Finland breaks with tradition

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Finland has been at the top of international test score tables for many years. Yet in 1994 it embarked on radical reforms in its primary schools which involved dismantling its long-standing subject-based national curriculum and encouraging schools to devise community-oriented curricula incorporating integrated topic work and active learning pedagogies fostering independent learning. Policies on the monitoring and evaluation of schools are also moving in the opposite direction from England, with Finland replacing a system of national inspection by an emphasis on self-evaluation.

An irony here is that countries which are heralded for the success of their traditional teaching methods are often those that are in the process of changing to more progressive approaches currently out of favour with policy-makers in England.

For the past three years a team of English and Finnish researchers has been researching the comparative context of changes in primary schooling where such reverse changes have been dramatic.

The reasons for such a dramatic shift in Finnish educational policy are complex but include a belief that more power should be given to teachers, and to pupils and parents as consumers. Some key Finnish policy-makers have also been influenced by constructivist theories of learning and the experience of progressive primary practice in countries such as England. However, recent Finnish reforms also include the delegation of budgets to schools. These are more akin to a New Right ideology which, from an English perspective, would be viewed as conflicting with the progressive reforms.

A comparison of primary schooling in the two countries has proved fertile ground for a York-Finnish project. Six schools in each country were selected for intensive study between September 1994 and 1996. The aim was to examine the effects of the changes in each country on the nature, planning and teaching of the curriculum, and the processes involved in the management of change within schools.

Pupil work was closely monitored in all the Finnish schools using teacher-devised and commercially-produced tests. Pupil self-assessment was also well-developed, involving the presentation of work to peers, the use of questionnaires and written reports accompanying projects reviewing progress, likes and dislikes and areas for improvement. Self-assessment was regarded as a vital component in contract work because pupils need to be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses in order to become independent learners. This emphasis on assessment was one marked difference between progressive practices in England before the Education Reform Act and the new approaches in Finland.

Our comparative research suggests that the divergence between national policy-makers' aspirations and school and classroom practices is striking. In each country the degree to which teachers resisted, accommodated the reforms within their existing practices or actively supported them was found to be largely determined by two factors. First, their personal values, prior experiences and beliefs about teaching and what it meant to be a "good" teacher - pressure to redefine their roles was viewed as undermining teachers' knowledge and expertise, although this was expressed much more strongly in England where teachers claimed to be "clinging on to their professionalism". Second, the ways in which the schools as a whole responded to change. This was very dependent upon how far the changes required were viewed as consistent with the aims and ethos of the schools and the degree to which staff relationships, communications and decision-making processes were developed to draw up plans and implement them.

The authors are senior lecturers at York University. They are the convenors of a symposium on the York-Finnish Project to be held at the British Educational Research Association annual conference in York tomorrow See also "Sweden on Edge of Seventies Trap", Primary Update, page 16

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