Somehow or other, Finland's schools have skyrocketed into the educational stratosphere in recent years, though it shouldn't have happened if you buy the usual U.S. view of how young people should be educated. The schools don't teach reading formally until the kids turn seven. Elementary schools give their students hours of recess. The teachers decide how they're going to teach their students with minimal guidance from above. And they don't give any standardized tests until high school students have almost graduated. Oh, and there are no private schools, with a few exceptions. Yet Finland tops all other European countries in its scores on international tests. The scores compare favorably with the highest scoring Asian countries as well.
Maybe it's something in the water (or Finlandia vodka?). It can't be simply a matter of demographics, since neighboring countries don't score nearly as well (Fun fact. Since Finland's neighbor Sweden went to a school choice model like the one loved by U.S. conservatives, complete with private school vouchers, its scores on the international tests have fallen). Finland must know something about education we don't. It could have something to do with teachers having such respect and status in society that Finland has a glut of applicants to its teacher education programs. Only the top ten percent are accepted. Maybe it's the three years of full time teacher education and training before teachers get classrooms of their own, which is not only tuition free, it comes with a stipend for living expenses, The generous non-classroom time teachers have to work with their colleagues could be part of the Finnish secret as well.
But for all its success, Finland isn't resting on its laurels. It introduced a new national curriculum
last year which is "skills-based." Take a moment to think what "skills" might refer to. Reading skills maybe? Math skills? Research skills? Time's up. Here's a sample of what "skills" mean in Finland's schools.
There are seven skills the curriculum is based on, including cultural competence, multiliteracy, entrepreneurship, and "thinking and learning to learn." Instead of being expected to cover certain content, teachers are expected to weave those skills into their lessons. It's not "content versus skills, but content with skills," [Petteri Elo, a Finnish teacher and educational consultant] said.
The only skill on that list you might hear emphasized in U.S. schools is "thinking and learning to learn," though these days that's had to take a back seat to learning how to answer questions on multiple choice, standardized tests.
The world is full of educational models other than ours. We certainly haven't seen impressive results from our national insistence that No Child [Be] Left Behind. Adopting the Finnish model probably doesn't make sense here, but the rigid standardization which comes from teaching to the test doesn't make much sense either. Maybe if we try to figure out how to recruit our best college graduates into teaching, then give them a demanding teacher education curriculum, followed by giving each of them the freedom to create their own curriculum best suited to their skills and the needs of their students . . . that might be a good place to start.