Learning from Finland Model

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Asad Tahir Jappa

According to a study by Stanford researchers, increasing time spent out of the classroom actually has the effect of creating a positive learning environment for all students

What is so unique about Finland’s education system has become an intriguing question across the globe. The Finnish model has attained universal recognition for its quality and standards. Finnish education has become a classic case study and as a rare success story. It has received its fair share of publicity around the world for being the ‘best’. In the recent past, Finland has also hit headlines for being the happiest country in the world. Many are left bewildered as to how have Finland become the happiest country in the world. It is generally believed that it has a lot to do with its education system, and how it embodies the country’s embedded values of being honest, fair, down-to-earth, and trusting others. The truth is, Finland is not one in all PISA (OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment) rankings, but in the latest rankings, Finland is the only country where students have both high reading proficiency as well as high life satisfaction.
This is strongly influenced by the fact that Finnish students have a healthy balance between school life and free time, allowing them to engage more in various extra-curricular activities. This fine blend continues after they finish school, with a healthy work-life balance. It is largely emphasized that the resounding success of Finland’s education system has come from various factors. It has stemmed from research on and inspiration from other education systems, and education policies have been built together with education authorities, teachers, and municipalities together with the voice of parents, researchers, and business leaders. Lastly, the main goal has stayed consistent that all children are to be provided with equal learning opportunities to harness their raw inherent human capital.
Before going further deep into understanding the major contributory factors behind this fabulous success model, one must remember that money isn’t everything when it comes to ensuring quality education. In fact, some of the countries that spend the most on education, like the US, are not necessarily the countries that bring about the best results. But one country is showing that providing quality education is about much more than money itself. About 5% of Finland’s gross domestic product (GDP) is spent on education, lower than neighboring Norway and Sweden, as well as other countries such as South Korea, Brazil, and Colombia. That comes out to just over $10,000 per student, which is right about average for an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country. Nevertheless, Finland has put together one of the most respected education systems in the world because of two simple reasons: focusing on teachers and focusing on students. Needless to overemphasize that education is one of the best ways to eliminate extreme poverty. It is an established fact that increased access to education can lead to stronger economies, reduce inequalities, and even spark climate action. Combined together, these are the three of the most important Global Goals for Sustainable Development, a set of 17 principles for ending extreme poverty by 2030. While the connection between increasing access to quality education and eliminating poverty couldn’t be clearer, the means of providing quality education to all students is not always so obvious. Therefore, Finland’s innovative approaches to education include reducing standardized testing, improving equity across the spectrum, and supporting teachers.
Furthermore, there are some of the most obvious reasons which have led to this phenomenal success. Although the Finnish school day starts around the same time as it does in any other country, the same thing can’t be said about elementary school. In Finland, students do not begin formal schooling until they are 7 years old. Instead, they spend ages 3-6 in preschool, and because preschool is required by law in Finland, this means that 97% of students aged three to six are enrolled in school. In comparison, only four out of ten US 4-year-olds were enrolled in publicly-funded preschool programs. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), increasing access to early childhood development can positively impact life expectancy, improve health indicators, and lead to economic security later in life. “Every child has special needs,” Janet English, a former Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program winner, wrote in an essay on the “secrets” of Finnish education. According to English, the Finns have “designed an educational system to optimize learning for every child, regardless of a student’s educational needs.”
All Finnish schools have a full-time special education teacher who works part-time with about 23% of students, as well as a group of staff that meets bi-weekly to discuss students’ comportment in class, which includes the principal, the school nurse, the special education teacher, the school psychologist, a social worker, and the classroom teachers. According to multiple sources, Finnish teachers are some of the best treated around the world. Not only are Finnish teachers paid more money than American ones on average, but they also work nearly half as many hours. In the classroom, teachers have been free from inspections since the 1990s. They are not required to prepare students for standardized testing, giving them more flexibility to teach students the lessons they deem appropriate. Similarly, becoming a teacher in Finland is a quite competitive process, with nearly 7% of applicants accepted to the country’s top teaching program. Interestingly, Finnish students only have to take one standardized test throughout their adolescence, and it’s not graded by a computer, but by educators themselves. Called the National Matriculation Examination, the exam is taken at age 16. The topics cover subject areas and often require multi-disciplinary knowledge and skills. Taking the focus off of testing and putting it on learning has had positive developmental effects on students, including critical thinking skills. This doesn’t take a toll on Finnish students’ abilities to fare well in the international Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is given across 40 developed countries. Finnish schools mandate that all primary school students have 15 minutes of recess for every 45 minutes of class.
According to a study by Stanford researchers, increasing time spent out of the classroom actually has the effect of creating a positive learning environment for all students. “Positive school climate has been linked to a host of favorable student outcomes, from attendance to achievement,” the researchers found. On top of their plentiful recess time, Finnish students are also not overburdened with homework after school, spending about one-third as much time on after-school homework activities, on average. There are no private schools, and students of different abilities are not separated into educational levels in the class. This has given Finland the distinction of being the most equitable school system in the world, with the smallest gap between its lowest- and highest-achieving pupils, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. Every Finnish child attains the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. Where many developing countries have big gender gaps between male and female students when it comes to science education, with male students generally achieving higher in this field, Finland is rather reversing the trend. In fact, according to the OECD,
Finland is the only developed country where girls are outnumbering boys in science scores. The majority of top-performing science students are girls, as well. Educators in Finland attribute this to the country’s generous maternity leave policies, gender equality policies across the board, and guidelines for ensuring female representation in science.
To cap it all, there are no rankings, no comparisons, or competition between students, schools, or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. Consequently, every Finnish child gets the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The difference between the weakest and strongest students is the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. It is no surprise that all political parties in the country on the right and left agree on this overarching national goal. This unity of thought and action manifested by the country’s political leadership has thoroughly transformed the Finnish educational landscape into a global best practice, a buzzword in the mainstream global media.