A Lot to Learn from Finland

You may be surprised to see a blog from me on the education system in- of all countries- Finland. This is a country whose success story in evolving an admirable public education system really sets you thinking about all that we are doing here, and more importantly on what we ought to be doing.
A Few Facts:  
More than 99% of the relevant age group successfully complete compulsory basic education, about 95% continue their education in upper secondary schools or in the 10th grade of the basic school, and 90% of those starting upper secondary school eventually receive their school leaving certification, providing access to tertiary education. Two thirds of those enrol either in academic universities or professionally oriented polytechnics.
According to recent global education indicators, only 2% of Finnish expenditure on educational institutions is from private sources compared to an OECD average of 13%.
Finland had one of the smallest performance variations between schools; 5% against a OECD average of 33%. In the 2006 PISA survey, Finland maintained its high performance in all assessed areas of student achievement. In science, the main focus of the survey, Finnish students outperformed their peers in all the 56 countries studied.
The Features of the Finnish education system
Explaining either success or failure of any educational system is difficult. What students learn in schools is, in fact, a result of a complex set of factors – most of them beyond real control of school or teachers. Finland is not an exception. The culture of Finland and ethnic characteristics of its people play a role in how education system operates. It is impossible to give a precise answer to the question of why Finland is doing well in education. This analysis is hence restricted to the education policies that Finland has adopted to raise student achievement.
(i) Same comprehensive basic school for all
All Finnish children start their compulsory nine-year comprehensive basic schooling once they become seven years old. Normally, class-based primary school lasts six years followed by three-year lower secondary school, although the new law allows some variation. Today it is widely recognized that the six-year primary school experience provides the cornerstone for high quality education for all Finnish citizens. It is seen that investment in primary education as children learn basic knowledge and skills and adopt attitudes of lifelong learning pay off in later grades through better aptitude and learning skills, as well as through positive overall outcomes.
All basic school teachers must hold a Masters degree to become permanently employed. Primary school teacher preparation was converted from a three-year program at teachers’ colleges to four- or five-year university programs in the late 1970s. Hence, most primary school teachers today possess higher university degrees.
The Finnish comprehensive school is a formal and fully publicly financed system and also, as ‘a matter of pedagogical philosophy and practice’. Well- equipped schools are typically small with class sizes ranging from 20 – 30 students. Primary schools (grades 1 to 6) typically have fewer than 300 pupils and class sizes are, by international standards, average or below.
Because most Finnish schools are small, they often forge close educational communities of teachers and pupils. Most teachers in primary schools are highly educated and continually update their professional knowledge and skills. Curriculum reform has made primary schools a place where play and learning are combined with alternative pedagogical approaches to help children master basic academic knowledge and skills. Many primary schools therefore have become learning and caring communities rather than merely instructional institutions that prepare pupils for the next level of schooling.
The fact that all children enroll in identical comprehensive schools regardless of their socioeconomic background or personal abilities and characteristics has resulted a system where schools and classrooms are heterogeneous in terms of pupil profiles and diverse in terms of educational needs and expectations. All students receive a free, two-course warm meal daily, free health care, transportation, learning materials, and counseling in their own schools.
Finnish children start compulsory schooling one to three years later than do children in most other nations. This suggests that Finnish pupils learn relatively better within a shorter time, compared to their international peers. Finnish education policy has never compromised the principle of extended childhood at the expense of increasing time devoted to formal education.
(ii) Well-trained teachers in primary school
In Finnish society, the teaching profession has always enjoyed great public respect and appreciation. Parents trust teachers as professionals who know what is best for their children. Teachers therefore have considerable classroom independence in selecting most appropriate pedagogical methods. Consequently, primary schools are quite independent in designing their own curriculum, teaching and learning arrangements, and in using public funds. Classroom teaching is considered an independent, high status profession that attracts some of the best secondary school graduates. Indeed, only about 10 % of some 6 000 applicants are accepted annually to the Faculties of Education within Finnish universities. This implies that university teacher education departments can select some of the nation’s best students from among top scorers on university entrance examinations.
Most importantly, however, a Masters degree guarantees access to post-graduate studies made widely available in most Finnish universities today. Many teachers, especially in primary schools, seize the opportunity of continuing their academic studies. During the past decade, Finnish schools have noted an upsurge in school principals and teachers possessing a PhD in education.
In international comparisons, Finnish teacher education programs are distinguished by their depth and scope. The balance between the theoretical and practical in these programs helps young teachers master various teaching methods as well as the science of effective teaching and learning.
Finnish teachers are conscious, critical consumers of professional development and in- service training services. Just as the professional level of the teaching cadre has increased over the past two decades, so has the quality of teacher professional development support. Most compulsory, traditional in-service training has disappeared. In its place are school- or municipality-based longer-term programs and professional development opportunities. Continuous upgrading of teachers’ pedagogical professionalism has become a right rather than an obligation.
(iii) Intelligent accountability
Finland has not followed the global accountability movement in education that assumes that making schools and teachers more accountable for their performance is the key to raising student achievement. Traditionally, evaluation of student outcomes has been the responsibility of each Finnish teacher and school. The only standardized, high-stakes assessment is the Matriculation Examination at the end of general upper secondary school, before students enter tertiary education. Prior to this culminating examination, no external tests are either required or imposed on Finnish classrooms.
As a consequence of decentralized education management and increased school autonomy, education authorities and political leaders have been made accountable for their decisions making implementation of policies possible. This has created a practice of reciprocal accountability in education system management where schools are increasingly accountable for learning outcomes and education authorities are held accountable to schools for making expected outcomes possible. Flexible accountability has had a major positive impact on teaching and, hence, on student learning. All assessment of student learning is based on teacher-made tests, rather than standardized external tests. By fifth grade, Finnish pupils no longer receive numerical grades that would enable directly comparing pupils with one another. In fact, grades are prohibited by law. Only descriptive assessments and feedback are employed.
Primary school, particularly, is, to a large extent, a ‘testing-free zone’ reserved for learning to know, to do, and to sustain natural curiosity. Teachers also experience more genuine freedom in curriculum planning; they do not need to focus on annual tests or exams. Increased teacher and school autonomy has led to a situation where schools can not only arrange teaching according to their optimal resources, but allocate teaching time within the national curriculum framework differently from school to school. This is rarely possible in more rigid and test-heavy education systems.
The focus of teaching in Finland is typically on learning, rather than on preparing students for tests. Different teaching methods are commonly employed throughout the school system. New innovations are readily accepted by teachers, if they are regarded as appropriate for promoting student learning. Stress and anxiety among pupils and teachers is not as common as it is within education systems having comparatively more intensive accountability structures.
(iv) Culture of trust
Much of what has been previously noted is only possible when parents, students, and authorities genuinely trust teachers and schools. It is necessary to realize that the Finnish education system was highly centralized and remained centrally controlled until 1985. A dense network of rules and orders regulated the daily work of teachers. The gradual shift toward trusting schools and teachers began in the 1980s, when major phases of the reform agenda were initiated in the education system. In the early 1990s, the era of a trust-based school culture formally started in Finland.
The culture of trust simply means that education authorities and political leaders believe that teachers, together with principals, parents and their communities, know how to provide the best possible education for their children and youth.
The culture of trust can only flourish in an environment that is built upon good governance and close-to-zero corruption. Tellingly, Finland also performs well in international good-governance rankings by Transparency International. Public institutions generally enjoy high public trust and regard in Finland. Trusting schools and teachers is therefore a natural consequence of a generally well-functioning civil society.
School improvement emerged in Finland as a consequence of this new trust. Each school could design its own change strategy with mission statements, vision and implementation methodologies, and schedules. This dimension of trust has played the most significant role in propelling Finland ahead of  many other nations.
(v) Distributed moral leadership
Education reform and development in Finland has been based on the continual adjustment of schooling to the changing needs of individuals and society. Governments from the political left and right have respected education as the key public service for all citizens and maintained their belief that only a highly and widely educated nation will be successful in world markets.
Sustainable educational leadership has enabled Finnish schools and teachers to concentrate on developing teaching and learning as they best see it to be needed. Leadership in education sector has increasingly followed the idea of distributed leadership, i.e. sharing responsibilities among all actors in education to achieve expected results. Rather than allocating financial resources and time to implement new reforms repeatedly, teachers in Finland have been given professional freedom to develop pedagogical knowledge and skills related to their individual needs.
In education systems that undergo wave after wave of reforms, frequent emphasis often is on implementation and consolidation of externally designed changes. The main result is often frustration and resistance to change rather than desire to improve schools. In Finland, however, education policies have increasingly invited schools to design their own development plans and implementation strategies based on the national curriculum and policy frameworks and oversight systems. These frameworks serve as guiding principles for municipalities and schools in delivering education services to their members.
In conclusion, it is not a surprise that a country which has followed the above tenets comes up on the top when assessed for learning outcomes. India is not Finland; and we are way away in the Corruption indices; this precludes many of the steps from being adopted here as they are. However there is a lot that we could still learn from them.
Many of the above steps are outside the scope of Sikshana intervention too; still we have followed strictly, in whatever we do, their basic concept: that teachers, together with principals, parents and their communities, know how to provide the best possible education for their children. We are also proud that the Mission Goal of Sikshana announced in the public domain a decade back states that the Public Education System should be built around this belief.
E S Ramamurthy
(I acknowledge with thanks Mr Pasi Sahlberg for most of the above content that pertains to the Finnish Education System) )

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2 Responses to “A Lot to Learn from Finland”

  1. nath Says:

    I have a small innovation whereby the multiplication tables need not be learnt at all. The answers will come by just folding fingers. I find so far no school has shown any interest in using this- so much apathy is there. Glad and wonder if you could recommend me to someone (Pasi Sahlberg?) to try myself in Finland sir

    • ES Ramamurthy Says:

      Before you can think of talking it out of the country, you should try it out here and demonstrate its feasibility. Sikshana with 1000 plus schools provides an ideal platform for this venture; the teachers who handle Maths are open minded enough to take in new ideas. However a word of caution: These teachers have so far received many such offers through the State sponsored training programs and are understandably wary of new ones. With your dedication and commitment, I am sure you will be able get over this resistance. I will be in touch with you through email on this.

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