By Rachel Kelly, CEI Intern
While the education system in the United States has created more competitive standardized tests and strict guidelines to ensure that American students keep up with the rest of the world, Finland is taking the opposite approach. Finland has eased up on expectations and standards, with less emphasis on testing and more focus on students learning naturally through fun and play.
Play. Before attending elementary school, Finnish children go to daycare. Instead of formally teaching children about math or reading, the centers allow the children to play. The idea is teach children social skills, which is considered more important than academic skills when beginning elementary school. Young children remain in daycare longer than in other countries, and do not start elementary school until the age of seven.
Schools without Subjects. If that sounds odd, Finland has done something that may seem even stranger. They have gotten rid of subjects.
- There are no separate classes for math, reading, science, history, and so on.
- Instead, students are taught one lesson that encompasses and combines several topics, teaching them multiple skills at once.
The Finnish are calling this approach teaching by phenomenon (Khoo, 2015) and it appears to have particular relevance for 21st Century learning as it prepares students to tackle issues from a broad perspective.
According to Stanford University Professor Larry Cuban, there are benefits to eliminating subjects: “When you teach subjects separate from one another — you teach science, you teach math, you teach reading — that means that there’s a divorce between these contents, when in real life, they’re not.”
No More Tests. In this time of global competition, another thing that Finland has done that may come as a surprise is to get rid of standardized testing. With their emphasis on play and creativity, plus a lack of concrete subjects, having a yearly standardized test simply doesn’t make sense. Instead of teaching to standards and tests, Finnish teachers are now teaching for “outcomes.”
The Impact. As crazy as all of this may sound the surface, this approach seems to working in Finland, which has some of the highest test scores in the world. It’s ironic that some countries, such as the US and UK, that have implemented strict standardized tests in an attempt to improve education are the ones that are falling behind, while laid-back Finland is getting ahead.
But it isn’t just literacy or numeracy rates that are high. Something else may be improving in Finland: students’ happiness. The Finnish National Board Of Education implemented the concept of the “joy of learning” into the country’s curriculum (Butler, 2016). The idea is that if children are taught to love learning and have fun doing it, they will be more likely to value and take something away from their education. According to The Guardian, “ pupils are generally more content… Finnish children are happier and less stressed than their British contemporaries” (Butler, 2016). Finland’s education system probably has a lot to do with this. Based on my experience as a teacher and tutor, students in North America dislike the PARCC and how their school has changed since its implementation. They would probably be happier and less stressed too if standard tests were eliminated.
The United States and other countries around the world should consider looking into some of the educational practices in Finland. As we do so, it is important to remember too that teachers in Finland are highly regarded and trusted and that the Finnish see no need to be constantly peering into classrooms to locate weaknesses and designate schools as low-performing. In Finland, only the top college and university students pursue educational careers, and Finnish teachers are also highly paid. If it is time for major revisions in our approach to education in the US, then it might be wise to examine the role of schools in nurturing children. As we do this, we could also increase teacher’s salaries and reframe teaching as a profession for our brightest and most able.
Butler, Patrick (2016). No grammar schools, lots of play: the secrets of Europe’s top education system. The Guardian.
Khoo, Isabella (2016). Finland education system is very laid back, and totally working. The Huffington Post.
Khoo, Isabella (2015). Finland education does away with ‘subjects’. The Huffington Post.