Do not try these at home

11th December 2009 at 00:00
Finland dominates the education scene but its wacky, inventive spirit makes it impossible to copy

Finland is unique in terms of its culture and character, so it is pointless for other nations to try and copy its hugely successful education system, claims a Finnish international education expert.

A one-week study trip to Finland would reveal nothing of what lies behind the country's domination of international education league tables, warned Pasi Sahlberg. Finland's success was inextricably linked to its culture, history and traditions, he argued.

"There are only a few concrete elements of the system that are of any value to other countries. If you are thinking about copying Finland, I would say don't, because it most likely won't work," he told the Scottish Educational Research Association's annual conference in Perth.

Mr Sahlberg, a Finnish teacher-turned-academic, who advises world leaders on education policy, painted a picture of a country that was highly successful, yet thoroughly eccentric. Finland had the best education system in the world, was one of the most competitive economies and had one of the happiest populations, he said. However, it was also home to wacky competitions.

There was the Sauna World Championships in which contestants compete to see who can stand the heat longest. There were the Air Guitar World Championships; the Mobile Phone-Tossing World Championships; and the Wife- Carrying World Championships.

"Finland has some kind of internal desire to invent things," Mr Sahlberg said. "Many nations have this, but Finland is exceptional. We allow, and are tolerant of, different ideas and thinking. We let people do and try. It is rare to hear people saying an idea is crazy or stupid.

"Put in the context of education, these competitions exist in our schools. We don't carry our wives or throw our mobile phones (in schools) but we are inventive."

According to Mr Sahlberg, the sports associated with Finland - ice hockey and Formula 1, for instance - had one thing in common: helmets. In education, people had also learned "to take intellectual risks and use helmets", he said.

However, for those still keen to get to grips with the Finnish system, the best way to sum it up, according to Mr Sahlberg, was through four apparent paradoxes. The first was: teach less; learn more.

Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show Finland's teachers teach for 600 hours a year, delivering roughly four lessons a day, he said. But in America, which sits far further down international league tables, teachers deliver between six and seven lessons a day. Similarly, by the age of 14, Italian children have received the equivalent of five years' more instruction than Finnish children, but still the Finnish youngsters fared better.

"Our teachers have time every day to work with colleagues, and think about the curriculum, projects and assessment," he explained.

Mr Sahlberg's second paradox was: less testing, better learning. Finland had no inspectorate and one external, standardised test, the school leaving exam, he said.

Third: diversity brings equality. Inequalities existed in terms of income, but pupils in Finland performed well across the board, with international figures showing the difference in student performance in science, for instance, was one-tenth of the average OECD variation.

There had been a sharp increase in the country's immigrant population, he continued, but Finnish immigrants still performed better in maths than North American native-born students, again according OECD figures.

The final paradox was: the better a high-school graduate performed, the more likely she was to become a teacher.

According to Mr Sahlberg, the acceptance rate onto primary teacher programmes in Finland was 12-14 per cent; this year there were 6,000 applications for 850 places. The selection process consisted of three phases and education faculties could select "the best of the best", he said.

"It is more difficult to become a teacher than it is to study medicine, law or economics."

The reason for this was "hidden in the culture of the country"; Mr Sahlberg continued to caution against simply trying to "transfer" the Finnish system.

After his trip to Scotland, he was meeting with the French Prime Minister who wanted to know why elements of the Finnish system were not working in French schools. Mr Sahlberg said: "My message is: do not do it at all."

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