The FINNS claim that quality teaching makes great schools, not tests
OVER the past four decades, Finnish education has improved to an extent that it is recognised by teachers as the best in the world. Its approach is also noticeably different from global trends.
As a result, there is a solid reason for educators everywhere to learn from what Finland has done.
Pasi Sahlberg, head of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, revealed many secrets behind his country’s educational successes at EDUCA 2013.
Organised by PICO (Thailand), this annual congress for teachers’ professional development has brought together the world’s leading educators. Keynote speakers have come from successful countries like Finland, and Hong Kong. More than 50,000 teachers registered for the event, which ran from October 9 to October 11.
“While others are preoccupied with setting the same standard for all schools, we believe that standardisation will block creativity,” Sahlberg said. “While others encouraged competition as a means to improve educational quality, we trust that collaboration will work better.”
He said his country encouraged shared responsibility based on trust, not on tests that have kept students, teachers and school executives under check in many countries, including Thailand.
“Equity is also very important,” Sahlberg said.
In sum, when it comes to educational improvement, Finland goes for collaboration, customisation, trust-based responsibility and equity.
The Global Education Reform Movement, meanwhile, has embraced competition, standardisation, test-based accountability and school choice.
“Our goal is never about delivering the best educational system. We simply want to provide great schools for all children,” Sahlberg said.
Sahlberg said his ministry had placed a strong emphasis on teacher quality, believing that the quality of an educational system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.
The Finnish government pays for teacher education and the process to recruit teachers is very strict and tough. Indeed, Finnish people have more chances to become a doctor or a lawyer than getting a teaching job.
“One of my nieces was a bright student. After graduation, she wanted to become a primary-school teacher. While she sailed through all the stages in recruitment process, she failed in an interview,” Sahlberg said. “When she came to seek my advice, I suggested she apply for a teaching-assistant job first.”
Today, the education system ranks among the most trusted public institutions in Finland. It is also considered the best in the world.
Sahlberg added that in line with the Finnish way, his country’s educational sector had given priority to “Common School for All” and “Less is Better” for its educational system.
In Finland, all basic schools are state run. They offer free and quality education to children from seven to 16 years old.
The Less is Better applies to teaching hours, so as to give more time for teachers to prepare for their classes and allow children to get real quality time in class while also having abundant time for play and skill development outside classrooms.
“We believe that children MUST play,” Sahlberg said.
In Finland, children have less homework when compared with their peers elsewhere. They also have no after-school lessons. They do not need to prepare themselves for tests.
Yet, under the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA), Finland ranks first among OECD nations (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development — roughly, the so-called “developed” nations) on the international tests for 15-year-olds in language, maths, and science literacy.
The country also boasts a highly equitable distribution of achievement, even for its growing share of immigrant students, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, a Charles E Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University.
Professor Kai Ming Cheng, chair of education and former senior adviser to the vice-chancellor at the University of Hong Kong, told participants at EDUCA 2013 that Hong Kong was both a strong and successful reformer in terms of education as well.
“We have spent about 10 years trying to find out why we need educational reform. We have tackled the issue at two levels, macro and micro,” he said.
Kai said the findings showed that as society was constantly changing, Hong Kong education must develop its structure, curriculum, and evaluation along the same lines.
“In the past, our education has focused on producing graduates for jobs. Now, in the face of changing circumstances, our education needs to teach our children to be practical and ready for any change. Our children must learn by doing,” he said.
Prof Sharon Feiman-Nemer, a Mandal Professor of Education at US-based Brandeis University, shares a very similar opinion.
Speaking at EDUCA 2013, she said teachers must help their students develop professional and practical skills both inside and outside classrooms.
“When teaching outside the class, teachers must have a solid understanding of the subjects to be taught. Activities-based learning will improve learning efficiency,” she said.
Feiman-Nemer believed lessons outside classrooms would also increase students’ interest in subjects at hand. “Teachers must constantly change their techniques so as to prevent their students from getting bored. They should also ask questions to encourage students to think and actively engage them in the learning process,” she said.