Wednesday, August 05, 2009

What Can We Learn From Finland's Top Ranked Education System?

Ellen Gamerman has a fascinating article in the WSJ about education in Finland. Having lived in Norway which shares a common border with Finland, having visited Finland, and having a brother that spent time living in Finland and that can speak Finnish, I was interested.

Finnish 15-year-olds ranked the best in the world on recent standardized tests focused on science, math, and reading. Yet:
  • Finland spends less per student than does Utah, which perpetually ranks 51st among U.S. states in per-pupil spending.
  • Finnish children don’t start school until age seven.
  • Class time is less structured than in most U.S. schools.
  • Finnish students have little homework.
  • Their schools offer few extracurricular activities such as sports and social dances.
  • There are no programs for the gifted or recognition of high performers.
  • Finnish teachers are paid about the same as their American counterparts, although, the country has a higher cost of living.
There are some inconvenient thoughts there for those that perpetually clamor for increased time in school, more money for education, and more top-down educational mandates.

While Gamerman explains that the last three years of high school are split into academic and vocational disciplines, she skips the fact that compulsory attendance stops just prior to those years. This fact perhaps helps explain Finland’s lower high school dropout rate (4% for academic and 10% for vocational schools) when compared to the U.S. rate that is “roughly 25%.”

But that doesn’t explain why students that have yet to enter their final three years of high school outperform their peers around the globe. According to Gamerman, the elements that contribute to this superior performance include:
  • Good basic teaching sans a lot of the fluff and frills to which we have grown accustomed.
  • A great deal of teacher autonomy, including selection of textbooks and development of curriculum designed with the goal of getting students to reach national standards.
  • A high degree of student responsibility. Gamerman suggests that this is rooted in cultural norms.
  • A high level of cultural, social, and economic homogeneity.
  • A culturally based (or maybe need based) love of reading.
My three younger children have been attending a charter school that provides more teacher autonomy and has a less rigid structure but with clearly defined goals. We have seen some successes with this. It’s a very customized approach. I thought of this when I read one official’s comment that “In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs.”

The standard U.S. model of recent years has been to trust teachers less and less and to mandate more and more from centralized bureaucracies. It would appear that the U.S. trajectory is going in the wrong direction.

The author credits Finland’s entirely free college education system with allowing “Finnish children to enjoy a less-pressured childhood,” since they don’t have to worry about getting into college or paying for it. OK, but that’s kind of a weird comment to put into an article about educational excellence. Somehow, lack of pressure to perform well is supposed to improve performance? I’m not seeing the connection. Nowhere does Gamerman explain how free college affects degree attainment rates or how it affects the value of a degree.

Gamerman mentions a 15-year-old that she suggests is gifted. When the girl is ahead of her peers in the classroom, “she sometimes doodles in her journal while waiting for others to catch up.” I wonder what the gifted yet active bodied boys do. I have at least two sons that often can’t seem to consistently sit around and quietly doodle in such situations. Although at least one of them is a spectacular doodler, these boys often get up, move around, chatter, and generally bother others. I’d like to see how Finnish teachers handle such cases.

While the Finnish teaching model is probably a great benefit (we know, for example, from research that if a child in American schools can get high quality teachers three years in a row before junior high school, they can exceed all of the other bad teaching put together), I wonder how much of the Finnish excellence is based in cultural factors that are not easily reproduced elsewhere.

By definition (per founding documents), the United States is a pluralistic society. Despite what others claim, the U.S. is the most culturally diverse nation on earth. We’re simply never going to have the kind of homogeneity they have in Finland. Nor do we generally believe such to be a virtue.

Parents can do a lot to increase their children’s responsibility level and to promote reading. But achieving some kind of wholesale cultural change in this direction would be a tall order and would probably include unacceptable levels of coercion.

Studying the Finnish model of education is a worthwhile pursuit. But we would do well to be careful to pull out those worthy elements that can feasibly be emulated and then try them out in pilot programs where they can be refined and improved. We can’t become Finland, nor should we try. But there are things we can learn from Finland that would improve American education without increasing its cost or expanding the power of the educrats.


Anonymous said...

Those statistics are really eye opening. The American school system starts Kindergarten at five and there are some who are pushing for mandatory/universal pre-K. In Utah we are not required to send our children to school until they are six.

I have kept my kids home even beyond six because I believe that children are not ready that early to abandon the majority of their childhood to class time. As I have watched my children and others it is obvious that they are built to learn and all we have to do is assist them, encourage them, and get out of their way. We encourage our kids to read and learn to love reading but we try not to push them. The result is that I have a six year old (just turned) who is very nearly at a third grade level in all academic areas. It sounds like the teachers in Finland understand those principles.

Like children being allowed to follow their natural inclination to learn the systems in Finland seem to recognize and foster an environment where teachers have the autonomy to follow their natural inclination to teach. That autonomy not only allows the teacher to have control, but also allows the teacher to adapt to the unique needs of each new group of students they teach.

Teaching and learning cannot be successfully boiled down to a universal formula - they have to allowed to organically grow if students are to reach their potential. You are right that we cannot and should not become Finland, but their situation disproves the concept that more money can solve our problem. After all, they are getting better results while spending less per student and starting later in life. I guess the only problem with that is that parents would have to stay home longer with their children or find babysitting for two more years so that they can go back to work before their kids start school.

Scott Hinrichs said...

"I guess the only problem with that is that parents would have to stay home longer with their children or find babysitting for two more years so that they can go back to work before their kids start school."

The problem with this view is that it misconstrues the role of parenting. While parents must provide for their families financially, it does not automatically follow that both parents must work outside of the home so much that they have to hire others to fill the role they have accepted by becoming parents.

S. Vepsä said...

I stumbled upon this via Google, and as a Finn I find myself agreeing with most of the reasons for the relative success of this school system. I'll expand on one:

* The teachers are generally very proficient at what they do (I think they're required by law to have a pedagogical university-level degree if they want to earn a permanent job), and as they are also blessed with a fair amount of autonomy regarding methods and books and whatnot, this makes for a great combination. Teachers are taught a great variety of methods in university - working in groups, pupils teaching other pupils, massive amounts of oral interaction/pronounciation exercises/oral presentations in language classes, etc. - and they're rather free to utilize whatever they and the pupils feel comfortable with as long as the results turn out good. The point on teacher autonomy is a rather puzzling exception to the norm here, because this society is centrally regimented on the most minute of details if the matter is regarding commerce/industry/retail (have fun exploring the national regulation that strictly limits the open hours policy of Finnish grocery stores, for example).

Maybe someone should just film a documentary about the schools here. I've heard about expeditions of Germans flocking here because they were so ashamed of their own results in those international tests.