March 1, 2014
Online Journal - Learning from Others: Could the Finnish Model Work Here?
Frances Schander, Curriculum Coordinator/Teacher Mentor, British Columbia Conference, Abbotsford, BC

For some time I have followed Finland’s education system as it has risen from mediocrity to become one of the world’s best. Initially, I was intrigued because of my own interest in best instructional practices for teaching reading to young children. Finland, it turns out, has the highest rate of literacy  in the world. Encouraging interest in literacy is a part of Finnish culture. In fact, every newborn’s family is sent home with a “maternity kit” that includes three children’s books. With this sort of social encouragement for literacy, it’s no surprise that Finland is reported to publish more children’s books each year than any other country in the world.
Finland’s students consistently score at or near the top of the prestigious Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams, the OECD’s programme of testing that is held around the globe for 15-year-olds from 65 countries every three years. Results  for the most recent testing were reported in December 2013. Finland placed 12th in math, 4th in science, and 6th in reading (and ahead of Canada in all three categories).

Since Finland’s students perform so well academically, one might think that students begin formal learning early on. Not so. Students are entitled to free universal daycare through age 5, do one year of daycare/kindergarten at age six, and begin formal school (the equivalent of our grade 1) at age 7. Is it any wonder that their students have significantly lower rates of reading disabilities than most other countries? An additional year to mature would make a huge difference to many of the 15-20 % of first graders in North America whose emergent literacy is awakening slowly. Is it possible that our own school systems are contributing to the development of reading disabilities? 

Besides a later starting date, the Finns apparently understand that often “less can be more.” Finnish students spend the fewest number of hours in the classroom of any First World country. They have short school days. In addition, class sizes are capped at 20, and there’s a prevailing philosophy that every child has something to contribute. It is expected that most students will struggle in some subjects, so they just need a little additional help. Fully half of all Finnish students have received some kind of special education services, usually in elementary school, before they are 17. All children are kept with their same age mates, regardless of ability. Additional support staff is added to help struggling students in the classroom; however, it is noteworthy that teachers consider most special education students to have temporary, not permanent, learning challenges.

Teaching is among the most respected of professions in this northern land, and the brightest and the best are accepted into university entrance for careers in education. In Finland, all public education through university is free. Teachers are well paid and given considerable latitude in developing their own curriculum and autonomy in delivering it.

In her recently released book, The Smartest Kids in the World,  journalist Amanda Ripley takes a look at education around the globe that is working. She is particularly intrigued by Finland, where education is seen as “a serious quest” that is rigorous and important to the entire country’s wellbeing – and students rise to the occasion.

We can always learn from others . . . and it seems that the Finns may be able to teach us! The question:  Would we be willing to listen?
 

iIndex Mundi (Literacy) Retrieved from  http://www.indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?c=fi&v=39 .
 
iiWhich Country Does Best at Reading, Maths, and Science? The Guardian (Dec. 3, 2013). Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/dec/03/pisa-results-country-best-reading-maths-science

iiiCompare this to the counsel found in White, Ellen G. Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students (PPPA, 1913), in which the author states that the only schoolroom children should experience until the age of 8-10 years should be nature and the open air (pp. 79-80).
 
ivRipley, Amanda. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got that Way. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.