The New Rock Star of Global Education

April 16, 2011

Who is one of the top countries in the World education-wise? Finland. How do they do it? Shorter school days, less homework, as little measuring and testing as possible, and a flexible curriculum. Say What?!  In the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, Finland placed third in mathematics, second in science literacy, and second in reading.  With Asian countries, like South Korea and Singapore, being Finland’s only real rivals—and the way they teach is more of a learn-it-or-die approach which would only make the Finns cringe.  The United States on the other hand placed around average on its science and mathematics scores and 15th in reading.  Wa-Wa-Waaaaa.

The Finns teach in a way which we in the United States would consider a non-normative route to say the least.  Basically the teachers can teach however they want as long as the students meet Finland’s National Board of Education’s standards.  One example of these odd techniques is “outside math”, which was actually developed in Sweden but used without any questioning by Finland teachers.  Veli-Matti Harjula, who teaches the same group of kids from third to sixth grade, practices this technique with his class of 9 year olds.  They arrange sticks, pinecones, stones, and berries into shapes and then the students describe them in geometric terms.  Harjula says “It’s a different way of conceptualizing math when you do it this way instead of using pen and paper, and it goes straight to the brain.” This sounds much more fun than the hundreds of times tables I had to process on countless worksheets in my elementary school math class.

Another key aspect of their teaching success is the teachers themselves.  Andreas Schleicher, who directs the PISA program at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) explains how: “It’s the quality of the teaching that is driving Finland’s results.  The U.S. has an industrial model where teachers are the means for conveying a prefabricated product. In Finland, the teachers are the standard.”  In Finland, becoming a teacher is held in high esteem, and the process of getting into the five year teaching program is highly competitive.  It is required for all teachers to receive their master ’s degree which makes their teachers more respected and valued as a whole.  These highly educated teachers typically follow the same group of kids through the first to the sixth grade so that they can specifically tailor their teaching approaches to these kids.

Overall, Finland has smart ideas which are then diffused to great teachers which then teach students intelligently.  Sounds like a pretty good plan to me.  Reijo Laukkanen, a counselor at the Finnish National Board of Education explains how “Finland is a society based on equity, Japan and Korea are highly competitive societies — if you’re not better than your neighbor, your parents pay to send you to night school. In Finland, outperforming your neighbor isn’t very important. Everybody is average, but you want that average to be very high.”  I think it’s time for America to get its priorities straight.  Maybe—instead of testing our students into oblivion to see where they rank compared to students in the state next door—we should look more into new teaching techniques for the country as a whole?  Or perhaps set a new standard for the teachers themselves?  What I do know is that I would have definitely preferred an education in Finland. What are your thoughts?

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5 Responses to “The New Rock Star of Global Education”

  1. MMC Media and Politics Prof said

    Thanks for bringing this comparative perspective. Now if only they could do something about the weather, I might consider moving with my kids to Finland…

  2. nbarbasch said

    This was a very interesting article and post. It’s strange to me, because playing with sticks and stones, etc does not equate to doing math to me. However, obviously, Finland is getting the results that they want. I can say however, that the system Finland has enacted would never fly in the U.S. Conventional education is highly valued-and while it may be incredibly flawed at the moment- I cannot see parents jumping to such unconventional routes. Furthermore, deep routed competition has always been a part of U.S. education, so this idea that people in Finland are equal or average would be highly problematic in the U.S. Though I must say, it was really interesting to be exposed to another Countries unconventional education system!

  3. hlaughlin said

    I’m a really visual person so that kind of learning would have totally worked for me, and I am one of the least competitive people you will ever meet so I didn’t really come to the conclusions you did but you are so right! You are way more realistic about the whole issue. I hope that maybe the U.S. can use some of the teaching techniques though, or at least try out something different because what we have going is not working so well.

  4. anabanana007 said

    I completely agree that there should be teaching techniques for the country as a whole. It will bring some type of uniformity amongst students across the country and it will be a way to test what forms work and which ones don’t. If a method doesn’t work it will be evident across the country because every student would be doing horribly bad.However if the method works there would be a positive change in student performance.Right now there are different state standards, so there is no way of knowing what it is that works/does not in each state to make it uniform.

  5. Graham said

    This really goes to show that the US educational system based on standardized tests and a completely structured environment may be counter-intuitive to education. Finland seems to embrace the differences in a student’s learning processes, allowing the teachers to teach in regard to a particular students requirements. If such a system were adopted by the US it would seem that we could stop slipping down the ranks in worldwide education. Doing so would create a new generation of scholars and artists who have allowed their unique abilities to flourish over the years instead of being reprised to basic core courses.

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