EMBARRASS- What does Finland have to teach the world about education? It turns out that this small Nordic country may have some of the answers to increasing the educational achievement for students …
EMBARRASS- What does Finland have to teach the world about education? It turns out that this small Nordic country may have some of the answers to increasing the educational achievement for students around the world.
Dr. Philip Johnson, President of Finlandia University in Hancock, Mich., was the guest speaker at this year’s Sisu Heritage Annual Meeting in late February. A Lutheran Minister who spent 14 years along with his wife as a missionary in Ethiopia, he noted he has happily settled into life in the “copper country” of Michigan’s Upper Penninsula.
“It is a real privilege to visit Embarrass,” he said. “Preserving your culture and history is hard work. It takes a lot of grit, of sisu.” Finlandia is rooted in Finnish culture, he noted, as is Embarrass.
“I am not an expert on the Finnish model of education,” he said, “but I have explored it.”
He asked any teachers in the audience to help tally the years of educational experience in the room. The total was over 200 years of teaching experience.
Johnson said he first became aware of the unique educational model being championed in Finland back in 2011, when he met Pasi Sahlberg, who has now travelled the world educating teachers and politicians on “The Finnish Way” (TFW). In 2013, Finlandia brought young teachers from Finland to spend a few months teaching elementary school in the UP, and in 2014, they took a delegation of area teachers to Finland.
Finland gained international attention about ten years ago when their students jumped to the top of the ranks of students in the PISA test scores, a test given every three years to about a half a million students in 72 countries.
Johnson explained that Finland had begun a systematic revamp of the country’s educational system in 1970, and it took a generation for the results to become apparent to all. And Sahlberg’s book “Finnish Lessons,” spread the message around the world.
Sahlberg had no intention of convincing audiences that Finland had the best educational system, Johnson noted. “That is very un-Finnish.”
He noted that Finland had borrowed much innovation from other countries, but then made it their own.
TFW, Johnson noted, is based on the precept that the goal is to provide a good education for every child, not to create the best school system in the world.
“The educational gap in Finland is much smaller than in the U.S.,” he said. “Finland spends a lot on remedial education.”
The major shift in Finland’s education program transformed a program that tracked students into college and vocational tracks at an early age to one that provides the same level of education to all students until they are 16, and then provides multiple opportunities to either pursue vocational or higher education, but also offers the opportunity for all students to obtain both college and graduate degrees, with free tuition, until the age of 30.
“Critics worried that expectations would be lowered,” he said, “and that lower and higher education students could not be educated together.”
Another tenet of the education system is the training given to teachers, who are recruited from the top ten percent of students, and all have masters degrees.
But teachers are not selected just on their academic credentials. Sahlberg writes, “Selection focuses on finding those individuals who have the right personality, advanced interpersonal skills, and the right moral purpose to become lifelong educators.”
“Teachers are well valued,” he said.
The Finnish system believes that everything is possible for all students.
“There are no limits,” he said. “And students in rural areas get the same educational opportunities as larger cities.”
St. Louis County Commissioner Tom Rukavina, who attended the talk, noted that in this county, politicians often “beat up” on public employees and teachers.
“They like to stir that pot,” he said.
Retired teacher and former ISD 2142 board member Gary Rantala noted that expectations play a large role in education, and that a family’s expectation of its next generation is a key to student success.
“Finnish teachers teach less,” Johnson noted, “but their students learn more.”
Rantala noted that in the U.S. education system, those in charge try to “reinvent the wheel every three to four years.”
“We are not trying to find out what different ways children learn,” said Rantala.
Johnson noted that there are many good educational models to learn from, but there is not a fix that will work overnight.
“It took Finland a generation to get their system in place,” he said.
Johnson said the lessons he would like to see American educators take from the Finnish example are the importance of a personal roadmap for learning, less classroom-based teaching, interpersonal skills and problem-solving, and engagement and creativity as pointers of success.
He noted that the American roadmap to educational improvement involved competition, standardization, test-based accountability, choice and human capital. The Finnish way includes collaboration, personalization, trust-based responsibility, equity, and professional capital.
Another big difference between the two education systems is the emphasis on high-stakes testing.
“The U.S. tests our students to death,” Johnson said, with data showing 100 million standardized tests are given each year. In Finland, students take one such test, a matriculation exam, which consists of separate exams in different subjects (which may include Finnish language, foreign languages, math, history, and science), and must be passed to earn their high school certification. Students can take optional exams in subjects such as philosophy, biology, physics, chemistry, psychology, and ethics. Students can take the exam more than once, if needed, but do need to pass three of the four parts within about a year and a half. Scores on this exam affect university admissions.
Rukavina talked about the changes in Minnesota’s tax system, which led to a drastic decrease in state funding for education under Gov. Jesse Ventura.
“We used to value education,” he said.
Johnson noted that the Finnish education picture is not all rosy. The country has seen a decline in PISA test scores over the last 10 years. He speculated that the country is afraid to change its current model, and that further adjustments are probably necessary.
“There needs to be some change in the vision,” he said. “And a larger focus on social and leadership skills.”
Johnson said that, in the internet age, it was important for students to learn to find their talent, in a time when simply finding information is relatively simple.
“Critical thinking skills are also important,” he said. “Human beings are analog, not digital.”