What We Can Learn From The World’s Best Schools

Finland: a small Nordic country with a population of just over 5.5 million.

And home to the world’s leading schooling system.

Around the world, Finland is acknowledged as an ‘educational superpower’.

Their schools are top ranked among developed nations on the PISA scale…

An international, standardised assessment that measures 15-year-olds in language, maths and science.

Yet the lack of focus on standardised tests is one of the reasons that the Finnish school system is so successful.

In this post, we’ll look at what Finland schools do so successfully…

And how it differs from what we’re used to in Australian schools.

In Part 2 of this post, we’ll look at how parents can take lessons from Finland to help their children thrive in school, from home.

All Schools are Made Equal

In Finland, there are no private schools…

Even the few independent schools are publicly financed, and there are no private universities, either.

‘This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D’, explains Anu Partenen in the article ‘What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success’. 

And all teachers are trained, treated and respected equally, too.

Every teacher has a Master’s Degree, prestige, decent pay, and a huge amount of autonomy and authority in their classroom.

There is no list or ranking of best teachers in the country, or the best schools.

And so what this means is that no child’s educational opportunities are disadvantaged by their location, their socio-economic situation, or their skill-level or intellect.

While in Australia, parents can shop around to find the ‘right’ school for their child, within their means…

In Finland, parents have even more choice, but they’re not restricted or influenced by reputation, teaching credentials or cost.

So every child has the same opportunities in their education.

Teaching and Learning is Personalised

Finland invests in educating, training and supporting their teachers, so that the teachers can do the same for their students.

Once teachers are qualified, they ‘are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around’.

Rather than adhering to a strict curriculum, or a standard method of learning…

Each teacher adopts their own unique method, one that they’ve judged to be best for their class and every member in it.

‘All children have access to individualised support and help based on their needs from the beginning of their schooling’, explains Finnish education expert Professor Pasi Sahlberg.

‘Every child has some special needs, therefore special education is for everyone.’

The large class sizes in Australian schools make truly personalised learning an impossibility.

But the very small class sizes in Finnish schools allow teachers to keep on top of the needs of each student…

And to make more time for those who are struggling.

‘This helps us to be able to make sure we can use/develop everyone’s skills and potential’, explains the country’s Minister of Education Krista Kiuru.

Learning — not ‘education’ — is the point

‘I think learning matters more than education’, says a former Teacher of the Year Ashley Lamb Sinclair.

‘And somewhere along the way, students… are being taught to forget to learn and focus only on becoming educated.’

This can certainly be said for some Australian students…

But not for students in Finland.

For a start, there are few if any mandatory standardised tests.

By high school, the majority of Australian kids have already done NAPLAN twice, along with countless in-class assessments…

And the statistics show that many kids are struggling with the high demands of academic achievement.

This is part of the reason such tests are avoided in Finland.

In place of tests, personalised learning enables teachers to monitor their student’s progress…

And to ensure they are reaching their full potential.

As a result, students are much more able to enjoy the process and privilege of learning…

Without the looming shadow and increasing pressure of grades, ranks and enter scores.

‘We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,’ said Professor Sahlberg.

Non-academic skills and learning play an integral role

And that includes play itself!

For every 45 minutes of learning, students (and teachers) have a 15 minute break.

They’re encouraged to go outside and explore — even in the depths of winter — and to be active and curious…

But exactly how they choose to spend their break is up to them.

This freedom encourages creativity and imagination, fosters their social skills, improves mental and physical wellbeing, and builds their sense of confidence and independence.

‘Children love to be given responsibility’, says teacher Erika Stewart.

‘Here, when we go out to play in the snow, we don’t put the children in their jackets – we wait until the children dress themselves, and then we go out and play together.’

‘Kids learn best when they are curious, fearless, inventive and allowed to make mistakes.’

When they return, teachers find their students much more attentive and focussed.

Less time is spent in the classroom or at a desk, too…

School isn’t compulsory until age 7, it usually only lasts for 4 hours a day, and minimal homework is assigned.

And when students reach high school, they’re encouraged to study subjects that they’re interested in — not just the one’s that they’ll be good at.

That’s in large part because Finnish teachers know that students learn best when they’re engaged…

The kind of engagement that is chronically lacking in Australian schools.

‘Finland takes the issue of student boredom seriously’, says Lamb-Sinclair. 

So much so that ‘… the country has begun a reform to rid high-schools of mandatory subjects altogether.’

Finland Wants Happy, Healthy Students 

By focusing on the individual needs and potential of each child, rather than their rank in a group…

Finnish schools have avoided the ‘epidemic of anxiety’ that is plaguing students in Australia, the UK and the US.

But while academic pressure is a huge source of anxiety for young people, it’s certainly not the only one.

That’s why every every Finnish school has a social worker, a psychologist, and a nurse who can immediately pick up on problems at home or at school.

This support system is the single most important factor in helping Finnish student’s thrive, says author of Teach Like Finland Tim Walker.

Additionally, by providing a diverse and balanced education, teachers help kids to enjoy and look forward to their time at school.

‘Academics isn’t all kids need,’ explains Kiuru. 

‘School should be where we teach the meaning of life; where kids learn they are needed; where they can learn community skills.’

‘We like to think that school is also important for developing a good self-image, a strong sensitivity to other people’s feelings … and understanding it matters to take care of others. We definitely want to incorporate all those things in education.’

By encouraging individualism and personal passion, they’re helping them to develop a lifelong love of learning.

And by teaching students in a way that is encouraging and motivating, they’re helping to guarantee their present and future success.

‘In Finland, having happy children is the most important thing, we want to bring back the joy of learning. When you go to schools here, you see happy, active and engaged pupils.’

All in all, the crux of Finland’s school success lies in it’s policies of equality and autonomy. 

All teachers and students are treated equal, with equal opportunities.

All teachers and students are expected and encouraged to be individuals, and to act independently within their schooling system.

And competition, between students, teachers and schools, is replaced with cooperation.

It’s a stark contrast to the strict curriculums, tight deadlines and high stakes found in Australian schools…

But Finland’s incredible school system has been a long time in the making.

While countries like Australia are taking note of the successes of Finland’s approach to schooling…

It will be some time before their policies and approach reach Australian students.

So in Part 2 of this post, we’ll talk about how parents can take some of the best lessons from Finland…

In order to support the development of happy, healthy and engaged students, from home.

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