Thursday, November 30, 2006

Finland's education system held up as exemplary

Finland is home to reindeers, great rally and Formula I drivers (Mika Hakinen, Kimi Raikonen, Ari Vatanen, and Marcus Gronholm), and the improbable winners of 2006's Eurovision Song Contest, Lordi (this is a must-click link if you need a laugh).

But there's much more to Finland, especially if you're talking about education. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Finland's education system is amongst the best -- if not the best -- in the world. The nordic nation's success is explored in Sunday's Arab News (via ASCD Smart Brief).

The secret to Finland's success (which includes fantastic test scores in math, science and reading literacy) can be linked to these factors, according to the article:

  • An historic emphasis on education (" goes back to 18th Century when the Lutheran bishops wouldn’t allow anyone to marry unless they could read the Bible.")
  • An egalitarian system that offers educational opportunity to all students ("...for the last thirty-five years the schools have been open to all, free and unstreamed.)
  • A system of regular, systematic student assessment "by a mixture of monthly tests and teacher evaluations."
  • Highly qualified -- and respected -- teachers. "No teacher can teach at any level without a master’s degree. Once in a job, teachers are encouraged to keep abreast of the academic literature so that educational decisions are based on rational argument, not just everyday intuition. Moreover, they are constantly being sent on courses during their long holidays to upgrade their knowledge and skills."

To me, the egalitarian component of the Finnish system is interesting because it's one of the current hot-button issues in education in the United States. It's hard to find an education school course book (or syllabus) that doesn't include a section on "equity" or "equality in education."

The difference seems to be that while the tendency in the US system is to "teach down" to kids operating at lower levels of achievement by setting low expectations for all students (while emphasising self-esteem), the Finns have high expectations for all students, and work hard to pull the struggling students up. Seems smart. And the results are great.

Of course, Finland is much more homogeneous demographically and economically than the United States. And with fewer than 6 million people, it's surely more managable. But perhaps Finland's success story offers some valuable lessons to all interested in education.

UPDATE: Check out this posting from the smart ladies at Kitchen Table Math, who pick up on a quote from the principal of Finland's top-scoring intermediate school: "The U.S. texts, she said, are much thicker and more cluttered than the ones her students use. 'It’s impossible when you have 1,100 pages of math that you get the message,” she said.'"

They go on to quote
William H. Schmidt, an education professor at the University of Michigan, who "...has conducted comparisons of U.S. math curricula and those used by countries that consistently score high on TIMSS. As early as the late 1990s, he characterized U.S. math classes as 'a mile wide and an inch deep' compared with those of the high-scoring, mostly Asian, nations.

'It’s basically, you cover everything, everywhere, because somehow, somebody will learn something somewhere,' Mr. Schmidt told conference-goers.

More recently, his analyses have also shown that the high-performing countries teach math in a sequence that mathematicians see as more coherent, and that may be even more influential in promoting students’ understanding."


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