Thinking about Finland’s Approach to Education

In my post the other day, I listed my qualities of the ideal school. Today, an article from Time came to me through the related app I have on my iPhone with the headline “Finland’s Educational Approach? The Anti-Tiger Mother Approach.” In reading that article, a few sentences popped out at me that linked with my ideal qualities:

  • “. . .a handful of 9-year-olds are sitting back to back, arranging sticks, pinecones, stones and berries into shapes on the frozen ground. The arrangers will then have to describe these shapes using geometric terms so the kids who can’t see them can say what they are.” This links to my ideal quality that a classroom shouldn’t have four walls. Almost everything that we do in life happens out in the world and we learn from the world around us. The subject areas we teach also happen out in the world. So, why have we spent so much time teaching and learning in a box? In thinking about it, the way most students are taught isn’t much different than a rat inside Skinner’s Box!
  • He (the teacher) can pretty much do whatever he wants, provided that his students meet the very general objectives of the core curriculum. . .This aligns with my ideal qualities that standards and benchmarks shouldn’t be forced and that teachers should be encouraged to innovate. I think the Finland case study shows that standards and benchmarks aren’t fully necessary to the extent in which they are used now in many places. They can be very general and hopefully malleable. If they are too specific or narrow, they can stultify the innovation process (for both teacher and student) and even get in the way of investigating more relevant ideas or situations occurring in today’s world.
  • It (their high levels of achievement) surprises them (the Finns) because they do as little measuring and testing as they can get away with. They just don’t believe it does much good.” This aligns with my ideal quality that grades are an after-thought (or not used at all). The article doesn’t give much specifics about how they assess, but I think we get the picture that grades and exam scores don’t always “prove” one’s intellectual and/or practical abilities in real-world contexts.
  • In Finland, the school day is shorter than it is in the U.S. This is partially related to my ideal quality that “school” or learning doesn’t and shouldn’t occur between 8am and 3pm. The timing of school days is based on the now irrelevant industrial model of working 9 – 5 (except schools were timed to start before the parent had to be at work and finishing before the parent got home from work). Learning doesn’t happen in a certain amount of time nor at a certain time day. It can happen any time, any where. Even though this is known, schools still refuse to change. Yes, a central learning center (aka a school) is still needed for the necessary face-to-face interactions, collaboration, social development skills, etc., but learning on a fixed schedule doesn’t match how our brain works and the globalized 24/7 world that we now all live in. Furthermore, technological innovations allow for a lot of these processes to happen without having to be in the same room.

The article does leave out reference to technology integration, specific approaches in other subject areas, how teachers work together (or not), and some other issues. I think I’ll start taking a deeper look into Finland’s model to see how they round-out their approach. I wonder how many Finnish national schools do the IB program?

The other thing I started thinking about was what is the correct answer to all of this? Some people who subscribe to the idea of Cultural Relativism might say that each society has their own history, culture, belief systems, and traditional practices of education, and because of these factors, certain approaches may not work and/or not align with the belief system of the society. The article did briefly hit on this at the end. It mentioned that Finland is a society based on equity, so their system may not work where some form of deep-rooted competition exists. It said that Thailand was trying to revamp its system after Finland’s, but it wasn’t working. Also, it gave a link to the article about Chinese students getting higher standard exam scores than Finland in recent global assessment of exam data. So, which approach is best?

If we think about Blooms revised Taxonomy, knowledge, or the remembering of facts, is at the bottom. “Understanding” is second from the bottom. Most of these exams that are used really only assess these bottom two elements. When it comes to memorizing, I don’t think anyone will beat the Chinese! Memorizing the work of the masters has been the educational tradition in China for centuries. If we were to assess the top of Bloom’s revised Taxonomy (Creating, Evaluating, Analyzing), however, I don’t think Chinese students would be at the top any more.

So can we say that despite the long hours and fantastic exam scores, the Chinese (and general East Asian) approach is wrong? Do we have to take the Cultural Relativist perspective in this instance? Are my Western and individual progressive values causing me to side with the Finnish approach because it’s more Western and progressive? My contention is no- cultural relativism doesn’t fully apply in this situation. A human brain is a human brain. Yes, our neural networks make certain connections based on our experiences in the world (thus, culture can shape the brain and cognitive processes in some ways), but brain research also shows that we learn better in context of real-world situations. I think the Finnish educational model or adaptations of it that doesn’t emphasize rote memorization and the subsequent exams that assess it can and will work in other cultures for the better. Just more time is needed. I would say it’s like trying to put a square into a round hole- at first, it doesn’t fit. But, if you actually take some time to round the edges of the square, however, it will fit into the hole eventually. The rounding of the edges process is what would take into account the cultural components of learning in a place while maintaining the circular nature of the middle that will allow it to eventually fit the hole (the brain and how we learn best).

All-in-all, in order to have agile and creative minds working together to innovate and solve today’s and tomorrow’s issues, we have to round the square edges in all cultures.

About togalearning

Technology Learning Coach, High School Social Studies and online IB Psychology teacher

Posted on April 14, 2011, in Education, Psychology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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