Are Finnish schools a helpful model for Christian schools?

9780807752579_p0_v1_s260x420It would be worth looking at Finland, if only as an educational model, due to their consistently world leading test scores, but they also demonstrate other desirable qualities as a society that Christian schools seek to emulate. If Christian schools are about producing flourishing students (for starters, search flourishing on this blog!) then we might do well to study the country that sits atop the European Union in terms of producing flourishing adults. If we are interested in happiness and blessings then we should be looking at Finland, among the world leaders in overall happiness of life and prosperity. If we are concerned about developing fine character, then we should study “sisu.” Finnish “sisu” is “a cultural trademark that refers to strength of will, determination, and purposeful action in the face of adversity, coexist(ing) with calmness and tenderness.” (Salhberg, quoting research of Lewis, 2005 and Steinbock, 2010.) Finns also value collaboration over competition, think “small is beautiful,” and rely on straight talk and simple procedures. These are value sets that closely parallel the values of Christian schools. Intrigued? Let’s explore some more paradoxes and lessons as described in Pasi Sahlberg’s excellent book, Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? and discover what lessons might apply to Christian education.

Sahlberg unpacks several paradoxes as he compares Finnish education to North America and the world:

1. Teach less, learn more – Salhberg demonstrates that quantity of instructional time does not equal quality of instruction. While teachers in the US log about 1080 instructional hours and Canadian teachers teach about 900 hours, Finnish teachers teach about 600 hours. He states: “Lower teaching hours provide teacher more opportunities to engage in school improvement, curriculum planning, and personal professional development during their working hours.” Moreover, Finnish children start school at age 7 but lead the world in literacy. Finnish 15 year-olds spend less time on homework than their peers in any other country – rarely more than a half-hour a day. 7% of Finnish students experience anxiety and stress when working on math compared to 52% in Japan and 53% in France.

2. Test less, learn more – according to the PISA database, Sahlberg notes that educational scores in countries that emphasis competition, choice, and test-based accountability have gone down, while in Finland, where the emphasis has been on teacher professionalism, school based curriculum, trust-based educational leadership, and school collaboration through networking, scores have gone up. It is also interesting to note that in Finland students receive a comprehensive evaluation of progress after each semester – this includes not only academic performance, but grades in behavior and engagement as well.

3. More equity through growing diversity – in spite of growing diversity, Finland’s performance has continuously increased and the variance between student achievement performances has decreased.  Almost half of the 16 year olds have had some sort of special education, personalized help, or individual guidance. Salhberg notes that the main principle of Finland’s reform efforts has been to provide educational opportunities for all students. While only 3.4% of children in Finland live in poverty (as compared to 21.7% in the US and 13.6% in Canada) the poverty rate certainly parallels what would be normative in our Christian schools.

4. Teaching as a profession – teaching attracts the best and brightest (only 1 in 10 are accepted into primary school teacher training), even though the salary is only slightly above the national average. Teachers take their work seriously and there are no formal teacher or school evaluation processes in place. Teachers work collaboratively with each other and teacher training institutions, and the teacher education process is research oriented so that graduates have the tools to adapt to a changing world. Teachers are expected to take risks, be creative, and be innovative. These values are reflected in Finland’s spending 4% of GDP in research and development, second highest in the European Union.

5. Do they spend more on education? No and yes – Finland’s spending (5.6% of GDP) compares favorably to other European Union nations (5.7%), the US (7.6%) and Canada (6.1%). Finland’s welfare state model provides all families with an equitable start via early childhood care, voluntary free preschool, comprehensive health services, and preventative measures to identify learning difficulties. Finnish children all get a free and healthy lunch each day regardless of their parent’s socioeconomic status.

I find much to admire in the Finnish system of education. Wherever God’s image-bearers are flourishing to this degree, there is significant evidence of God’s goodness and common grace at work. Equality as a guiding principle excites me – it is a valuing of the inherent worth of each child. I believe that if as schools we pursue equity, we will achieve excellence as a by-product, as demonstrated by Finland’s performance. Emphasizing teacher professionalism, trust, and collaboration are how we can bring the best of each individual and out of our teams – maximizing talents God has given each for both individual and common good.

Sometimes we feel change is not possible in our situations due to federal, provincial or state mandates. While we cannot turn our countries into Finland, there is much we can learn from Finland and much that unintentionally reflects Biblical principles. Let’s emulate and advance the good, right, and true qualities we see in Finnish schools.

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