Finnishing touches

Education | Lisa Kao 3 Mar 2020

The finnish education system is the envy of many people, as it manages to score highly in international scholastic charts with almost no standardized tests and fewer hours in school.

Ranking seventh among 77 countries in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment, the Nordic country's secret to balancing students' pressure and academic performance is a student-centered approach.

Speaking after the Unleash! Forum for Educators in Learning and Teaching Expo in December, Ilona Taimela, an educational consultant for the Helsinki Education Consulting Group, explained how the education system works in Finland.

"It is very different from what I have seen in Hong Kong, China, the UK, or Australia," said Taimela, who has made educational visits to several cities.

One key difference lies in the duration of schooling hours - Finnish students generally enjoy shorter hours than students in Hong Kong and other countries. "Our first graders spend roughly 21 to 22 hours in school a week, which is less than five hours every day. A sixth grader spends around 25 hours a week," Taimela explained.

Classes start at around 9am and usually end at around 2pm for her seventh-grade son.

Rather than a fixed number of hours, the time spent in school increases as students get older. "[This is] because they take electives. The more they take, the more hours they need. It depends."

Unlike most Hong Kong students, Finnish students also don't attend tutoring classes after school. "First to third graders are provided with free afternoon activities," she said. But the activities are not compulsory. "My 17-year-old daughter chooses to go home with friends and do other things."

Getting rid of standardized tests is also what makes the Finnish system unique, with only one standardized test at the end of secondary school. "Students are assessed in different ways," said Taimela.

A course usually starts with a pre-assessment. "Students come from different levels. Some already have some idea of the content, but some know nothing."

The pre-assessment acts as a gauge for understanding students' individual needs. "It is important that they can have individual paths," she added.

A formative assessment is then done in the form of a portfolio assessment, where students' work showing their learning progression is collected and organized.

"A portfolio can be built with Google classroom or Microsoft. And it could be a self-assessment or a peer assessment," said the educational consultant.

Because of the ongoing evaluations throughout the course, a summative assessment at the end of the course is often no longer necessary. "A test does not represent what you learn, sometimes it is just temporary memory. But when you are experiencing it - that is when you really learn."

Another feature that sets the Finnish system apart from others is its curriculum, which sets life skills on a par with academic content. "There are seven skills written in the national core, including things like critical thinking, self-care, self-expression and participation as a citizen," said Taimela.

Taking these skills into consideration, the curriculum is designed for practicing content and skills at the same time. Taimela gave an example of the way she taught the Industrial Revolution. "The content is about the world becoming industrialized. After the lesson, students are told to work on it. They can conduct research, look at the sustainability and collaborate."

Most of these open-minded features in the structure stem from the fundamental belief that education should be student-centered.

This basic right is enshrined in the nation's constitution and followed by the education system.

"All matters relating to students should be heard and the curriculum should be designed in conjunction with teachers," said Taimela.

Students have the right to choose their preferred learning method and achieve their goals. "Some create a game, some work on a PowerPoint," she said.

Throughout the process, teachers will guide students toward their learning goal, ensuring the goal is visible to students and parents. "If a student chooses a long path to reach the goal, teachers would suggest he reconsider the decision," she added.

Under the reformed curriculum, teachers' tasks are shifting too. Taimela describes the role of the teacher nowadays as "scaffolding" instead of "telling." She added: "Information is everywhere. You can't rely on teachers telling it all anymore."

Teachers are no longer expected to provide all the answers like they were in the past. "They can openly admit they do not know the answer and encourage students to find out together," she said, adding they should also lead students to different sources.

"Students should learn to interview an expert, ask a librarian for a book, or visit a museum to find an answer." As Finland continues to review its curriculum to get rid of traditional educational shortcomings, the global education pioneer sets a strong example for the world. It is high time for other educators to rethink what education should be.

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