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May 26 / Jonathan

Doing something right in Finland

An article in the Washington Post takes a look at what Finland is doing right with their schools.

Superb schools symbolize the modern transformation of Finland, a poor and agrarian nation half a century ago, and today one of the world’s most prosperous, modern and adaptable countries.

Finland finishes first in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams that test 15-year-olds in all of the world’s industrial democracies. Finland also finishes at or near the top in many global comparisons of economic competitiveness: Internet usage, environmental practices and more. Finland, where the modern cell phone was largely invented, has more cell phones per capita than any other nation — nearly 85 per 100 citizens.

The article is hardly a rigorous study, but there are intriguing hints.

The Finns long ago decided that 7 is the right age to begin school, so in every grade the children are a year older than they would be in the United States. Six-year-olds have kindergarten (and a high percentage of Finnish youngsters come to school from state-run day-care centers, which are also generously staffed and supported). But according to Raili Rapila, a kindergarten teacher at Arabia, there is no pressure to begin reading before the first grade. Three of 10 in her class are readers, she said, but all 10 love to be read to, and are often, every day. “Social skills and learning to play are more important than reading” for the 6-year-olds, she said.

I doubt that we need to delay the start of school for our children, but it does suggest that our emphasis on ever-earlier starts—kindergarten, universal pre-school—are unlikely to be the answer.

Buried in the paragraph, though, is another hint: a class size of ten. California spends big bucks reducing K-3 class size from 30 to 20, even though class-size research, such as it is, suggests that 20 is still a large class, not a small one, and that the benefits of smaller classes aren’t reached until we get down to 12 or 15.

There’s another factor: teachers.

“The key,” said Pekka Himanen, 31, a renowned scholar with a PhD in philosophy (earned at age 20) who is a kind of guru of information-age Finland, “isn’t how much is invested, it’s the people. The high quality of Finnish education depends on the high quality of Finnish teachers. You need to have a college-level degree to run a kindergarten. You need a master’s-level degree to teach at a primary school. Many of the best students want to be teachers. This is linked to the fact that we really believe we live in an information age, so it is respected to be in such a key information profession as teaching.”

The principal of the Arabia Comprehensive School, Kaisu Karkkainen, 49, has the same answer when asked the reasons for Finland’s educational accomplishments. “Three reasons,” she said over a tasty lunch of chicken, rice and green salad in her school’s cafeteria: “Teachers, teachers and teachers.” Then she grinned an un-Finnish grin at one of her favorites, English teacher Riitta Severinkangas, 47, who has been teaching for 16 years.

A visit to Severinkangas’s eighth-grade class demonstrates that her students can all read and speak in English, a language that has virtually nothing in common with the Finns’ obtuse and complex native tongue.

“The teachers did it” is pretty much the universal answer to questions about Finland’s educational successes. Seppo Heikkinen, 45, a producer of educational programs for the Finnish Broadcasting Co. and a member of the governing board of the Arabia school, credits “the professional level of the teachers,” who are “highly motivated.”

Read the whole article.

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