From the LA Times
The Harvard education professor Howard Gardner once advised Americans, "Learn from Finland, which has the most effective schools and which does just about the opposite of what we are doing in the United States."
Following his recommendation, I enrolled my seven-year-old son in a primary school in Joensuu. Finland, which is about as far east as you can go in the European Union before you hit the guard towers of the Russian border.
OK, I wasn't just blindly following Gardner - I had a position as a lecturer at the University of Eastern Finland for a semester. But the point is that, for five months, my wife, my son and I experienced a stunningly stress-free, and stunningly good, school system. Finland has a history of producing the highest global test scores in the Western world, as well as a trophy case full of other recent No. 1 global rankings, including most literate nation.
In Finland, children don't receive formal academic training until the age of seven. Until then, many are in day care and learn through play, songs, games and conversation. Most children walk or bike to school, even the youngest. School hours are short and homework is generally light.
Unlike in the United States, where many schools are slashing recess, schoolchildren in Finland have a mandatory 15-minute outdoor free-play break every hour of every day. Fresh air, nature and regular physical activity breaks are considered engines of learning. According to one Finnish maxim, "There is no bad weather. Only inadequate clothing."
One evening, I asked my son what he did for gym that day. "They sent us into the woods with a map and compass and we had to find our way out," he said.
Finland doesn't waste time or money on low-quality mass standardised testing. Instead, children are assessed every day, through direct observation, check-ins and quizzes by the highest-quality "personalised learning device" ever created - flesh-and-blood teachers.
In class, children are allowed to have fun, giggle and daydream from time to time. Finns put into practice the cultural mantras I heard over and over: "Let children be children," "The work of a child is to play," and "Children learn best through play."
The emotional climate of the typical classroom is warm, safe, respectful and highly supportive. There are no scripted lessons and no quasi-martial requirements to walk in straight lines or sit up straight. As one Chinese student-teacher studying in Finland marvelled to me, "In Chinese schools, you feel like you're in the military. Here, you feel like you're part of a really nice family." She is trying to figure out how she can stay in Finland permanently.
In Finland teachers are the most trusted and admired professionals next to doctors, in part because they are required to have a master's degree in education with specialisation in research and classroom practice.
"Our mission as adults is to protect our children from politicians," one Finnish childhood education professor told me. "We also have an ethical and moral responsibility to tell businesspeople to stay out of our building." In fact, any Finnish citizen is free to visit any school whenever they like, but her message was clear: Educators are the ultimate authorities on education, not bureaucrats, and not technology vendors.
Finland delivers on a national public scale highly qualified, highly respected and highly professionalised teachers who conduct personalised one-on-one instruction; manageable class sizes; a rich, developmentally correct curriculum; regular physical activity; little or no low-quality standardised tests and the toxic stress and wasted time and energy that accompanies them; daily assessments by teachers; and a classroom atmosphere of safety, collaboration, warmth and respect for children as cherished individuals.
One day last November, when the first snow came to my part of Finland, I heard a commotion outside my university faculty office window, which is close to the teacher training school's outdoor play area. I walked over to investigate.
The field was filled with children savouring the first taste of winter amid the pine trees.
"Do you hear that?" asked the recess monitor, a special education teacher wearing a yellow safety smock.
"That," she said proudly, "is the voice of happiness."
William Doyle is a 2015-2016 Fulbright scholar and a lecturer on media and education at the University of Eastern Finland.
@smh on Twitter | sydneymorningherald on Facebook
And another story about the facts and fiction of education in Finland
1) Teachers in Finland are paid like doctors.
Fiction. Starting salary for a teacher is not huge (around $40k-$50k), but when in a permanent contract they get paid for the summer, too. Doctors are paid more, but generally the salary gap between professionals is smaller in Finland. (Source)
2) Professional development is strongly emphasized in Finland and teachers are viewed as respected professionals.
Fact. This is a two-fold question. Professional growth is viewed necessary for teachers, but usually they have much independence in deciding about their PD. Elementary teachers must have a M.Ed. with major in education and a minor in multi-disciplinary school subjects and another minor in a chosen subject. Teachers are part of the academia, and their professional opinion about learning is respected. Usually teaching is the chosen career, not a stepping stone to something else.
3) Teachers in Finland get a great deal of freedom to meet students’ needs: the national curriculum is very short and non-prescriptive.
Fact. The national curriculum includes the objectives and core contents for different school subjects, but schools and districts create their own curricula within the framework of the national core curriculum. Teachers get to decide how they help their students to reach the objectives.
4) Students in Finland get more than one hour of recess a day.
Fact. The basic model in K-12 is to have 45 minutes of instruction/learning and then a 15 minute break. First and second grade students go to school for four hours per day and from that time they have 75 minutes of recess. During recess students go outside to play – and they are encouraged to be physically active.
5) There is no mandatory testing in Finland.
Fact. Teachers are trusted to provide assessments they see best benefit their students’ learning. Feedback of individual learning process is emphasized over standardized testing. (Source)
6) School doesn’t start for Finnish children until age 7.
Fact. The year before school starts is called pre-school, and it is free for all students but not mandatory for 6-year-olds. Students are not expected to learn how to read in pre-school. They are learning how to learn and how to take part in group activities.
7) High quality early childhood education is free in Finland.
Fact, and A Little of Both. Pre-school (the year before school starts) belongs to formal education system, and is free. The same requirements that regulate the teaching of 6-year-olds in schools also are valid in daycare centers for 6-year-olds, and enrolling is parents’ choice, often depending on their employment. Every child has a subjective right for high quality early childhood education, but whether it is free depends on the income level of parents. ECE is heavily subsidized, so the highest monthly payment for childcare is 264 euros ($350) per child at a daycare center.
8) There are no private schools in Finland.
A Little of Both. Finland has common legislation for both private (state subsidized) and public (city or state owned) schools. Last year there were 85 private schools in Finland serving approximately 3% of the whole student population.
9) Parental involvement is required.
Fiction. Parents are encouraged to be involved in their children’s education, but it is not a requirement. Students are very independent, including getting to school and back home when the distance is less than 5 km (~3miles). They walk or ride a bike, or parents transport them.
10) There are no teacher’s unions in Finland, and that makes for a better education for students.
Fiction. In fact more that 95% of teachers belong to the teachers’ union (OAJ) which is a member of the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff in Finland (AKAVA). But, the relationship between schools, education policy makers and union is constructive. (Source)
11) Finnish children do better in school than American students simply because the poverty rate is so much lower.
Fiction. The poverty rate in Finland is certainly lower, but what makes the difference in education is equity combined with quality. Instead of highlighting individual performance and competition of students in Finland the focus is on schools’ ability to provide equally good education for different learners. Basic education is completely free including instruction, school materials, school meals, health care, dental care, special needs education and remedial teaching. One Finnish specialty is the free hot lunch served to everyone every day. Hungry students cannot learn well. (Source)
12) The Finnish way of teaching could never be replicated in the United States because our population is so much more heterogeneous.
A Little of Both. No educational system should ever be replicated in another culture as it is – just like no information should be accepted as it is, but must be assimilated and/or accommodated to become a perfect fit. The way of facilitating individual students’ learning by promoting cooperation and cognition with constructive practices could easily be replicated. (Source)
Nina Smith is a pedagogical consultant who helps teachers to thrive in their profession. She also mentors teachers pursuing their master’s degrees, and is a mother of four successful children. Originally Nina comes from Finland where she earned her M.Ed. and teaching credentials from the University of Jyvaskyla. Today Nina provides teachers with personalized tools that help them promote deep learning and create more effective and emotionally safe classrooms. To learn more about meaningful learning, please visit Notes From Nina.
To contact Nina, please visit www.ninacsmith.com.