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Everybody Counts

Secrets to Finland's World-topping Education


Education has become Finland’s most successful export commodity. With just a quarter of Taiwan’s population, how has it claimed the crown as the world’s leader in educational reform?



Secrets to Finland's World-topping Education

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 384 )

Reuters, the world's third-largest news agency, never expected that two photographs it sent out via the global news wires would be exposed as frauds by a thirteen year-old Finnish junior high school student.

This past August Reuters showed screen shots of footage from a Russian state television station, pairing the story with two photos of Russian mini-subs planting that country's flag at the bottom of the Artic Ocean at the North Pole. Looking over the story carried in his local paper, 13 year-old Waltteri Seretin felt that something didn't sit quite right with him, prompting him to get out his DVD of the film Titanic and compare the images. Sure enough, they matched, eventually causing Reuters to apologize for the snafu.

This story underscores how Finland 's education pleasantly surprises the world year after year: Finnish children think for themselves, ask questions, and search for answers on their own volition.

Education has now become Finland 's most successful export commodity. In recent years the remote Scandinavian country has hosted a steady stream of visitors from around the globe as leaders and representatives of educational institutions from the US , Korea , Japan , Britain and South Africa have come from far and wide to get a glimpse at Finland 's world-topping educational experience. Last year The Economist magazine went so far as to declare, 'European governments should go back to school. In Finland .'

OECD Rankings: Two-time Winner

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a survey of 15 year-olds that 'assesses how far students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills essential for full participation in society,' is conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) every three years. In the two surveys held since the year 2000, Finnish youths have taken the top honors in reading and science, ranking second in problem solving and mathematics.

'If Finland can, why can't Sweden '? wonders Bertil ?stberg, State Secretary for the Swedish Minister of Education. Despite ranking above average in the PISA survey, Sweden is clearly not satisfied. After all, when Finland embarked on educational reforms thirty years ago it looked to Sweden for guidance.

Not just Sweden , but even Denmark and Norway ?V Scandinavia 's two biggest spenders on education ?V have hired Finnish education experts to help them diagnose what ails their education systems and formulate prescriptions for improvement.

Education has made the Finnish student the new 'Vicke the Little Viking.'

Over the last two decades, countries around the world have invested extensive resources to promote educational reforms. So how has little Finland managed to come out on top?

Formulating long-term strategy, adhering to core values, and faculty reform are the three pillars underpinning Finland 's success in education.

A white building ?V a former factory that still retains a look of clean simplicity ?V standing amidst surroundings of greenery: this is the unassuming setting of the Finnish National Board of Education (FNBE), the guiding force behind the country's basic education, located in a quiet section of the capital city Helsinki .

Government Funds 9-year Compulsory Education

In the early 1970s the FNBE took up the weighty responsibility of the country's largest reform project since Finland attained independence. Its mission was to provide the next generation with a high-quality nine-year general compulsory education, and thus to raise national competitiveness.

The board decided to adopt the 'comprehensive school' model, under which students ages seven to 15 learn together in the same school with no separation into grade levels. Under this nine-year program, students' textbooks, transportation, and lunch expenses are all paid for by the government ?V 57 percent by the central government and the remaining 43 percent by local government. Since its institution over 30 years ago, this approach has never been altered regardless of which political party has been in power.

'Everybody Counts' Egalitarian Approach

The core educational value running through the reforms and prompting the policy's success is the egalitarian philosophy that everybody counts. While other countries are practicing elite education, Finland in contrast takes the opposite approach, avoiding elitism and seeing to it that each child has an equal opportunity to receive an education.

Finnish education is based on equality, from design of the system to resource distribution. The country's 600,000 primary and middle school students are spread among 4000 comprehensive schools for an average of 150 students per school and no more than 20 per class. This small class and school size is befitting of the 'everyone counts' approach, where no distinctions are made between elite and commoner schools. Thumb through various Finnish-education promotional materials and you will not find anything trumpeting such things as 'happy learning,' since the Fins believe that when equity is served, happiness takes care of itself.

With all Scandinavian countries emphasizing equality, the dark horse Finland was able to pull away from the pack due to the application of correct policy. Rather than simply throwing money at education, Finland has opted for a focused strategy, allocating resources to where they are most needed, which happens to be on lower secondary education (equivalent to junior high school) and slow learners.

Finland is distinguished in the OECD assessment as one of the most efficient users of educational resources. However, what sets it apart is that most countries spend the most funding on higher education; in contrast, Finland spends an average of US$8200 per lower secondary student each year ?V the most of any educational level.

Referring to his analysis in a presentation on Finnish educational reform strategy delivered last year at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland , the laconic Reijo Laukkanen, counselor to the Finnish Board of Education, relates that they adopted this strategy because 'children at this stage are developing their own methods of learning, so they need the most resources.' In light of the PISA findings, Laukkanen deems the return on investment in lower secondary school students quite high.

Slow Learners Not Forgotten

Another key component of the Finnish focused strategy is elevating the aptitude of slower learners.

Board advisor Pirjo Koivula, a special education expert, relates that the board aims for 'each and every' student to demonstrate fundamental aptitude. Whenever students encounter short-lived learning difficulties, teachers offer remedial plans immediately, conducting one-on-one counseling either in class or after school. This is paid for by the government.

Nearly 20 percent of all Finnish primary and secondary school students are given additional counseling, compared to an average of six percent across OECD survey countries. A former special education teacher, Koivula, while looking over some statistics, observes that when teachers get involved in counseling students at an early stage, students with minor learning impediments show rapid improvement and generally no longer need remedial attention after just a month or two.

Another advantage of focused resource allocation is that there is no discernable gap in learning performance between Finland 's rural and urban students. To wit, Finnish students showed the second-smallest gap in the world in the PISA assessment at less than five percent (the smallest being tiny Iceland , with just 300,000 students). Whether in the capital of Helsinki or in remote middle schools near the Artic Circle , the scores show little variance.

Rankings and Accelerated Students Not Kosher

' Finland has no bad students; even the worst student is good,' asserts Jouni Valij?rv?, director of the Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyv?skyl? . As the population of under-15 children declines in Finland year after year, allocating resources to children in need of guidance is beneficial to national interests. 'We cannot afford to give up on any individual,' he says.

But wait a minute! What about quick learners? Isn't that a different sort of unfairness? Not according to Finnish logic, which holds that 'fast learners can study on their own; slow learners need more help.'

Chang Chia-chien, a Taiwanese woman who married a Finnish man, moved to Finland five years ago, and is now pursuing a PhD there, can appreciate this approach. During an internship at a lower secondary school she found that at first Finnish schools seemed like nothing special, or were even a bit boring. But the more she observed, the better she appreciated that Finnish education was 'commonplace but substantial,' and teachers spend the most class time teaching the slower students.

'Rather than having those that are unable to grasp something always lag behind, they'd rather make those that understand wait up,' observes Chang. Finnish teachers are not under pressure to keep to schedules. Even in her university Finnish-language class the lecturer normally waits until everyone in the class understands something before moving on to a new topic.

The Fins adamantly oppose any form of divisions or ranking, and 'advanced' or 'elite' divisions are major taboos. Separation into different classes is also not practiced in the system. Heidi, a 28 year-old employee at the University of Helsinki, recalls that she was good at math in primary and middle school, but the teacher never praised her work in front of anyone else, only stealthily handing her more advanced texts to read on her own.

The clearest example of the value of egalitarian education is the Finnish government's uniform treatment of immigrant children.

In Finland immigrant children go to school free of charge regardless of whether they hold Finnish citizenship. The government even allocates additional budget for them to study their own native languages in classes held twice a week over a four-year period. A Taiwanese mother who lives in the Helsinki suburbs relates that the school hired a teacher from China to teach her two children Chinese, but as she insisted that her children learn traditional Chinese characters, the local government assented to her wishes, finding a teacher from Taiwan , whose hourly fee and transportation costs were covered by the government.

In addition to a focused strategy and the core value of equity, Finland owes its smooth educational reform to a group of high-caliber professional teachers.

World's Strictest Teacher Standards

Looking back over the past 30 years of educational reform, Erkki Aho, former director general of the Finnish National Board of General Education, unhesitatingly asserts that if not for the considerable efforts of teachers in working with policy decisions governing reform of faculty qualifications, Finnish education could never have gotten where it is today.

Beginning in 1979 the FNBE set the tone, determining that primary and middle school teachers must have 'research-oriented' backgrounds, with master's degrees, a nearly unprecedented requirement around the world. Teacher education was extended from three to five years, and high school graduates applying for entry into teacher's colleges were required to produce grades as well as pass multiple interviews to ensure candidates have a passion for teaching and creative ways of thinking. If they possess these qualities, they might be one of the lucky 10 percent that gets accepted.

University of Helsinki professor Pertti Kansanen, whose research focuses on faculty development, notes that the exclusive mission of Finland's teacher development is to cultivate teachers with skills and develop professional quality, to ensure that teachers can continue to progress over the course of their careers. In other words, teachers in Finland must be willing and able to keep learning.

'The capacity for innovative teaching follows from the ability to learn, which allows continual improvement of education,' asserts Jouni Valij?rv?, touching upon the cultivation of countless teachers. In Finland teachers are 'animals most fond of learning.'

Finnish teachers are famous for their love of learning, as evidenced by the majority of primary and middle school teachers in attendance at university summer school courses. The most vexing issue at the moment for the Finnish minister of education is a shortage of teachers, which is actually partially due to the number of knowledge-thirsty teachers that have gone back to school to pursue doctoral degrees. Exacerbating the problem, Finnish corporations also like to hire teachers, competing with the government for personnel. According to a survey by Finland's leading newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat , young Fins are most interested in becoming teachers, and primary and middle school teachers are more revered than presidents or university professors.

Despite the difficulty of becoming a teacher and the high degree of prestige it entails, teaching is not a high paying profession in Finland . According to the OECD survey, Finnish teachers, both novice and senior, are paid less on average than those in other advanced countries and EU member states, and make even less than those in Korea and Spain , where the average per capita income is lower than Finland .

One veteran lower secondary school physics teacher with 24 years of experience behind the lectern counts on his fingers as he calculates his monthly after-tax income. The figure he reaches, around two thousand euros, is roughly equivalent to that of recent university graduates entering the workforce. Laughing, he relates that he was the one to take maternity leave when his two children were born, because his wife earns far more money than he does.

'I'm not a teacher for the money, but because I believe this work is important for Finland ,' he says . He firmly believes that the caliber of teachers constitutes the country's strength, and thus, the better its teachers, the stronger the country can be.

While it demands high-caliber teachers, Finland gives teachers and schools maximum autonomy when it comes to teaching. The Finnish National Board of Education and Ministry of Education each formulate and issue core curriculum guidelines every four years, while the rest, such as faculty hiring and school management is up to the schools to handle. For instance, schools are free to determine class size, course content, curriculum, and even the number of semesters in a school year. Teachers are similarly free to decide what to teach, how it is taught, and what texts to use.

Finnish lower secondary schools are not subject to a national collective assessment, and tests are rarely given. Neither do Finnish authorities conduct teacher ratings. Asked if teacher performances are evaluated, Reijo Laukkanen, counselor to the Finnish Board of Education for three decades, snaps back in an almost angry tone, 'Why should teachers be evaluated'? Laukkanen proudly declares that Finland has no bad teachers, and that each teacher is highly disciplined and does not need to be subject to ratings.

Neither the Ministry of Education nor local governments practice a school evaluation system. Instead, they accord schools, no matter how small, the greatest trust and allow them absolute administrative autonomy.

Helsinki 's Latokartano Comprehensive School decided not to divide students into grade levels. Each of the school's 180 students has his own individual curriculum; some of them arrive at 8:30 AM, others at 9:00 or 9:30, and everyone gets out of school at a different time as well. The school's decision-making governing body is the executive board, whose seven members include a teacher representative, staff representative, and the remaining five individuals selected by parents and the local community. The board is responsible for setting school curriculum guidelines, budget allocation, and teacher hiring.

School principal Satu Honkala, holder of master's degrees in both law and education, shares that the head teacher invites parents to sit down with each student and discuss the child's study objectives at the start of each term. Evaluation of student learning is not based on comparison to others, but is measured against the objectives set out in that conference. Instead of report cards, the school uses learning reports.

'We stress learning, not competition. Finland does not use competition to stimulate quality,' stresses Honkala in fluent English. She cannot underscore enough that learning, not competition, is the purpose of education in Finland .

World's Most Avid Readers

More importantly, Finnish education is blessed with one asset that other countries simply cannot measure up against ?V a population of avid readers. The Finnish tradition of reading at home has continued unabated for over 400 years, as evidenced by the average number of books Finns check out from the library each year, at 17 the highest in the world. One survey indicated that the favorite 'recreational activity' of 41 percent of Finnish lower secondary school students was none other than reading.

Doing the right thing at the right time, under the right policies with the right people in charge ?V how could Finnish education be anything but good?

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman

Chinese Version: 芬蘭教育 世界第一的祕密