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.

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