Sunday, December 18, 2011

Finland and Its Approach to Education

There was an interesting article in the New York Times discussing Finland and its approach to education: From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model. The author, Jenny Anderson, took the occasion of a visit by a Finnish educator and author, Pasi Sahlberg, to provide her focus. 

Finland is a very different country from the US, so why should we be interested in the Finnish methods? Anderson provides this quote from an educator.

"Thirty years ago, Finland’s education system was a mess. It was quite mediocre, very inequitable. It had a lot of features our system has: very top-down testing, extensive tracking, highly variable teachers, and they managed to reboot the whole system."

Where is Finland today?  In How Your State’s Students Compare with Those from Other Countries, we presented results from tests of reading and mathematics skills administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). This PISA test can be used to evaluate the students and school systems as to their status within the body of nations, and with regard to progress over time. In math, Finland ranked fifth (USA, thirty-first), and in reading, third (USA, seventeenth).

One has to conclude that the methods being used now produced a dramatic improvement. Clearly they are worth examining for ways in which our own approach can be improved.

Finland’s reforms started with an attempt to upgrade their teachers’ skills, and to fashion teaching into a desirable career.

"Dr. Sahlberg said a turning point was a government decision in the 1970s to require all teachers to have master’s degrees — and to pay for their acquisition. The starting salary for school teachers in Finland, 96 percent of whom are unionized, was about $29,000 in 2008, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, compared with about $36,000 in the United States."

To put those numbers in perspective, consider the following chart which attempts to put teacher salaries in the context of perceived economic value to society.

Finland pays their teachers well by US standards, but not excessively compared to other OECD countries. If the teachers are performing well it must come from the enhanced educational requirements, the ability to attract more qualified people, or merely a better teaching environment.

It is Finland’s approach to education that is the most different and the most intriguing.

"More bear than tiger, Finland scorns almost all standardized testing before age 16 and discourages homework, and it is seen as a violation of children’s right to be children for them to start school any sooner than 7, Dr. Sahlberg said...."

"The first six years of education are not about academic success," he said. "We don’t measure children at all. It’s about being ready to learn and finding your passion."

We discussed this approach of starting school at a later age and avoiding the early ranking of students in Education in Finland: Are We Pushing Children Too Early? Evidence was provided there showing that children perform better if they begin to learn to read at age seven rather than at an earlier age. Finland also refuses to bin their students into fast-learners and slow-learners—in effect, into bright and non-bright—a tactic common in our country that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wikipedia provides a nice article on Finnish methods that fills in many of the details. The Finns see it as a basic right for children to have a quality daycare and preschool experience.

"Finland has had access to free universal daycare for children age eight months to five years in place since 1990, and a year of "preschool/kindergarten" at age six, since 1996."

While not mandatory, most children participate because the socialization and the learning by playing that takes place are viewed as critical parts of childhood development.

Students spend nine years in what is referred to as "comprehensive" school.

"There are no ‘gifted’ programs, and the more able children are expected to help those who are slower to catch on."

"Teachers, who are fully unionized, follow state curriculum guidelines but are accorded a great deal of autonomy as to methods of instruction and are even allowed to choose their own textbooks. Classes are small, seldom more than twenty. From the outset pupils are expected to learn two languages in addition to the language of the school (usually Finnish or Swedish), and students in grades one through nine spend from four to eleven periods each week taking classes in art, music, cooking, carpentry, metalwork, and textiles."

Teacher provide evaluations of students’ progress, but testing of any sort seems rare in the early grades, and formal "high stakes" tests are avoided.

At age 16 or 17 there is a transition to a higher level of education that is equivalent to the final two years of high school and two years at a community college. In a manner reminiscent of the vaunted German system, there is a bifurcation into a "vocational" path and a pre-university path. Students have a choice, but they must be able to demonstrate capability to follow the university path. The Finnish system appears a bit less rigid than the German, making it easier to switch paths if desired.

What are the lessons to be learned from Finland’s experience, and which might be applicable in the US? The desirability of enriching daycare and preschool experiences are universally recognized. Unfortunately, we are too poor a country, both financially and culturally, to reproduce the Finns’ approach. Quality is for those who can pay for it, either through tuition or by high property taxes. Even the Head Start Program, aimed at a fraction of the underprivileged children, is under siege.

The idea of being less aggressive and starting an intense learning effort at a slightly later age is doable and should be considered. The evidence that capability binning at an early age can have deleterious effects should be also carefully examined. These are decisions that have little cost impact and require only administrative changes.

Schools in the US seem to focus almost entirely on preparing students for college entry. That is not a path that appeals to all students. Incorporating some means of providing familiarity with "vocational" options, and viewing that as a perfectly acceptable option, would probably be beneficial to all. A means of providing the vocational education would, of course, have to follow.

However, one is left with the notion that the major cause for success in Finland is more cultural than administrative. In Finland, reading is encouraged from birth. The family of the newborn leaves the hospital with books to read—one for the mother, one for the father, and one to be read to the child. Reading for pleasure seems to be a national policy that is aggressively pursued. Finland is said to publish more children’s books than any other country. They also have a policy of showing foreign language programs with subtitles so that Finnish children have to read even while watching television. In a country like the US that has regions where ignorance is a prerequisite for election to public office, those strategies are probably not reproducible.

Since most people in the US believe they reside at the apex of civilization, the notion of competition providing motivation for greater success has never caught on. In a lighter vein, Dr. Sahlberg makes this admission.

"Education policies here are always written to be ‘the best’ or ‘the top this or that,’ " he said. "We’re not like that. We want to be better than the Swedes. That’s enough for us."

In an even lighter vein, it is interesting to note that an article in Businessweek identified the Finns as the most prolific coffee drinkers in the world. Their per-capita consumption is said to be about six times greater than that in the US—and they best the Swedes handily in this category also. Perhaps a large, steady source of caffeine keeps those brain cells firing at a high rate and makes reading and studying a more efficient process. How many of our school cafeterias provide coffee? How about the occasional shot of espresso between classes? One can think of a number of good capitalist approaches to this issue.

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