Sandwiched between Sweden and Russia and a border with Norway lies Finland, a fiercely independent country that was ruled by Sweden for 600 years, and then by Russia until 1917 when they declared their independence. In the winter war of 1939-40, Stalinist Russia invaded the tiny country, but the Finns fought back and sent the Russian forces in full retreat until they were overwhelmed by numbers. They sided with the Germans when they invaded Russia under the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” When Germany was defeated at the end of World War II, the Finns had to pay dearly for losing to the Russians once again. That meant the Finns had to move from an agrarian society to an industrialized one.
The way the Finns went about the changeover was an unusual one. They decided the best way to achieve economic prowess was to ensure that everyone got a first class education. Equal education was paramount even over achievement. Within years Finns started scoring higher than most other nations in reading comprehension, math and science. What did they do to achieve such astonishing results in 20 years? Here’s the list of some of them:
- They slowly decentralized the school system, eventually leaving it up to school principals and teachers to decide what was best for their schools.
- There is almost no private schooling of any kind. The few that are, are funded by the government and may not charge tuition. Again, the emphasis is on everyone getting an equal education.
- Teachers had to get a master’s degree in education, achieving the same status as lawyers and doctors. At one time there were more than 6,000 applicants for 600 positions.
- They eliminated standardized test scores. (Wrap your head around that one!) There is no student ranking or honors for students. (Imagine that! No bumper sticker that says "My Child is a Honor Student at the Finlandia School of Reindeer".)
- Teachers give individualized report cards about how each student is doing. It is not a numbering or A-B-C system.
- Students get 15 minutes of recess after every topic. Finns consider play just as important as learning!
- Slower students get more individualized attention from teachers.
- Immigrant students get individualized language instruction.
- Teachers promote a sense of cooperation among students. Individual competition is frowned upon.
That last bullet sounds a little like adult learning theory—that people learn better and remember more for a longer time, when they learn by self-discovery and in cooperation rather than competition with others. Malcolm Knowles is falsely credited with the origin of this European theory called andragogy, as opposed to pedagogy, the way we teach children.
But if we look at Finland, we are also learning that how we get the most out of adults using andragogy, also works with children. A country of almost 5.5 million with immigrants from as far away as Thailand actually outperforms the Unites States, which unfortunately, is somewhere in the middle.
Critics say that it would never work in this country because of our diverse population. One thing is for sure, the way we are doing it now doesn’t seem to be working too well either, because too many Americans cannot find Finland on a map, or even say where it is. Holy Helsinki!