Finnish education breaks rules, finds success

Less homework, no standardized tests leads to success in Finland

A master's degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher-training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. Credit: Purestock

A master’s degree is required to enter the teaching profession in Finland, and teacher-training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. Credit: Purestock

Kids in Finland score higher on math, reading and science than kids in the United States. Finnish children also don’t start school until age 7, so kids living in states where they are required to start schooling at 5 should have a head start. What gives?

The answer is the high-tech, low-impact “Finnish way.” Kids in Finland reach their maximum potential in an environment with less stress and fewer exceptions.

“We decided in the 1960s that we would provide a free quality education to all” and Finland has been reaping the benefits ever since, said Krista Kiuru, Finland’s minister of education and science, at the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in Boston this week.

Counterintuitive education

“Free quality education” doesn’t mean more tests, more homework and more stress. Finnish children instead have more recess and shorter schooldays than many U.S. children. They also have the least homework of any industrialized nation. They have no gifted programs, few private schools and no national standardized tests.

“It’s important because we are raising the potential of the entire human capital in Finland,” Kiuru said. “Even if we don’t have oil or minerals or any other natural resources, we think human capital is also a valuable resource.”

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) tested adults age 16 to 65 from 24 countries in 2012, measuring their skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments. Finland scored at or near the top of every measure on the PIAAC (Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies).

Based on age differences, adults who had gone through early education after the reforms of the 1960s had “extremely high knowledge,” compared to average knowledge among those who had gone through school before the reforms.

The reforms included smaller class sizes and sending all kids, regardless of natural ability, through the same system. Teachers help struggling kids individually in this scheme.

Finns take breaks

Finland also takes a lot of the stress out of everyday testing by interspersing traditional math and science with vocational classes including handcrafts, cooking, creative pursuits and sports.

Many schools in Finland, in addition to offering a variety of subjects during the school day, have interspersed extracurricular school clubs in the middle of the day, instead of only before or after the school day.

“Academics isn’t all kids need,” Kiuru said. “Kids need so much more.”

Support for teachers

The attitude is also “train, don’t test” for teachers.

“We don’t test our teachers or ask them to prove their knowledge,” Kiuru said. “But it’s true that we do invest in a lot of additional teacher training even after they become teachers.”

A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher-training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is not successful, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.

Tests for students periodically track progress but they don’t compare them to one another on a national level. Schools and individuals are urged to cooperate, not compete.

More Internet freedom

Another reason kids in Finland excel may be that in the Nordic country, Internet access is a human right, not a luxury. Finland’s Ministry of Transport and Communications made 1 MB broadband Web access a legal right in 2010. The requirement will jump to 100 MB by 2015.

Though some countries, like France, have made Internet access a human right already, none have specified “broadband” access. This goes hand in hand with Finland’s history of leadership in tech, and its burgeoning leadership in education.

Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn is a journalist covering the tech beat and an adjunct professor at Montclair State University. He lives in New Jersey, where he had worked as a staff writer for several leading daily newspapers and websites.
Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn
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