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A National Education That Beats the Tiger Mom Approach

finland, finnish schools

Shorter school days, short school years, hardly any homework: yet these kids are the best.

Finland is the tops when it comes to education around the world. At least it was in 2009 and several years prior to then, when results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed Finnish students came in second in science, third in math and second in reading. Only Singapore and Korea did better than Finland in those subjects, yet there’s a huge difference in what goes on in all three countries’ classrooms.

The two Asian countries employ drill-and-kill memorization of facts, student ranking, lots and lots of paid tutoring and high-stakes testing. In Finland? Well, they barely have homework, go to school only a few days more a year than Americans (who have a painfully short school year) and submit to standardized tests only a very little bit. Their average school day is also shorter than that of other countries, including the U.S.

How do they do it? It comes down to one thing: the teachers.

They’re a highly selective bunch — in 2008, only 9.8 percent were admitted to one of the country’s 5-year teaching programs, according to TIME magazine, which has a short feature on Finnish schools. Those who are to become teachers are the tops in their own areas of study, such as math and physics. They’re simply better equipped to teach those kinds of subjects.

Even more amazing to people used to lots and lots of administrators, is that Finnish teachers aren’t micromanaged. In fact, they’re hardly managed at all. Elementary school teachers get a class of kids in first grade and stay with them through sixth grade. How they get the kids to meet a basic set of standards is up to the teacher.

And it works.

There isn’t a lot of competition among the students. The country’s worst performers on the PISA exam scored 80 percent higher than the average score of the worst performers internationally. The best performed 50 percent higher than the average for bright students. So even though Finns aim for all students to be average, the bottom range of “average” in Finland is way better for their worst students compared to others internationally and significantly better than the world’s other smart kids.

I recently came across this interesting (but short) interview with the Minister of Education, Henna Virkkunen. Attributes success to small class sizes, a good working partnership with the teacher’s union, and also their well-educated teachers.

She also talks about how their schools are becoming less homogenous and how they work with language differences:

In some schools, in the areas around Helsinki, more than 30 percent of the pupils are immigrants. It seems that we have been doing good work, also with the immigrants, if we look at PISA results. Normally, if children come from a very different schooling system or society, they have one year in a smaller setting where they study Finnish and maybe some other subjects. We try to raise their level before they come to regular classrooms. We think also that learning one’s mother tongue is very important, and that’s why we try to teach the mother tongue for all immigrants as well. It’s very challenging. I think in Helsinki, they are teaching 44 different mother tongues. The government pays for two-hour lessons each week for these pupils. We think it is very important to know your own tongue—that you can write and read and think in it. Then it’s easier also to learn other languages like Finnish or English, or other subjects.

Enviable. All of it! And a nice contrast to all the Tiger Mom hysteria.

Photo: SignalPad via flickr

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