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What American parents can learn from Finnish educators

IMG_2019Now that June is in Montessori, I’ve been thinking a lot about her education, and about primary education in general. I realize she’s only 2, but apart from love, security and the occasional M&M (;-)), her education is the most important gift I can give her.

I came across this fascinating book, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? It’s written by Pasi Salhberg, director general of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki and general rock star in the education world. He was recently awarded $100,000 for his work in education reform and for explaining why Finland consistently produces the top performing students in the world (followed closely by South Korea). The United States lags behind in 17th place, according to the latest global education ranking of student academic performance.

I was fascinated by Salhberg’s book because Finland doesn’t approach education by the expected methods — that is, lots of standardized testing, the expectation of homework, a culture of tutoring, a surfeit of computers in every class. In fact, the Finnish method is the exact opposite. There is almost no standardized testing until the age of 16 (or 17) and hardly any homework, the idea being that homework is a sign class time is not being utilized efficiently. Finnish school days are shorter, class sizes are smaller nor is there an overemphasis on high tech. Computers are not necessarily a given in the typical Finnish classroom. The result is a system that stresses holistic learning — zeroing in on a child’s well being and happiness — over standardization and measured academic performance. This is the Montessori philosophy in a nutshell.

Yet those policies alone don’t explain Finland’s success. Probably the most critical factor is the role of teachers. In Finland, as well as in South Korea, the teaching field is highly competitive. Of the 2,300 applicants to the University of Helsinki’s primary school teacher education program, only 120 are accepted, and all must have a research-based masters degree or higher upon graduation. (Only 1 in 50 teaching applicants are accepted in South Korea.) As such, teachers are well paid, highly regarded professionals, along the lines of doctors, lawyers and university professors. Teachers are given a lot of autonomy to design their own curricula, evaluate students’ performance and collaborate with other teachers. They are not hampered by local school boards.

It all sounds so lovely, doesn’t it? Lets all move to Finland! But Finnish society has some things going for it that make these achievements possible that might not work in a country as large and diverse as the United States.

For one thing, Finland is a relatively small, homogenous society without huge wealth disparities like you see in the United States. Finland’s generous social welfare policies mean that all schools are funded equally. Children there, by law, have free access to childcare, health care and preschool. All Finnish students look forward to a free education from preschool to university, which I imagine is paid for in the form of higher taxes.

Lastly, Finland’s strict gender quotas means more women working in the highest levels of politics. Nearly 50 percent of Parliament and government ministers in Finland are women. And its the women — mothers intimately connected to the needs of children — who are at the heart of driving Finland’s outstanding child welfare reform.

Sources: Sahlberg’s book, NPR On Point, Pasi Sahlberg’s “Why Gender Equality Matters in School Reform” , The Finland Phenomenon.

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Jessie blogs at Rurally Screwed. Check out her books Rurally Screwed and Tart & Sweet

 

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