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Feature: Finland, A Model for Success

FinlandIt’s All About Teachers

(From the February 2011 issue of Prism magazine cover story on International K-12 Education, written by Mary Lord)

Mention Finland, and most Americans think of Sibelius symphonies or today’s popular Angry Birds mobile-phone game. The country enjoys another claim to fame, however: world-class K-12 education. Only a handful of nations come close to matching Finland in math, science, and literacy, and none boasts such uniformly high achievement rates across regions and income levels. If American students could match their Finnish peers, McKinsey & Co. estimates, the U.S. economy would be 9 to 16 percent larger and generate as much as $2.3 trillion more annually. How could a nation of 5.5 million people and 2 million saunas produce 15-year-olds on par with Asia’s whiz kids?

Finnish scholars and results from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest Program for International Student Assessment offer some clues — and lessons. Administered every three years in dozens of countries, PISA seeks to gauge how well students can apply what they’ve learned in science, math, and reading. Finland and other high-performing nations share several traits, including trust in educators, highly selective teacher-training programs, and strong national standards that local schools create curricula and assessments to meet.

Finns credit teacher quality for their STEM success. “In Finnish culture, there is a long tradition of valuing the education of teachers,” and respect for educators has “deep roots in our society,” says Pekka Lintu, Finland’s ambassador to the United States. Only top students qualify for teacher preparation programs; with 10 applicants for every spot, only the best of the best get in. A high proportion of elementary teachers have STEM degrees; roughly 20 percent in math and a similar percentage in science. Thus, even very young children receive quality instruction that prepares them for chemistry and physics in fifth and sixth grades.

Surprisingly, money is not a big factor in Finland’s STEM achievement. The country spends less on education per student than most other developed economies, and beginning teachers, who all hold master’s degrees, earn the same as flight attendants, notes Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility and Cooperation.

Another surprise: Finnish teachers log far fewer hours in the classroom than their global counterparts — about 6,000 hours a year versus 8,000 in America, PISA reports. Finnish science teacher Mikko Korhonen discovered the heavier instructional workload during a Fulbright exchange at a Maryland high school last fall. More arresting, though, was that “assessments and testing here is totally different.” Finland has zero standardized tests. Instead, teachers create their own quizzes and other checks on progress.

Perhaps Finland’s biggest lesson lies in the learn-by-doing approach its teachers favor. “I try not to give them answers right away,” explains Helsinki middle school math and science teacher Kaisa Sahlberg. “I like them to think and try and even make mistakes and then try again.” In one lesson, for instance, Sahlberg mixes a compound of table salt, sand, and iron powder and asks student teams to return each element in three beakers, using supplies available in the lab. Her only instructions: Start with small amounts when unsure what might happen. Students must learn to use magnets properly, extract dissolved salt by boiling water, filter the sand, and finally burn the paper without setting off fire alarms. One girl, a Boston transplant, says she hates the idea of returning to her American school, where students never did anything in the lab and had more homework. “I don’t know what the truth is,” reflects Sahlberg, “but we really seem to stress our kids so little compared to other countries, and still our kids learn!”

One Response to “Feature: Finland, A Model for Success”

  1. Changing our culture to value educators more is really going to be tough. I do see ever increasing interest in the out of school science activites that I have been working with. Some states seem to be active in STEM and other states are trying to catch up.

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