The transformation of the Finnish education system began some 40 years ago as the key component of the country’s economic recovery plan. At the time, educators had little idea that their approach would be so successful, as indicated by the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). This is an international assessment that focuses on 15-year-old students’ skills in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy that is administered every three years.
In 2000, the first results from 40 global venues revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries in science. In 2009, the nation came in second in science, third in reading, and sixth in math from among half a million students worldwide.
Finland has attained such successes in education in large part because its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around. In fact, “Whatever it takes” seems to be the attitude of Finnish teachers.
A number of factors contribute to Finland’s success—as indicated in the first two articles of this series. The Finnish interest in reading among students is notable. (One reason may be that reading instruction starts at age seven when boys are cognitively developed enough to handle this skill successfully). Additionally, the students’ attitude toward math is positive. (One reason may be that lessons in this area are largely devoted to practical uses.)
In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle of the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public education. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum, and charter schools. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on competition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers. This is a philosophy and approach that would not fly in Finland. As one Finnish principal of 24 years stated, “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”
Hopefully, Finland’s success in education will prompt all educational leaders to realize that competition (foundational in business and sports) is less successful than collaboration—a fundamental characteristic of Finland’s education system. Simply stated, and as continually emphasized in our discipline and learning approach, collaboration is much more effective for success in both teaching and learning.