Although homeschooling is permitted in Finland, rare are the parents who turn to this option. And with reason: the Finnish educational model places students at the centre of attention.
In 2007 Finland plunged into a major reform of its education system which, thanks to results obtained through the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) assessment has rapidly drawn the attention of other countries. A succession of delegations seek to understand the success of this system. A few years after, however, the country is reforming its education system again, in the face of declining graduation rates at the end of secondary school. With a 95% success rate – a percentage that any OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) country would be proud to achieve – Finland is reacting very strongly and is embarking on a more holistic approach while maintaining the strengths that have forged its reputation. But what are the main features of this educational model?
Public school begins at age 7
In the 1970’s private schools were abolished in Finland in order to guarantee equality for all: children therefore attend only public schools. At age seven Finnish children begin school, which is obligatory for the following nine years, in general until the year during which a youth turns 17.
The school year for Finnish students is spread out over 190 days. This includes vacation periods of one to two weeks in the fall, at Christmas, in the winter and at Easter. The summer holiday lasts for 10 weeks, generally from early June to mid-August.
Recess totals 75 minutes a day
School days are short, not more than five courses a day for the first two years and seven courses after that. They are broken up by several breaks for recess, totaling 75 minutes for the youngest. Basically, each 45-minute period is punctuated with a rest. Why? According to the Finns, this helps concentration and allows the children to like school, particularly the boys. On the other hand, students do bring some homework home, which helps consolidate their learning.
Very educated, autonomous, and qualified teachers
Aspiring Finnish teachers are carefully selected: approximately 10% of the best applicants will receive an excellent university training, entirely financed by the state both in subject and pedagogy, until their Master’s. Unlike other OECD countries, they will benefit from a social status comparable to that of doctors and lawyers while being paid a salary similar to their colleagues abroad.
Finnish teachers generally work four hours per day in a class. They also receive an average of two hours of training weekly.
With regard to teaching, teachers are autonomous and totally free to choose their teaching method. They will also be on the lookout for the smallest misunderstanding in their students because in the Finnish education system, no student should be left behind or accumulate delay. Any difficulty is scrutinized and is the object of special attention. So, it is rare for a pupil not to use some sort of extra help at least once during his schooling.
Specialized assistance is frequently offered during the mandatory nine years to about 30% of students attending regular classes. Therefore, the help, whatever it is, is not regarded as shameful by society, but as a natural procedure.
A Changing Education
The country is gradually implementing its new school system reform. If the absence of prior learning assessments in the first six years continues in the new system, as well as the single standardized test for 16-year-olds, it allows a more holistic approach and thematic teaching.
First of all, the emphasis is placed on the study of phenomena, although other teaching methods can also be used. The goal is no longer be excellence in a subject, but a broad general knowledge.
Next, the teacher, no longer positions himself as an information broadcaster, but as the person who facilitates the children’s journey and helps them understand their own way of learning. Learning by heart no longer has a place; the goal is for children to learn to learn, to develop critical thinking, to know how to use technology. For the Finns, school must first and foremost adapt to the perpetual evolution of the world in which we live.
Finally, the student, with the advice of a teacher, defines the objectives he wants to achieve. This student involvement gives the motivation to succeed.
This whole process encourages students to be autonomous and responsible. Besides the fact that the students organize their weekly work, they will also be asked to choose where they want to learn. As a result, new design concepts are emerging and the classes, already minimally decorated to provide an environment for learning, could change significantly in different schools, with the basic premise that learning takes place everywhere, not only in a classroom.
The Finnish system is a success in more than one way. Not only does the country out-perform the rest of Europe since the recent changes–99.7% of students finish secondary school at the age of 16-17–but it also boasts, on a worldwide scale, the smallest gap between the best and the weakest students.
Also of note is that 66% of Finnish students go to university. The figures are all the more impressive because the system is 100% state-funded–tuition, textbooks, materials, equipment and one meal per day for each student. A huge budget? Not really, as it is about 30% lower than that required for a student in the United States.
It will be interesting to follow the evolution of this new reform and to study some indicators in the medium term. But which indicators? When the Finns are questioned about the next results of their PISA ranking, they seem to be totally disinterested: they think that the important thing is not their test rankings, but the teaching of skills needed for the future and especially the well-being of young people … and by extension the Finnish population.