What We Can Learn From Finland: Students Are More than Test Scores

Finland has become an unlikely beacon of academic success through its reforms over the past few decades.  The country’s success is well documented and has been proven by its stellar performance in the PISA.  In the 2009 tests, Finland ranked second in Science, third in Reading, and sixth in Mathematics.

Perhaps the best indicator of the overall ability of Finland’s academic achievement is their equitable education throughout the country. The between-school variance for Finland in the PISA was just 5% compared to the OECD average of 33%.  In Finland, the schools are equal in their performance, flexing their muscle to ensure equitable education.

The first (wrong) assumption people have about Finland is that the country is a homogenous group of blonde haired, blue-eyed, Nordic people.  That is anything but true.  Finland has immigrants coming from a wide array of countries including: Afghanistan, Bosnia, India, Iraq, Turkey, Thailand, and Vietnam with this influx of newcomers to Finland speaking more than 60 languages.

So what makes Finland so special?  How does this small European nation excel where most of the Western World is faltering?  In a nutshell, Finland has initiated radical reforms since the 1970s leading it away from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around very lean national standards.

The country’s school-based, student-centered, open-ended tasks embedded in the curriculum are often touted as an important reason for its success on the international exams.  With that being said, there are three major areas to look into when discussing the dramatic success in Finnish education.

As seen earlier, the between-school variance in Finland’s test scores is at a staggering five percent, a minuscule number compared to the OECD average.  What that number indicates is that Finland’s schools are able to perform at this high rate across the board.  But how do they make this possible?

Among the many reasons for the equality in academic performance is the funding and care that Finland places upon its students.  All students receive free health care, transportation, learning materials, and counseling from the schools.  Also, the state subsidizes parents 150 euros a month for each child until he/she turns 17.

One would think that they are simply putting more money into education than other countries, but that is simply not true.  Compared to the United States, Finland spends 30% less per student.  Furthermore, 98% of costs in all levels of education are covered by the government, rather than private sources. This is in stark contrast to the more privately funded educational programs by billionaires such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

In Finland, unlike the United States, funding and resources are distributed evenly and NOT based on competition.  In the United States, rigorous testing and achievement marks indicate how much a school will be funded.  This flawed logic perpetuates poor performances from lesser funded and equipped schools.

As seen with their equitable funding, testing does not play a significant role in Finnish education.  While many countries use testing to spur competition between schools to perform, Finland opposes such measures.  Instead, all schools receive equitable funding no matter their performance, although schools with the most need for funding do receive it.

Standardized testing is extremely rare.  In fact, apart from Finland’s matriculation exam, there are no state mandated tests.  There are no rankings or competition between schools or students.

“We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test”

– Pasi Sahlberg, Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture

This does not mean that Finland does not take standardized tests.  Samples of 2nd and 9thgrade students take exams meant to inform curriculum.  The exams are open-ended focusing on providing information to support learning and problem solving, rather than allocating sanctions and punishments.Finland’s tests are not given statewide.  Instead, they are at a local level and created by the schools and teachers to inform their own pedagogical approaches.  Similarly, it is not until sixth grade where kids have are given the option to sit for a district-wide exam.  But they will only take this exam if the classroom teacher agrees to participate.

The most significant exam Finnish students are able to participant in is the Ministry of Education’s matriculation exam where the scores are used by most universities in their admissions process.  The tests, created with input from teachers, are a set of open-ended questions, with between 6 to 10 questions on each test.  Instead of a multiple choice test requiring students to recall information, Finnish students are asked to answer a few questions which require in-depth thinking and analytical skills.

Finland views testing as a way to guide student reflection and self-assessment, mirroring the message from a previous post.  Test results are used to improve learning and motivate students, rather than driving competition and building disparity.

A keystone in Finland’s educational success lies in their lean national curriculum.  It provides teachers with endorsed assessment measures as well as the final overall assessment at the end of the year to mark the students’ progress.

These stripped guidelines are then adopted by local schools and teachers where they craft their own, individualized curriculum and learning goals.  For this strategy to work, Finland has placed a great deal of trust and faith in their teachers.  It is fortunate that their teachers are well-trained and equipped to innovate.

To be a teacher in Finland, one must complete 2-3 years of graduate level education.  To be able to receive this education, many students apply but roughly 15% of those who apply are admitted.  In Finland, being a teacher is a prestigious form of employment and the state takes care of their own by paying for the education of those admitted.

Teacher education focuses on pursuing innovation and new measures of learning.  Educators are encouraged to experiment with their curricular approach and learning outcomes.  In their investment in well qualified teachers, Finland is able to give local schools more autonomy in how they wish to teach their students.

Small class size and student-teacher collaboration permits many schools to allow students to set their own weekly targets and tasks to perform.  Local autonomy in curricular decisions creates independent programs designated to bring the best possible results to each individual school or classroom.

It is hard for a single educator to implement much of Finland’s successful reforms.  They are at a national stage requiring the United States to drastically alter their approach.  But there are still some ways teachers can produce better learners.

Teaching strategies such as experiential learning and differentiated instruction have the ability to bring individualized educational programs promoting self-assessment and metacognitive development.  For veteran teachers who are unwilling to adapt and innovate, programs must be put in place for continuing their education as educators.  Teaching constantly evolves, for better or worse, but without experimenting with new ideas how will teachers know they are doing their best?

School systems should look into who they are hiring.  Many schools place too much weight in hiring coaches for sports over qualified teachers.  There are many benefits of athletic programs but a line must be drawn.  Many teachers with graduate level education are overlooked when schools want to fill a coaching position.  At what point does the United States realize that this hiring fallacy is ill-affecting its students?

For some teachers, there is hope.  Grass-roots movements are springing up in public schools where administrators promote and advocate experiential learning as well as nurturing altruism within their students.  Educators who are able to successfully incorporate diverse lesson plans and assessment can springboard future legislation in their philosophy’s favor.  Of course, this would be a hard fight to win because the most problematic issues in teaching come from the national and state levels.


5 Tips to Effectively Show Historical Films in Class

The practice of showing historically-based films in class has been scrutinized by scholars as a “double edged sword” of opposing positives and negatives.  Films can be beneficial through their use as a visual aid and supplemental resource for the students’ acquisition of knowledge.  But on the other hand, films can provide fictional information which students may take as fact as well as placing students in the position of being passive participants in the learning process.

There are ways to effectively implement the use of historical films to bolster the class’s understanding of the time period and themes being discussed in the course.  Films can be a powerful tool for teachers if they are used correctly and efficiently.

1. Provide the Students with the Proper Context

Any competent teacher should already know this and probably tell the students what they are about to watch.  But sometimes that is not enough.  The film should not be used as the students’ primary form of understanding the content, nor should it be their first.

Teachers should work up the context of the film at least a day before the class watches the movie.  Films are better understood and can be viewed more critically AFTER the students understand the overarching themes, conflicts, and customs of the period and setting.

2. Don’t Show the Whole Film

This is especially true if you are showing a monstrosity of a movie elapsing over two hours.  There are a lot of negative consequences to showing a long film for over one class period.  Student attention and retention declines especially if they know they will be sitting in the dark going into class that day.

The visual element in films is great in a Differentiated Instruction sense, and to accomplish this teachers do not need to show the entire film.  Certain scenes can illustrate the period’s theme, customs, and setting. For example, Monty Python and the Holy Grail has great isolated scenes depicting feudalism, serfdom, and the plague.

Scenes can provide their own context to the teacher’s lesson to the class, but it remains important that the students must have a basic understanding of what they are about to watch for them to possibly gain a higher level of understanding of the content.

3. Stop the Film periodically for Class Discussion

If showing the film in its entirety is the most effective way for the class to understand the message you want to understand, then the movie should be a point of continuing discussion rather than an uninterrupted sitting.  Similar to what was previously mentioned in “not showing the entire film,” students can become apathetic and disassociated with the material if there is no stimulation for a lengthy period of time.

To remedy this dilemma, teachers should stop the movie after pivotal moments and allow the class to discuss what they just saw.  The benefits in doing this cannot be overlooked.  Along with breaking up the monotony and providing much-needed stimulation, students have a chance to analyze the important concepts as well as updating struggling students who may be lost or didn’t understand prominent facets essential to understanding the course content.

4. Proper Note-Taking

Many teachers require students to perform some act of note-taking to confirm both their understanding of what they’re watching and that they were watching in the first place.  Possibly the worst way this is implemented is by teachers handing out sheets with completed sentences where the students must fill in the missing words which they learn through watching the film.  This is incredibly ineffective because students listen for key words rather than thinking critically about the content.

Another poor strategy to avoid is that of assigning a minimum requirement for note-taking for students to complete during films.  This is especially problematic when students fulfill their quota within the first 10-15 minutes of the film then fade into a more passive role for the remainder of the film.  Quota systems are also flawed because the students don’t have any direction in what they should be looking for and analyzing.

For the teacher to promote critical thinking about the material, the students should take notes which straddle a middle ground between overly controlled fill-in-the-blanks and an aimless quota system.  This can be best achieved through giving the students a limited amount of questions which not only require them to focus on the entire film, but also guide their attention to the most pivotal aspects.

“In Casablanca, how does the change in Rick’s actions mirror those of the United States in World War II?”

A limited amount of questions allows the class to evaluate the film as whole and to draw their own connections.  For maximum potential, questions should not be based on rote memorization.  Instead, the questions should require students to make connections to previous lessons, analyze character developments, and synthesize plot points and conflicts.

The benefit of utilizing film is in its imagery and re-creation of events.  Students should be asked to interpret images, icons, costumes, and settings, to connect these concepts to the content in general.

5. Emphasize the Distinction between Fact and Fiction

Outside of documentaries, films are hardly historically accurate.  This deficiency in film is one of the strongest arguments against their use in the classroom.  Studies have been conducted illustrating poor student performance based on their retention of fictional elements in films presented to the class.

This is where all the aforementioned ideas correlate to bring forth a solution to this problem.  Students must have an understanding of the film’s context to be able to properly decipher fact from fiction.  Before the class is shown the film, some of the more glaring or detrimental fictional elements should be addressed in order for students to not misread the story and context of the film.

The Amount of Historical Inaccuracies in this film would be too much

If the film is being watched in its entirety and the film is divided into sections for discussion, the teacher should facilitate an analysis of factual information with the class.  Students should be encouraged to look for and write down elements in the film which appear dubious or inaccurate.  By having the class look for historical inaccuracies, they must first know what is accurate in the film, establishing an analytical theme in the film.

Similar to discussing inaccurate elements in the film, students should be encouraged in their film notes to periodically describe an aspect of the film which they believe to be untrue and to write down what would have made it historically accurate.  It is important for students to understand what WOULD be true and to emphasize fact over fiction.

In short, the value of films in the classroom can be seen in the process of requiring students to think critically about the content presented to them.  Films can be beneficial in developing learning skills and in exercising students’ analytical abilities, which is a cornerstone of the social sciences.

Differentiated Instruction

Since this is my introductory post on “The Art of Education” blog, I feel some specification is in order.  The main writer of this blog focuses primarily on the benefits of technology within the classroom which can prove to be incredibly useful, but I plan on discussing topics directed more towards teaching theory and philosophy.

With that being said, I wish to look into differentiated instruction (DI) first.  For me, DI is dichotomized by the ever-growing emphasis on high-stakes testing and its effect on the curriculum.  The problem with today’s measure of academic success is that achievement is rooted in the quality of test scores leading many teachers to alter their pedagogical approach towards “teaching to the test.”

Of course educators are well-accustomed to this trend so no explanation or insight is necessary, but a discussion of alternatives should be conducted.  I found myself among the many disenchanted teachers who converted a once diverse lesson into a rudimentary mechanism to produce bare fact-regurgitating student robots; all to produce better scores.  At the end of the day, students may be able to shout out arbitrary names but it is without a narrative or the least context.  This is where DI and its ability to enhance a diversity of students comes in.

Unfortunately, the United States pressures both teachers and students to understand a wide array of facts spreading both groups thin in ability to elaborate in minute facts and anecdotal details to give the content the much needed context.  A simple lesson (geared towards topical over procedural units) is to implement a simple DI strategy.  Here are the steps:

  1. Depending on how you approach the content (i.e. chapter, performance standard, and bench marks) set aside the next full unit of study.
  2. Break it down into sections, preferably four to six, which will be incorporated into the upcoming lesson(s).
  3. Once the class has reached this unit, break the class into the number of groups equal to how many unit sections you have created.
  4. With the class dispersed in their groups you assign them a certain section for them to be responsible for.  This is where things get more complicated with the introduction of multiple variables.  Each student must be able to display their mastery of the section you gave them but it is up to them on how they wish to show it.  It is best to have the students base their evidence on Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences to ground them and give them ideas.
  5. Within their groups, students should be given the luxury of choosing how they are to acquire the knowledge in their assigned section.  For example, a student may just wish to read their textbook while a pair could read it to each other.  Ultimately the students are to be on task and using whichever way (intrapersonal or interpersonal) to accomplish this assignment.
  6. Once the students understand what they are assigned to learn, they must demonstrate their understanding to the class.  Each student can do this through whichever way they feel the most confident (i.e. poster board presentation, written essay, performance either alone or with partners within the same section).
  7. Once everyone is completed, you now begin the unit starting from the beginning with the students coming up and presenting their content to the class.  The benefits derived from this part are where the strengths of DI can be found.  Say you have 4 students in each section and each one takes a different approach towards presenting to the class.  You have one student teaching the class through a dramatization of events, another reading their essay, one with a picture-laced PowerPoint presentation, and another presenting musically through a song from the time period or one of their own.  Of course there are a myriad of different ways for these students to demonstrate their knowledge but the emphasis should be on them picking the form they feel the most comfortable with.
  8. Now by the time every student has presented to the class, the rest of the students will have experienced the section through their classmates’ differentiated approach.  And as the teacher, you are more of a mediator and coach during this time instead of tirelessly lecturing.  But after each section, you should ensure the students understand what was just presented to them and fill in the holes which may have been left by the student presenters.

Naturally, this lesson format is not suitable for every subject or grade level.  It is also just one approach among many in which teachers can incorporate DI to the class.  Teachers still need to monitor the class and make sure time is not being spent socializing or being off task, but I strongly believe the pros outweigh the cons in this scenario with factors such as motivation, variation, and stimulation being involved.

They are motivated by feeling that they are in control of their learning by deciding how they will present to the class.  The variation in ways their classmates present the material allows students to be introduced to the content in new and different styles.  Students experience a wealth of stimulation through the diverse experiences of group work, multiple presentations, and a new approach towards learning the material over the redundant teacher-centered lecture format.

Like I previously stated, this is just one form of DI among many.  Rob Baker’s posts provide another great alternative which can create similar results.  Technology is an essential tool for DI but that is for another post.