An award-winning school principal messaged me recently, concerned that his upcoming Finland education trip might be wasted as someone had told him that the Australian and Finnish systems will never be compatible because:
- The Finnish language is easy to learn so kids need less time at school.
- There is no immigration.
- The social classes are much more equitable.
- There is only one education system there.
When I visited Finland for the first time, I had similar things said to me, and I made it a goal to try to find the reasons exactly why the practices I would witness there could not be applied in the Australian context.
I quickly found another motivation for these answers as Finnish educators quizzed me about my own country’s practices. Did they work? I was asked about things such as standardized curriculum and testing, followed by: Well, why do you continue to do these things?
It quickly became obvious that, while we are quick to dismiss alternative practices, submitting them to ‘rigorous’ success criteria, we do no such thing with our own practice. Indeed, we make it quite difficult to change these practices.
But back to our earlier question.
While in Finland, I spoke with teachers, education lecturers, professors, and students (I sat amongst the students for a couple of classes), trying to identify aspects that would make what I was seeing, impossible to replicate in Australia.
I saw students and teachers dedicated to learning and committed to the process of doing so, with students taking ownership and responsibility for their learning in a manner I was not familiar with during my three decades in Australian education.
The students were very similar to Australian students, with the same concerns (the latest music, computer games, sports, etc) and mannerisms, but with one major difference.
As one US teenage exchange student told writer Amanda Ripley, “Finnish teenagers were still rebelling against the adult society around them but neglecting their education did not appear to be among their choices for this rebellion.”
At one school, my host left me to wait in the corridor, saying the teacher would be there in a few minutes. Twenty minutes later the teacher arrived, and we went straight into the room which was full of teenage students.
I immediately expressed my surprise, as I thought I’d been waiting outside an empty classroom. He responded almost quizzically, “What are your students going to be doing when you are not there to look over their shoulders?” Indeed, within 12 months COVID struck and we saw exactly what happened when our students lacked a teacher looking over their shoulders.
I was starting to understand what it meant for an education system to be decades ahead (one Finnish teacher who taught in Australia estimated the difference to be 30-40 years and wrote a piece in the Finnish education professional practice journal which described Australia as such).
Oh, for those wondering about the factors listed by my principal friend in the opening paragraph (I wish we held our own system to the same standards we seem to demand from any other):
- The Finnish language is known to be quite tricky to learn and Finnish students also all learn Swedish and English; all but the older members of society speak each one with some fluency, as any visitor can attest.
- I was amazed at the number of young people of African appearance I saw in Helsinki and wondered how they would be coping with the harsh winters so unlike those of African nations.
- An education system that prioritizes equity will, in time reduce the gap between that society’s richest and poorest.
- There used to be several education sectors in Finland; I did not see any practices which could not be replicated in a country with multiple education sectors. The biggest advantage to having one sector is that by having many in Australia, education has effectively been divided into states and sectors making it very difficult for educators to speak with any united voice.
Space prevents me from going through all the aspects that differentiate the Finnish system (I am still learning them), other than to stress that nothing is done because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’.
Every aspect is there for a reason and is supported by neuroscience and research.
The Finnish teacher is a well-trained, trusted professional, given great autonomy to interpret and construct curriculum and assessment as they see fit for their students.
Interference in this area would be seen as a breach of this professional autonomy and unacceptable.
This is one of the reasons why teaching is such a highly respected and popular vocation among young people (often ranking above law and medicine as a career choice).
The teacher on graduation swears an oath known as The Comenius Oath (much like medicine or engineering), which assures the children’s best interests are always first and ethics are the teacher’s priority.
There is no one ‘Finnish method’, except to say that the teacher is continually reviewing their own practice, and anything less than that which is proving successful, backed by neuroscience and research, is discarded.
The system is constantly evolving. The trainee teacher is encouraged to study best practice and try and improve it; innovation is always encouraged in the belief that without it there can be no improvement.
Standardization in any form is frowned upon.
It is not that Finland has dashed ahead of other countries, more so that others (Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom…) got caught up in the standardization of curriculum, in the pursuit of grades on standardized tests which means that we effectively stopped all innovation and progress.
Once we standardize, the message is ‘Stop! Don’t change a thing, just learn what is on the test and let’s get these grades.’
My research for the Testing 3,2, 1… book convinced me that falling behind by international academic measures was just one of many issues. Teachers are walking away from Australian education in record numbers, students are opting for home education or opting out altogether, and suicide is now the largest killer of our young people. The price we pay for our results-driven, impersonal system is incalculable.
FOR AUSTRALIAN SCHOOLS
Some things I saw that could easily be applied to Australian schools immediately include:
Finnish schools take a break approximately every 45 minutes. The neuroscience is clear that students will learn more in a 90-minute session with a 15-minute break in the middle than in the same session with no break.
It is particularly powerful if, after the break, you can revisit the skills being taught in the session before the break.
I have used this technique with Year 8 students doing double periods of English (approx. 100 minutes) and the improvements in outcomes such as concentration, positive classroom energy and the amount of material covered are considerably improved compared to the 100 minutes without the break.
This goes against our idea that more is always more, but it is easily tested. Finnish educators take it for granted that all teachers do this and were shocked when I told them that it is not done in Australia.
We ran the Teacher Trust program with several schools around Orange in New South Wales.
The schools that made this timetable change reported immediate success with both students and teachers reporting improvements in all areas. One school told me that some pushback they had from a small group of parents was withdrawn within a month when they noticed the difference in their children.
When I used the 15-minute break – ‘unofficially’- in my own school, an unexpected improvement came from the students understanding that they had a break coming up very soon and they would be able to chat with friends, run around and burn off excess energy, have a bathroom break etc, removing the need to relieve any of these needs during the learning part of the session.
The respect for a teacher who recognises that they are not machines is also obvious.
To successfully implement this, we need to stop thinking more is more when it comes to teaching and learning and recognise that more teaching can in fact result in less learning.
Another easily adopted common Finnish practice is keeping the fun in school and learning.
There are numerous neuroscience studies supporting the improved learning outcomes for a brain in a positive state, and the negative outcomes for a stressed brain.
In addition to these premises, the Finnish educator is keen to engender a love of learning, and places this above grades or ‘results.’
Finnish teachers will spend the first few days of a new school year playing games and having fun to create an environment students want to be in. Once this has been established, then the conditions are right for learning to take place.
I am reminded of this when I read about the increasing rates of school refusal, particularly since COVID.
Once again, it is the understanding of neuroscience at play. Australian students often get the sense that an education is something that schools impose on them.
If it’s such a good thing, then why do we have to have so many rules and compliance regulations in place?
How many Australian students might not have turned their backs on education if our focus was on the enjoyment of learning rather than on measuring how much has occurred and comparing it to others?
The limits of the stressed brain are also behind the sparse use of testing (and almost complete absence of standardized testing) in Finland.
I have also seen many teachers walk away from an Australian education system that forces them to teach a subject they may be quite passionate about, in a manner that is putting students off the subject rather than encouraging a passion for it.
The Comenius Oath obliges the teacher to recognise and ensure that the individual aptitudes and talents of each student are recognised, as does the curriculum document. These both ensure that standardization is avoided.
If there is a ‘secret’ to the Finnish system it is the encouragement of a love of learning, above grades.
Intrinsic motivation is the goal.
This is what was at play in the previously mentioned classroom where the students continued their learning activities (I won’t say ‘work’!) in the absence of the teachers. Intrinsic motivation.
When I asked this teacher about the class, he told me they were studying History, and when I asked which period, “From the beginning of time ‘till now. I have met with them and allowed them to choose what they like as for many it will be the last time they study history, and we want them to have a love of it.”
As a history teacher myself, I was impressed at the authenticity of the goals, and I could see that the students were being offered autonomy and a genuine concern about their love for the subject ahead of their grades or ranking in the class.
How can we ask for intrinsic motivation when our goal as teachers is as extrinsic as it gets: grades?
Are we about the measurement of learning or about knowledge itself? The student or measuring the student? I lost count of the number of times I was asked why we Australian teachers were so obsessed with grades.
Getting back to my initial point, keeping the enjoyment in learning and school is seen as being as important as grades or results.
The idea is that if the love of learning and the subject is found, the grades will look after themselves and the subject will be with them for life, not just this year as is often the case with the grades.
Michael Lawrence is a veteran teacher and author of the book Testing 3,2,1: What Australian Education Can Learn From Finland.
He is currently working with a Finnish university on a program designed to introduce Finnish educational ideas into Australian schools.Do you have an idea for a story?
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