Sometimes it feels like we live in a standardized world, especially to our students. With standardized tests factoring so heavily in assessing whether or not a US student is doing well in school, it can be disconcerting to individuals with learning styles that don’t match up with how they’re taught (and may even lead some students to cheat).
Children and young people aren’t the only ones affected by the US educational system’s resistance to change either. With test scores sometimes determining a teacher’s paycheck and job security, some are restricted to instructing how to memorize facts instead of thinking critically, stunting the growth and natural talents of our educators.
It makes you wonder whether our nation’s children are truly receiving the education they need to not only be successful students but ultimately successful adults. The stress and strain of the competitive nature of our education system is proving not to benefit our students or our teachers. However, all is not lost.
Although individuals such as Professor Hermanns from Arizona State University and Dirk Tillotson of Great School Choices are tackling this issue, sometimes it takes a little outside inspiration to see what truly works. One such source that should be considered is Finland. This country has been making headlines with its non-traditional but highly successful teaching methods.
Not only do the Finns seem to break every rule and method that have been used by educational professionals for decades, this rule breaking seems to be making a positive impact on every person involved. So what exactly can we learn from this country to benefit the students and teachers of our own?
Subsidized Preschool Education
There are many educational aspects where Finland differs from the United States, including when children start going to school. Although seven years of age seems a little old to most Americans to start school, this the formal age when Finnish children go to primary school. However, many Finns start their education before this age at preschool.
No matter which institution a child is placed in, parents can expect the same education for their children across all locations. This is because preschools share what they’re teaching with one another to devise similar lesson plans (this is also done in primary and high school). That way, when children are old enough to attend primary school, they’ll all be more or less on the same level education-wise.
It’s easy to see why more than 97 percent of three- to six-year-olds go to preschool (according to one NPR report), since cooperation between schools is emphasized over competition. That’s why you won’t find any private schools in Finland. All of them are public schools funded by government money.
Since cooperation is valued, teachers can share with one another what works for them and also reach out to other teachers for help if they are struggling in an area. This results in a very small difference between the strongest and weakest students.
Removal of Standardized Tests
The elimination of competition also means that teachers are allowed to draft their own tests, not issue standardized ones to reflect the progress of their students. In fact, the only standardized test (called the National Matriculation Examination) they give is at the end of high school. And in that case teachers are the ones grading the test, not a machine. Since questions dealing with moral and ethical issues are asked, there’s no standard answer that can be given. Only a teacher who understands where a student is coming from has the complex thinking skills to grade answers accurately. Being able to fill in the right bubbles or not isn’t a good judge of where a student is currently at in their learning journey.
Finland’s teachers also harbor a closer relationship with their students due to the country’s smaller school sizes. Teachers actually know the students who go to their school and have a vested interest not only in their progression in their studies, but also in life, seeking out students who are falling behind and giving them extra help.
Teaching professionals are able to do this more often since they are given the time to do so. Finnish teachers teach fewer hours so they can spend more time with struggling students and create more personalized lesson plans.
Separation of Education and Politics
It also helps that politics and education policies are separated in Finland. Decisions on education (actually made by government officials with educational experience) are mostly based on how effective a new teaching style is. If research shows that a certain practice results in an improvement in student’s learning abilities and overall health, the government is more than willing to test it out.
Speaking of research, when studies showed that having longer recesses improve student’s behavior and cognition (and that a decrease could lead to a decline in mental health), Finland passed a law that stated teachers must allow their students fifteen minutes of playtime for every forty-five minutes of lesson learning. They go out rain or shine, heat or cold, snow or no snow. That equals about seventy-five minutes of recess a day.
Teachers are also encouraged to experiment and test new things with their classes. They are free to see if one teaching style produces better results than another and to discover entirely new ways to interact with their class. Teachers are also free to abandon practices they deem ineffectual, no matter if those practices have been used for years.
One thing teachers in Finland have largely done away with is homework. In fact, exams and homework are almost nonexistent until students become teenagers. When they do get assigned homework, students are given a small amount each night. Where American students can find themselves spending seventeen hours or more on take-home assignments per week, Finnish children spend much less time than that. Parents trust that their children are learning the majority of what they need to know when they’re at school. Time at home is for family and other pursuits.
Can You Really Compare?
First, it must be mentioned that it’s not realistic to expect the US educational system to become an exact replica of Finland’s. They are two completely different countries. While Finland has lower levels of unemployment and income inequality, the United States is a much larger and more diverse place in terms of both language and ethnicity. Poverty in America makes enabling academic growth a challenge. The educational differences between children of high- and low-income families can even be seen in kids as young as eighteen months of age due to their “language gap.” This discrepancy in achievement follows children even as they grow up.
Teachers are also perceived differently in Finland, having the respect and status of doctors and lawyers. They are trusted to know what they’re doing and receive much autonomy in the way they teach their classes. This is not the case when it comes to teachers in the United States. Teachers are rushed from task to task and have little control over what and how they teach. It doesn’t help either that in addition to being underappreciated, US teachers are underpaid for the vital work they do.
Education and equality are completely intertwined in Finland, and that’s not something the US can do overnight. But in order to proper in education, the US would do well to adopt a Finnish mindset of equality and cooperation in our schools and our culture.