Many people in ECMP 355 have posted about the education system in Finland after Dean Shareski highlighted some cool articles about the subject. I am somewhat of a slow thinker, so it has taken me awhile to fully gather my thoughts. I also did some research on the matter in order to solidify my thinking and decide what I truly feel about it all.
I have posed and reposed the same three questions to myself:
1) Why is the Finnish education system working so well?
2) How could similar ideas work for us in Canada and, particularly, in Saskatchewan? and
3) What is so different between us and them?
Based on my findings, I would like to comment as simply as possible on these questions.
1 – Why it Works for Them
a) The first thing that seems blatantly obvious to me is that teachers feel valued in Finland. Spokespersons and educators from the country tell of their sentiments in most articles I read. They are well-educated, highly regarded professionals, held in similar tenure as doctors and lawyers, even though their pay grades are not comparable, significantly less. I find this both shocking and fascinating. Many studies on work environments consistently prove that workers will perform better and will experience higher motivation when they feel appreciated and respected as professionals; monetary gain is not the primary motivating factor in job performance. This is clearly the case for Finland.
b) Staying on the topic of teachers, the next thing I’ve noticed is that they are not only highly regarded, but they are trusted as knowledgeable professionals. Because of this, they are given free agency to work with flexible curricula. Teachers possess full creative control in their classrooms to do with their students what they feel is best. Not only are they adapting curricula to fit the needs and interests of students, they are adapting it to fit their own personal strengths, areas of expertise and creative notions. This would not only contribute to job satisfaction for teachers, but would greatly increase performance again and would surely improve student engagement, interest and skill. Finland for the win again.
c) Tests and class hours: this is an area in which Finland is vastly different from Canada, as well as many other countries. Finnish students are not exposed to standardized testing. They believe strongly in meaningful assessment that does not require extra preparation or data collection. They feel that testing should be used for diagnostic purposes, but they are never used on a divisional level to track teacher performance or student progress. All assessment done in classes is specifically related to curricular skills and outcomes and is created by teachers (again we see teacher freedom) in order to meet these particularities.
As for class hours, students in Finland receive up to 75 minutes of recreational time within a school day, proving to be vastly higher than students in Canada. Teachers are only in class for 4 hours per day and receive the rest of the school day for professional development and preparation. Teachers spend far less time in front of students than Canadian teachers and receive a greater percentage of preparation time throughout their work day. Perhaps we can attribute Finland’s high level of successful students to better prepared teachers and increased physical activity.
d) A final point of amazement for me is the length/size of the curricula in Finland. According to spokesperson Pasi Sahlberg, the length of curricula is minimized to what I would interpret as “need to know” skills and information rather than “nice to know”. This gives teachers great autonomy/creativity but also allows for more time to focus on the quality of education being delivered. According to some articles, Finland’s curricula per subject measures out to be only a few pages, nothing lengthy as we have seen in the old Saskatchewan curricula (curricula that has not yet been renewed). Now wouldn’t it be nice to have 4 months to cover a few pages of content/outcomes?
There are many other interesting factors such as teacher training, class size and funding to consider, but these are the points that stuck out for me. So now, the second question:
2 – How Could it Work for Us?
This is the most difficult question of all and the answer leads into my third question regarding the differences between Canadian/Saskatchewan students and Finns. However, in order for a similar system to work for us, we would need to make huge changes.
Keeping teachers in higher regard would require a huge societal shift. Would requiring teachers to have masters’ degrees change the public’s perception of them? I’m not sure. What if we paid them the same as doctors and lawyers, would people suddenly see them differently? That is very hard to say, and the likelihood of such a thing happening is next to none in my opinion. Somehow, we have to tackle the issue of teacher retention as well as overall professional trust, respect and autonomy.
Another necessary change would be for us to revisit the idea of class hours and standardized testing. At this point, it seems as though Saskatchewan is going in the very opposite direction of Finland by imposing standardized testing and increasing class hours. According to the mass research done on Finland’s system, these changes are not the answers to achieving a higher level of provincial education. As a teacher, it is my responsibility to continue to speak out against these decisions which I feel will not benefit students or create meaningful learning.
This section could go on endlessly, but I will move to my third question since Finland’s system could not fit us perfectly: we would have to first make changes and then tweak and adapt to respond to the needs of our specific students.
3 – What is Different about Us?
I feel that, while Finland has definitely hit the mark with a successful system, they seem to be facing different challenges than we do in Saskatchewan. Finland deals with a primarily homogenous student population. Most students are from Finland, have Finnish parents who speak the nation’s language and are relatively well-educated, and have necessities such as a stable living situation and food. Why are we different? Here are the two main points I find:
-The rates of poverty in Finland are significantly less, with only around 4% of students counting in that bracket. Student poverty in Saskatchewan is significantly higher, varying between 20-30% depending on location. We all know that poverty affects one’s ability to learn and certainly presents other challenges related to diversity.
-Our province is also seeing increasing numbers of immigrants, bringing large numbers of EAL students to our classrooms. Students, and often parents, arrive unable to speak English, or at least not always at a level that allows for normal or simple interaction in school or society. The teacher’s job to adapt and diversify for these students is at an all-time peak.
The moral? We have a lot of work ahead of us. There is much we can take from Finland’s system: things that should be causing all Saskatchewan educators to reevaluate what it is we’re doing. However, we could never make a type of shift that would entirely replicate what is happening in Scandinavian countries since our students are very unique and our challenges are so different. What’s the solution? That is the million (*cough* BILLION *cough*) dollar question.
Please check out these articles and videos
Oh to be in Finland
18 Things to Know about Education in Finland
26 Amazing Facts about Finland’s Unorthodox Education System
What the World Can Learn from Educational Change in Finland
Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?
Finland’s Revolutionary Education System
Finland’s Education Success