Finland began the reform of its education system some 40 years ago. Today, Finland’s school system is top-ranked among developed nations, as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international standardized test for 15-year-olds in language, math and science. The most interesting aspect of their education system is that Finland achieved its success by breaking what are considered the customary rules of education.
Finnish children do not begin school until the age of seven, when they are developmentally ready to learn, and schooling is compulsory for just nine years. School days are shorter and classes are fewer. Homework is minimal. There are no mandated standardized tests. There are no rankings, comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions.
Yet 93% of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, this is 17% higher than in the US. Sixty-six percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. And Finland spends about 30% less per student than the US.
What can other countries learn from Finland’s achievement? Here are three lessons.
Let children play. Students in Finland only have three to four classes a day. They also have several breaks and recesses during the day, which usually are held outside whatever the weather, even in winter. These 15 to 20-minute breaks allow children time to digest what they are learning, to play and exercise in the fresh air. Studies have shown that children need to let out the “wiggles,” and to be physically active in order to learn. Children who sit too much lose their focus, leading to so-called “hyper” kids. Less time in the classroom also benefits teachers, who use it to think, plan and create lessons.
Give teachers some respect. Primary school teacher is one of the most sought-after positions and competitive degrees in Finland. Teaching programs accept just 10% of applicants and turn down thousands of students annually. The best and brightest candidates have to pass a series of interviews and personality screenings, designed to determine their natural ability and drive to teach. In addition to top grades and a natural disposition toward teaching, all teachers must earn a Master’s degree. The requirement for an advanced degree essentially confers upon Finnish teachers the same status as a doctor or lawyer.
Because only students with a gift for teaching are accepted into university programs, and teachers are so well-qualified and well-trained, they are highly respected and trusted by parents. Parents have confidence teachers will do what is in the best interest of the children. Teachers in turn are free to innovate, unfettered by bureaucracy or excessive regulation.
Provide as much individual attention as possible. Classes are smaller in Finland. In elementary school, students often have the same teacher for up to six years of their education. Teachers get to know their students, their individual needs and learning styles. Weaker students are caught early and given extra assistance. The Finnish system overall stresses warmth, collaboration, encouragement and assessment, with teachers doing whatever it takes to help students, rather than stress and control.
The school system in Finland can be summed up in the words of a teacher, as quoted in Smithsonian magazine. “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” he says. “We know much more about the children than tests can tell us.”