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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 23, Number 5, March 2011  

The Finnish miracle (English version)

By Moh Chelali 

Imagine students who roam much of the day in school hallways that are decorated with brightly coloured student art and that contain a few comfy chairs so that students can sit and share ideas, or simply rest.

Imagine large spacious class­rooms equipped with the latest technology, where classes are 45 minutes long. There are no tests or exams. Children younger than 9 are not graded, and from age 9 on there are still no grades, just a few comments!

Imagine students who can leave their clothes in open locker rooms in the lobby of the school without worrying about theft, while the bikes they ride to school are left unlocked in the spaces provided within the school grounds.

Imagine student/teacher relation­ships where students can call their teachers on their cell phones if they need clarification on a lesson, and where it is not uncommon for a teacher to visit a student’s home to understand their living conditions.

Imagine teachers with fewer teaching hours than any other school system in the world; teachers who have ample time to reflect on their pedagogy and provide extracurricular activities for students. Each teacher has full autonomy to teach what she or he wants as and when they want within the overall objectives of the curriculum. Class sizes rarely exceed 20 students.

Imagine a school totally free of charge. School supplies and meals are provided free. The principal is a teacher who teaches part-time and for the remainder of her or his day is responsible for supervising and co-ordinating teaching. Financial management is provided by the municipality in which the school is located.

Imagine private schools integrated or coupled with an efficient public school system where students attend the school closest to their home.

Imagine a teacher who starts her or his career with a master's degree and who receives ongoing professional development support. These teachers often work closely with the university closest to their school in order to explore the best teaching approaches to better help their students.

Imagine Kindergartens and preschools with a homelike atmosphere, and sufficient numbers of teachers to be available to each child whenever needed. Groups of 12 children between the ages of 1 and 3 constantly have three nursery assistants plus a housekeeper. Groups of 21 children between the ages of 3 and 6 have 2 qualified teachers, a nursery assistant and a housekeeper at all times.

Imagine that all the furniture in the school is specifically chosen for its color and comfort so as not to impose unnecessary stress on the children. The activities are paced so that children remain calm, relaxed and open to learning. Imagine, above all, a teaching system that aims to stimulate through fun activities and games and where learning to read doesn’t normally start until age 7. From age 7 each morning is devoted to a discipline (music, sports, art, crafts, the Finnish language, math) and afternoons are reserved for play.

Imagine that initial learning is done without violence, without stress or undue hardship with the sole aim of stimulating and moti­vating the children, and listening to their needs. If a child shows special skills, which is not unusual in such a climate, she or he will be given the opportunity of learning to read earlier (age 6). However, if the parents are in agreement, a teacher can keep a child at the Kindergarten level until she or he turns 8 if it appears that they are not ready for the next class. After that, holding a student back is, in principle, prohibited by law.

Sounds like a dream school? Does it really exist? And if it is, how much does it cost taxpayers? This school does exist and it is called the Finnish model.

“The Finnish model is the best in the world” according to an international study conducted by OECD (PISA survey); at age 15, Finnish students far surpass their peers in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Finnish students lead in reading performance of students from 43 participating countries (30 OECD countries plus 13 associated countries). They are in 4th place in math and 3rd in science. At the beginning of the 21st century, Finland was among the top countries in the world for the effectiveness of its education system. In 2003, Finland again improved its position, and won first place among 41 participating countries in the three disciplines already evaluated in 2000 and second place in problem-solving, a new category introduced in 2003. Since 2003, Finland tops the list of developed countries that participate in PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

How much does it cost?  

Brace yourself; annual expenditures per student in Finland average $7,500 per student or 5.8% of GDP. This is well below the cost of virtually every province in Canada. For example the cost per student in British Columbia and Quebec is close to $8,300 and in Ontario it is $10,730 (2010)!

So what is their secret?  

Finland made a deliberate choice to bet on a student who is at the center of learning. The approaches are based on an intricate and deep analysis of the real needs of each student on the grounds that each student is unique. Of course the Finnish system greatly respects knowledge but, even more so, it respects the individuals for whom this knowledge is destined.

As described above, the classroom environment is warm and welcoming without placing any unnecessary stress on students or teachers. The rhythm of learning is skilfully adapted to the rhythms of the students.

Beginning in Kindergarten, a system of early detection of disabilities and learning difficulties is introduced and appropriate intervention is undertaken by highly specialized and qualified teachers. The ratio of teachers to students is very high with teachers who all have a master’s degree in education as well as training and experience in the classroom.

Teachers are at the heart of Finland’s success. All teachers are experts and are all associated with a university for research work and applied pedagogy.

Teachers are highly respected in society and enjoy full academic freedom with a high degree of autonomy and initiative, which certainly leads to high motivation.

Finland is a successful working model for us to follow. The prob­lems that plague the climate in our current education system should give way to a true dialogue with all social partners. A few weeks ago, the BC Principals and Vice-principals’ Association rejected standardized tests (FSA) for the same reasons as teachers. And what does our minister do? She insists that they continue, when a large proportion of parents reject them because they appear not to be statistically significant. It is simply a waste of time and money. We can also talk about the closure of local schools under the guise of economic efficiency, which does not help in outreach work in education. But enumerating the long list of what needs to be debated and corrected will be part of another discussion.

School has become a political instrument, which obeys the rules of supply and demand, judged more on its economic performance than its social value. School should instead be regarded as an ideal gathering place for all in which to build a just and prosperous society.

Moh Chelali, is co-ordinator of the BCTF French Programs and Services.