I would like to highlight a few passages that struck me as important reminders as to what education should be about and why Finnish achievements are important not only in regards to international testing but in creating the right framework for children to thrive. No Economist, Political Scientist, Psychologist or Sociologist should ignore the meaning of the Finnish achievement.
Key passages from:
Finland: Slow and Steady Reform for Consistently High Results
Pgs. 5- 6
The story of the evolution of the Finnish education system over the past two decades is inextricably linked to the development of the modern Finnish economy. The rise of the comprehensive school in the 1970-1990 period needs to be seen in the context of the development of the Finnish welfare state and the national push for much greater social and economic equality. However, the less visible but equally profound changes in Finland’s schools over the past two decades need to be seen in the context of the deep changes taking place in the Finnish economy…
The government used this crisis as an opportunity to develop a new national competitiveness policy designed to support private sector innovation and focused heavily on the development of the telecommunications sector, with Nokia as the central player. In a remarkably short time, Finland managed not only to dig itself out of recession but to reduce its historical reliance on its natural resources and transform its economy into one based on information and knowledge. Investments in research and development provided the fuel for this growth. In 1991 only 5 Finnish workers out of 1 000 were in the research and development (R&D) labour force. By 2003 this number had increased to 22, almost three times the OECD average. By 2001 Finland’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness index had climbed from 15th to 1st, and it has remained at or near the top in these rankings ever since.
Finnish industry leaders not only promoted the importance of mathematics, science and technology in the formal curriculum, but they also advocated for more attention to creativity, problem-solving, teamwork and cross-curricular projects in schools. In spite of some criticism in the 1990s, one example of the kind of message that corporate leaders were delivering to the schools is this statement from a senior Nokia manager whom Sahlberg interviewed during this period in his role as chair of a task force on the national science curriculum:
If I hire a youngster who doesn’t know all the mathematics or physics that is needed to work here, I have colleagues here who can easily teach those things. But if I get somebody who doesn’t know how to work with other people, how to think differently or how to create original ideas and somebody who is afraid of making a mistake, there is nothing we can do here. Do what you have to do to keep our education system up-to-date but don’t take away [the] creativity and open-mindedness that we now have in our fine peruskoulu. (Sahlberg, forthcoming)
Implicit in this last sentence is the Nokia manager’s belief that the comprehensive schools were already paying attention to developing at least some of the traits that employers in the new Finnish economy were seeking. In fact, it is hard to imagine how an information and knowledge-based economy could have grown up so quickly in the 1990s if the Finnish schools hadn’t already been producing graduates with the kind of flexibility and openness to innovation that industry was demanding. The development of these kinds of qualities is at least as much a function of the culture and climate of schools as of the formal curriculum.
The focus on helping students take increasing responsibility for their own learning is not accidental; it reflects a key value underpinning the national core curriculum for the comprehensive school, as described below: The learning environment must support the pupil’s growth and learning. It must be physically, psychologically, and socially safe, and must support the pupil’s health. The objective is to increase pupils’ curiosity and motivation to learn, and to promote their activeness, self-direction, and creativity by offering interesting challenges and problems. The learning environment must guide pupils in setting their own objectives and evaluating their own actions. The pupils must be given the chance to participate in the creation and development of their own learning environment. (Preamble, National Core Curriculum for Basic Education, 2004)
One of the most striking facts about Finnish schools is that their students have fewer hours of instruction than students in any other OECD country. This means that Finnish teachers teach fewer hours than their peers. In lower secondary schools, for example, Finnish teachers teach about 600 hours a year – 800 lessons of 45 minutes each, or four lessons per day. By contrast, US middle school teachers teach about 1 080 hours, or six daily lessons of 50 minutes.
Beyond the periodic sampling assessments administered at different grades by the National Board of Education, there is no national mechanism for monitoring the performance of schools. There is a national evaluation council, but its role seems to be focused more on the evaluation of national policies than the performance of schools. There is a National Matriculation Exam taken at the end of upper secondary school, but its function is to certify what the student knows, not to assess the quality of his or her school.
The underlying belief behind the creation of the comprehensive school was that all children could be expected to achieve at high levels, and that family background or regional circumstance should no longer be allowed to limit the educational opportunities open to children. It is important to note, however, that the Finns have a significantly broader definition of “high achievement” than just performance in two or three subjects on standardized tests. The Finns pride themselves on offering a broad, rich curriculum to all students, even those who choose the vocational pathway in upper secondary school.
The fact that there seems to be very little interest in Finland in instituting the assessment and external accountability regimes that have characterized the reform strategies of many OECD countries, most prominently the US and the UK, is perhaps the best evidence of the fundamental trust that seems to exist between the educators and the community. Given the extraordinary performance of the Finnish system over the past decade, this is a lesson others might want to study.