Finland Reinvents Schooling – What Can We Learn?

Finland’s education system is in the spotlight. A few days ago it was announced that Finnish schools are changing in fundamental ways. Traditional disciplines – such as math, science, and languages – are being replaced by cross-disciplinary topics, and team work is taking the front stage. The goal is to make school a more engaging place for students. To make it feel more like real life. And to make education more relevant to the present-day world.

I know many of us share the same goals these days. In fact, the idea that students should engage in meaningful, authentic learning has been around for some time. John Dewey was advocating it a century ago, although at the time such an idea was too progressive to be embraced widely. Now, however, the society has changed and the time is ripe. But bringing it to life is challenging. Look at how Alberta’s Inspiring Education struggles! Will Finland succeed in bringing its bold plans to fruition? What can we learn?

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Here are some principles used in Finland to guide the school reform process.

  • School quality isn’t defined by test results. Indeed, if this wasn’t true in Finland, if the schools’ focus was to perform well on standardized tests, the country would strive to preserve rather than change its current education system. Just consider the high scores that Finnish students consistently get in the prestigious Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)! No doubt that some Canadians are puzzled: Why change a school system which not only isn’t broken, but outperforms most other systems in the world? It’s because Finns believe other aspects of schooling are more important to success than standardized tests. It’s important, for instance, that students feel personally connected with what they learn. That they do meaningful work. Also, that they feel happy at school. And unfortunately, in our post-industrial, increasingly technological age, and not just in Finland but everywhere, schools fail to meet these other indicators of success.  They do a poor job at instilling genuine love for learning in their students, and at preparing them for the realities of our present-day world. By focusing on standardized testing, Finns’ reasoning goes, they would be chasing the wrong thing. If, instead, they improve the school experience for students, test scores will likely stay high, too.
  • School reform shouldn’t be rushed. If it tried to introduce the planned changes too quickly, and in all schools at once, Finland’s reform process would be set to fail. Instead, a gradual path is taken, which builds on the fact that the new school system already has its foot in the door: several weeks of cross-disciplinary studies a year are already mandatory for all students. And so, what is starting to take place now is an expansion of this pre-existing learning approach. First, schools from the capital city (Helsinki) will be doubling their cross-disciplinary time. Then, gradually, the approach is expected to gain more and more traction, to eventually become the main way in which all Finnish students would learn. How long will it take? Officials hope the process will be completed by 2020.
  • The success of school reform is in the hands of teachers. If officials in Finland didn’t recognize this, they wouldn’t place so much value on teacher training. And they would try to control teachers, when in reality teachers in Finland enjoy a lot of autonomy. Finnish teachers are known worldwide for their rigorous education and high standards. Also, for being respected and trusted as professionals. And for being well paid. Its teachers are, without a doubt, the key to Finland’s success in education, and what will make or break the country’s school reform. And they are treated accordingly. They receive training before they can apply new teaching approaches in the classroom. But even when trained, teachers are not forced to use the new methods. Change is not imposed, but encouraged. Because, the thinking goes, teachers are perfectly competent to decide when they are ready to switch. And those who switch successfully are rewarded with a salary bonus. I’d say that’s fair – and, at the same time, smart!

Will Finland succeed in reinventing schooling? Are its ambitions realistic? Or are they far-fetched? We’ll have to wait and see. But at least one thing is clear: For a chance to live, this kind of reform must stand on well-grounded principles. And it surely looks like Finland got off to a good start.

 

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