09 September 2007

Finland's Education - A Noteworthy Comparison

University of Helsinki, Finland

Which country wouldn’t want to be regarded as the best-educated nation in the world? During my recent visits to Finnish schools, I discovered that Finland, in fact, feels a bit uneasy about its unrivaled number-one ranking in the international PISA student assessment surveys. “Sure, we’re proud of our students’ success,” noted Esko Poikela, principal of Kotimäki School in Kaarina, during our chat in May. But Poikela also questioned, "What do the results really mean? What do they really tell us about the Finnish education system?”

In case you've never heard of PISA before, PISA stands for the Programme for International Student Assessment. It is an internationally standardized assessment of the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old students from nearly sixty participating countries in the areas of mathematical, science, and reading literacy. Finland has scored the highest overall in the first two surveys, PISA 2000 and PISA 2003. Both assessments show that Finnish students are better at reading than students in other high-literary OECD countries, such as Korea, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Finland also performed better in sciences than the two other top OECD countries, Japan and Korea. According to the official PISA 2003 report, Finland is now at same level with East Asian countries, whose performance in mathematics and science had been previously unmatched. However, many Finnish educators wonder, if not worry, where Finland will stand when PISA 2006 results are released. “We can only go down from the top,“ observed Poikela, “and then what will happen? What will that tell us about the Finnish education system?” While Finnish educators may have some reason for concern, the rest of the world has begun to view the Finnish education system as a model or, certainly, a worthwhile point of comparison.

I will expand much more on this in my upcoming article in the New World Finn journal. In this blog post, I will take the opportunity to share some general observations and comment on a few photos from my recent visits to Finnish schools. Finland's PISA success has peaked a great deal of interest in the U.S. K-16 institutions and systems, including Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, which are increasingly concerned about the rising number of students entering higher education under-prepared.

By all accounts, Finland’s PISA success appears to be a sum of factors. Some most common reasons include the equity of schools, school autonomy, highly-qualified and highly-motivated teachers (all have minimally a Master degree), the popularity of reading among all socio-economic groups, and the flexibility of curriculum, classroom interaction, and teaching methods. Also, disruptive behavior and violence are uncommon in Finnish schools. For example, Poikela recalls only two incidents of school bullying during his two-year tenure as principal of Kotimäki School, which serves about 600 students in grades 1-9 in a small town right outside a major city, Turku.

Theft in Finnish schools is also uncommon. A visible proof of Finnish schools' calm and trusting atmosphere is this photo of Kotimäki School's front yard, which shows dozens, if not hundreds, of bicycles, mopeds, and helmets unlocked in the schoolyard. I spent an entire 15-minute recess period in early May examining the bicycles and many rather expensive-looking mopeds and helmets - not one was locked! Bicycles and mopeds are a common form of transportation for Finnish students and teachers.

By the way, all Finnish students, at least through middle school, have several recess breaks during the day to catch fresh air and an opportunity to socialize and exercise between class sessions. In contrast, many U.S. schools, even elementary schools, have reduced, if not altogether given up, their recess breaks. I think it's a pity and, I suspect, not the best choice educationally.

A common feature of Finnish education system is teaching that occurs in real life contexts – a goal that is shared by many U.S. schools. Here’s a photo of Ulla Haapanen, a biology teacher in Kaarina, on one of her regular bird watching excursions into a nearby nature reserve, a familiar locale for her middle school students. The photo was taken in early May, before the nature's green summer growth.

My visits also revealed that much emphasis is placed on creating bright, spacious study environments within the school buildings. Here (below) is Ulla Haapanen in her biology classroom.

So, in terms of the PISA survey, where does the U.S. fits in? In contrast to Finland’s assessment success, the survey results place the United States at, or slightly below, the PISA average. In some areas, U.S. students rank at the end of the scale, prompting U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige in a December 6, 2004 press release to exclaim, “’The PISA results are a blinking warning light" ("PISA Results Show Need for High School Reform"). However, the United States is not alone. Many other industrialized countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom, have also received disappointing PISA results, and many of them have began to look to Finland to learn from its assessment success.

Above is a picture of a school yard of Joensuu Bilingual Preschool, where students play and learn using both Finnish and English. Natural settings, with open spaces are common features of Finnish schools. This is not a surprise to anyone who has experienced the country's expansive natural beauty. Finland, which in size is about as large as Minnesota and Iowa together, has over 100,000 lakes, and it is fair to say that much of the country resembles Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near the Canadian border. Left is a photo taken in June near the city center of Joensuu, a mid-size town in Eastern Finland, where many of my relatives live.

Whatever the true reasons behind Finnish education system's assessment success are, I believe that Finland can serve as an informative and interesting point of comparison and model to educators, parents, and students worldwide.

Tartu, Estonia - Listen Up!

Before my sabbatical ended in June, I had a chance to attend an interesting, small conference in Tartu, Estonia. Tartu is located relatively close to my home country Finland – it took me three hours by boat, from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia, and six hours by an express bus to reach Tartu. Tartu is the second largest city of Estonia, with a population of over 100,000. While Tartu might not be familiar to many Americans, it is a well-known historical university town in Europe. The first written records of Tartu date from 1030; the University of Tartu was founded in 1632.

University of Tartu, founded in 1632

To a tourist familiar with other European locales, Tartu resembles a charming medieval Italian or Spanish town, with narrow, windy cobble-stoned streets and interesting architectural features and medieval churches (like the Tartu Cathedral shown on left). Unlike its comparisons, Tartu is still recovering from the neglect of Soviet rule. All over the city, buildings are being renovated, largely with EU restoration funds, and like Tallinn, which has experiences rapid “clean up” and modernization, I predict that Tartu in five years will have many more beautifully restored buildings, along with ultra-modern office buildings similar to those that have changed Tallinn’s skyline, and most of the rundown, cluttered alleyways and backyards will have been replaced by modern parking lots and tidy street cafes and restaurants.

I was lured to Tartu by the city’s reputation as an old, respected university town and by the international Conference Alerts website, which I had been checking regularly prior to my sabbatical leave. I spotted an alert from the small International Association for Citizenship, Social, and Economics Education organization, whose conference title, “Constructing Curricula for International Understanding: Challenges for Citizenship, Social, and Economics Educators,” promised an opportunity to learn more about my sabbatical theme, internationalizing curricula.

The networking opportunities in Tartu didn’t disappoint me. The conference introduced me to many new, interesting contacts from England, Scotland, Sweden, Japan, and Estonia, among others. In the photo on the right, I am joined by a Swedish colleague on the left and an English colleague on the right. Our day trip across the Russian border in a small mini-van, with participants from eight different countries, was an unforgettable experience – notably thanks to the Japanese participants’ eagerness to sing karaoke (mostly old Beatles tunes) as we strolled along windy, narrow Southern Estonian highways. However, I found the conference program less relevant to my teaching. The presentations focused far more on the subject areas, such as methods of teaching economics, than ways to internationalize the curricula – which should have been the conference theme. Thankfully, my frequent discussions with international colleagues made the trip worthwhile.

The Estonian participants, in particular, opened my eyes to different ways of teaching and learning. They tend to view education from their former rulers’ (the Soviets’) perspective – more as a hierarchical, authoritative experience, where the professor talks and the student listens. One of the Estonian professors noted that he feels much more comfortable with this approach than the more democratic, collaborative Western approach. He commented, “In Estonia, one person speaks and everyone listens; in Western universities, everyone speaks and no one listens.” Well, I must admit that this made me think about the collaborative teaching methods many of us in the U.S. and many other Western countries employ to inspire student participation and thought. Certainly, there are many times when we learn a great deal through dialog with others, but how can we better utilize the moments when “everyone [just] talks and no one listens”? How could we learn to listen better? I suspect that in both approaches, true thoughtful, deep listening is not adequately encouraged and taught. After all, haven't we all witnessed - and been guilty of - moments when one speaks, yet no one listens? Thanks to my Estonian colleague, I am curious to learn more about the art of listening – both from the teacher’s and the student’s perspective. Having recently accepted an interim dean’s position, I am also interested in discovering and practicing better ways to listen to faculty and staff needs and ideas.

Strolling along the streets of Tartu in late-May heat, watching the city renew itself through ongoing, rapid building renovation, I felt a sense of personal renewal…. We can, and we should, open our eyes and ears to different ways of doing things. How can I “renovate” my thoughts on teaching and learning? What can I learn from my new international colleagues?

Listen, that’s what I can do. Listen, and I hope, learn from it.

A summer evening rock concert in Tartu's medieval town hall square - the times are changing!