Learning from Finland

Sunday January 2, 2011

The latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reveal that Finland has once again outperformed Australia and other countries which have resorted to market-based approaches to education. Finland achieved higher average results and much lower differences in results between rich and poor than Australia, England and the United States.

Finland has adopted a different approach to education than these countries. Key differences were recently spelled out by Pasi Sahlberg, director-general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, in an article in the Boston Globe.

Sahlberg states that Finland has a different approach to student testing and how test data can or should not be used. Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to each other. The public is informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based tests which place no pressure on schools.

Instead, teachers, students, and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers, or students do what they are supposed to do. It is thought that teachers who work closely together with parents are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.

Another difference is that Finland has created an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work. All teachers are required to have higher academic degrees that guarantee both high-level pedagogical skills and subject knowledge.

Sahlberg says that parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. The fact that teachers in Finland work as autonomous professionals and play a key role in curriculum planning and assessing student learning attracts some of the most able and talented young Finns into teaching careers.

Educational leadership is also different in Finland. School principals, district education leaders, and superintendents are, without exception, former teachers. Leadership is therefore built on a strong sense of professional skills and community.

Sahlberg suggests that education policies based on choice and competition as the key drivers of educational improvement should be re-considered. He says that none of the best performing education systems relies primarily on them. Indeed, the Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and co-operation – not choice and competition – can lead to an education system where all children learn well.

He also says that paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charter schools or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement.

He suggests that education authorities should provide teachers with government-paid university education and more professional support in their work, and make teaching a respected profession. As long as teachers are not trusted in their work and are not respected as professionals, young talent is unlikely to seek teaching as a lifelong career.

These are lessons that Julia Gillard and Peter Garrett would do well to heed.

Trevor Cobbold

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