Members of the noble profession

11th April 2008 at 01:00
In the fourth part of our series on Finnish education, Henry Hepburn looks at how universities prepare student teachers for a career in the classroom

"Would you go to a medical doctor who has been a student for one year?" Matti Meri asks pointedly. "I would not like to go to this kind of doctor."

For the Helsinki University professor of education, the logic is clear: teaching is as highly skilled and important a profession as medicine. Ergo, under-prepared teachers are as undesirable as unskilled doctors - and he would not let his own children be exposed to either.

In Finland, there is only one route to becoming a fully-qualified primary or secondary teacher: at least five years of university study up to a minimum of Master's level. There is no equivalent of Scotland's one-year postgraduate programme.

Far from being thrown in at the deep end, students might only take a class on their own, in the same way as a fully-fledged teacher, when they get to fifth year, or sometimes at the end of their fourth year.

In the years leading up to that, they spend time in schools from an early stage, starting by observing classes in first year and gradually taking on a more central role in the classroom. But their learning will be heavily theory-based.

"In five years or more, we have time to concentrate," says Professor Meri. "We have quite a lot of time for reflection between theory and practice. That means we can more deeply understand the issue of teaching. We don't let a teacher teach before we are sure the knowledge they need is there and the quality of teaching is high."

Finland's first teacher-training college was founded in 1863 using Swiss and German models; even then, a distinctive feature was the close links between theory and practice. This was still the case in 2003, when educational researcher Pertti Kasanen published his report on teacher education. The first paragraph in a chapter titled "Main Principles" reads simply: "Teacher education is academic and takes place in universities."

The main sub-discipline is didactics, both general and subject-related, while educational psychology and educational sociology also play important roles. Every aspect of the programme is research-based, culminating in a Master's thesis which every student must write.

It is not enough in Finland to be an instinctive teacher, as Kasanen makes clear: "The aim of research-based teacher education is to impart the ability to make educational decisions based on rational argumentation in addition to everyday or intuitional argumentation."

In fact, evidence-backed theory is ranked above an intuitive sense of what works in the classroom: "The intention is to link theory and practice in a sufficiently close relationship that a teacher may be able to resolve everyday teaching problems on the basis of his or her theoretical knowledge."

The heavily theoretical emphasis is clear when The TESS attends the tail-end of a tutorial Professor Meri is taking with four Master's students, who have worked as partially-qualified teachers but returned to university to earn full status. The small room is in a modern campus, but feels like a dusty Oxbridge library, its high wooden shelves packed with lengthily- titled hardback tomes. The atmosphere is laden with intense and abstruse academic debate.

When I ask questions why teachers in Finland appear to be doing so well, the students' responses are terse: it appears they do not appreciate being interrupted from more cerebral discussions.

The encouragement to think deeply about the nature of teaching and the delayed exposure to classroom teaching is quite different to the Scottish approach - although a similar one is being pioneered through Aberdeen University's Scottish Teachers for a New Era programme - and Professor Meri believes that makes Finnish teachers far more effective than those of other countries he has visited.

He has been to England and Scotland, and recalls a visit to Sheffield where he sat in on classes at various levels, from primary school to university. He was taken aback by the uniformity of teaching styles. "I wondered why lessons were all the same," he says.

"Teachers would explain, then the students would take a book and were allowed to read a section on this topic many times through. Then the teacher would put some questions up. Then the children could answer these questions. The method, it was always the same. It was like some kind of theatre where act one, act two, act three, and so on, were all the same."

He asked in one school why this approach was favoured, and recalls: "The explanation was, the big inspection is coming and we must make sure the quality of the knowledge of the pupils is high enough. It was somehow boring to see."

But while Professor Meri might ascribe the much vaunted success of Finnish education to a different way of preparing teachers, another reason must be the quality of the intake in the first place.

Teaching is a highly prestigious and over-subscribed profession and attracts many of the brightest school leavers. Primary teaching courses receive 10 times more applicants than there are places, while Kasanen's 2003 report stated that, overall, only 15 per cent of applications were accepted. Many people apply several times. Maths and physics are exceptions, being among the few subjects that have struggled to enrol enough students.

This is despite relatively low salaries and intermittent talk of strikes. The TESS spoke to one primary teacher who has been in the job for 17 years and earns EUR36,000 (or EUR24,000 after tax), equivalent to pound;28,500 at current exchange rates. A colleague who had been teaching for five years earned EUR30,000, or just under pound;24,000.

Lower application rates among men, at almost all levels and in most subjects, have been a concern. They appear to be more easily put off by the relatively low salaries. Keeping teachers in the profession has also been difficult, with the high level of academic education making graduates attractive to other employers. Men, in particular, are likely to be tempted elsewhere after a short time in teaching. During periods of economic decline, however, these people often return to teaching.

On the plus side, Professor Meri points out that "you are guaranteed a job if qualified". A study in 2000 found that the chances of student teachers finding a job commensurate with their qualifications was "very good", although competition is tough for certain secondary subjects, including history and some languages, and a first job is often temporary. It is rare that students have to move far for employment.

Initially, selection for teacher training is based largely on previous academic performance, although experience of working with children can help. This whittles applicants down to three or four times the number of places. Final selection has three main parts: an exam; a task where "social interaction and communication skills" are observed; and an interview to establish why the candidate wants to become a teacher.

Kasanen underlines the importance placed by Finnish universities on getting selection right. He states that "initial teacher education is of paramount importance and ... any defects appearing in the programme will have consequences that will be extremely difficult to correct later on".

The universities do appear to get it right most times. Juhani Hytonen, another Helsinki University professor of education, says that in 30 years he has never known of a student being kicked off a teacher training course. He estimates that about 5 per cent of each intake do not complete the course, most of whom gravitate to other university degrees.

The flipside is that less emphasis is put on maintaining - and improving - standards after university. Once qualified, teachers are not required to prove their competence. Continuing professional development after university has not been a priority in the past.

Professor Hytonen believes the prestige of teaching is rooted in history. Finland was ruled by Russia from 1809, but national identity flowered on the way to independence in 1917 - and teachers were in the vanguard. Finland's small population was spread over a huge area; and in small villages it was the teacher who was a conduit for new ideas.

"I think they were the first leading figures in articulating Finnish national identity," he says.

That earned teachers a high standing which has remained, augmented by Finns' "respect for knowledge and wisdom": they are among the world's most prolific readers and library users.

It has also to do with perceptions of teaching that differ radically from those in many countries. The first part of our series showed how, since the 1970s, Finland has strived for an education system that gives the best opportunities to struggling children, rather than focusing on hot-housing the high-achievers.

Perhaps as a result, teachers are perceived publicly as members of a noble profession in the same way as doctors or nurses.

As Professor Hytonen says, all three "take care of the weak".

Next week: Failings of Finnish education and challenges ahead.

More about teacher training in Finland

Students pay no tuition fees. The Ministry of Education picks up the costs.

A Master's is required to become a fully-qualified primary or secondary teacher. Kindergarten teachers are also educated in universities, working towards a Bachelor's degree.

Many teachers work without a Master's or even any teaching qualification, although their salary will be lower. Some return to complete a Master's after many years teaching.

Students who become subject teachers usually study their chosen subject for two years at university before deciding to go on to teacher education in third year.

A mutual convention means teacher education exams in any Nordic country are valid in any other Nordic country, subject to some minor extra studies.

Student teachers - usually in third year upwards - can go on supply lists to boost their income by working in schools.

Abo Akademi, a university in the south-west city of Turku, provides training for Swedish-speaking teachers. Nearly 6 per cent of people in Finland speak Swedish as their first language.

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