‘We Created a School System Based on Equality’ – Finnish minister of education, Krista Kiuru (2014)
To the outsider, particularly from the United States, the Finnish education system seems like one which makes a habit out of bucking trends. Children don’t begin school until they are 7, have longer recess and holidays (up to 300 hours more per year) than an average American kid, no exclusive ‘private’ schools, ‘gifted’ programs and scholarships or divide based on economic backgrounds. Every child at the age of 7 is supposed to enroll in a government sponsored schooling system.
Yet, they regularly outperform their counterparts from UK, Germany, Japan and the US. PISA tests have showed Finland ranked atop economic competitiveness scale as well. It is no coincidence that Finland, which had abysmal primary education system in the late 1960s, set some of these steps into motion through their “Policy Development and Reform Principles of Basic and Secondary Education in Finland since 1968”. A paper from the World Bank archives recently showed a direct correlation between their economic growth and prosperity of their educational system.
Some of the clear departures from the high-pressure academic environment in East Asia (which owes its success to the unrelenting pressure it places on its young minds), developed European nations and the United States are:
- Alternative education through kinesthetic activities, games, and interactive pedagogy rather than instructional approach. Education develops peer relationships and creates an identity for each individual by encouraging learning skills, problem solving and analytic development.
- It is compulsory for the teachers in Finland, to at least possess a Master’s degree in education. They are specifically readied for the profession via highly selective academic institutions which accept only 10% of nearly 5000 applications. Teachers spend only 600 hours per year teaching (as opposed to nearly 1,100 hours in the US) and rest of time is dedicated to personal development and learning new teaching methods. Rather than making the syllabus stringent, they’ve invested in refining their teaching methods and personnel. As a result the profession is highly respected as well.
- Intrinsic learning is appreciated. It’s quite apparent to even young kids, that being a small nation between bigger European superpowers, they need to grasp languages with wider audience than Finnish. Swedish is the other major language, but most kids pick up English, German, French, Russian or Spanish as the third alternative by the time they are in high school giving them significant head-start in terms of employment opportunities.
- The central government plays a significant role in ensuring sustained funding towards FREE education for all, including ALL tuition costs, school meals, text books, student counseling, and learning facilities (lab equipments, hostel facilities, transportation etc.). In addition the policy makers and reformers regularly seek feedback from the Teachers Union, which is an active stakeholder in educational policy reforms. This allows new innovations and globally accepted academic methods to be implemented without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops.
- Students only face one compulsory test – the nationwide National Matriculation Examination, in mother tongue, foreign language, mathematics, and social/natural sciences, at the end of the upper-secondary school (from 17-19-year-old). At all other times, teachers provide descriptive feedbacks instead of grades or marks. Weeding out comparison with fellow students, it encourages the creative freedom of every individual to develop. Teachers are offered job security, extra compensation for additional workload and encouraged to train, implement pilot programs and engage local institutions to develop a holistic program for their wards.
- In the mid 1990s, the Finnish education system further aligned itself to demands of changing global economic trends by involving technology, environmental sciences and entrepreneurship education via regional support network of polytechnic colleges in their curriculum, adding a vital ingredient of state-of-the-art vocational education.
All the factors above combine to create an education system, which truly ‘educates’ rather than creates literate, book-smart students, while investing in equality of educational opportunities first, and then honing the individuality and natural instincts of students.