

Evaluation and change goes on throughout the system.

"We're trying to improve everything all the time," said Kallahti deputy principal Paavola. "We are a small country. We have to compete with knowledge and technology."

Is this all due to “special circumstances”? Washington Post seems to think so, but I don’t.

In Finland, Himanen said, opportunity does not depend on "an accident of birth." All Finns have an equal shot at life, liberty and happiness. Yes, this is supposed to be an American thing, but many well-traveled younger Finns, who all seem to speak English, have a Finnish take on American realities. Miapetra Kumpula, a 32-year-old member of Parliament, volunteered this on the American dream: "Sure, anyone can get rich -- but most won't."

Finns are enormously proud of their egalitarian tradition. They are the only country in Europe that has never had a king or a home-grown aristocracy. Finland has no private schools or universities, no snooty clubs, no gated communities or compounds where the rich can cut themselves off from everyday life. I repeatedly saw signs of a class structure based on economics and educational attainment, but was also impressed by the life stories of Finns I met in prominent positions, or who had made a lot of money.

In Finland, even fines are prorated according to wealth:

This too seems to be part of Finnish egalitarianism; most Finns don't boast or conspicuously consume (except perhaps when they buy fancy cars). Finnish authorities know how much everyone earns, and they pro-rate traffic fines depending on the wealth of the malefactor. Last year the 27-year-old heir to a local sausage fortune was fined 170,000 euros, about $204,000 at the time of the fine, for driving at 50 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone in downtown Helsinki.

My views are that of all the services the state or government is expected to provide, education is by far the most important and should mirror the Finnish model. Kids do not have enough knowledge to make educational choices and they should not be burned by those made by their parents. Choice in elementary education makes very little sense. I happen to think that it makes little sense in higher education as well, but at least at level this idea is debatable.

Sources / More info: wiki-edu-finland, wsj-finnish-kids, edu-foreigners, globalcampus-finland, tx-k12-reform, wordIQ, Finnish-Board-of-Edu, fi-childresearch, tehsitalk, finfacts, wp-fin-fs, fin-music, edu-singapore-finland, wiki-comprehensive, wiki-grammar-school

PDF Docs: [Tech edu trends] [OECD: Equity in Edu] [Decades of Finnish Media Edu] [A short history of educational reform in Finland] [FINNISH MEDIA EDUCATION POLICIES] [EVENT MANAGEMENT EDUCATION IN FINLAND Lee Slaughter School] [Quality Handbook of Higher Education in Finland and Russia] [Lessons in Education and Music from Finland] [Centres of Excellence in Finnish University Education] [Using Narratives as Innovative Tools in Mathematics Education]

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