BERT MAES

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What makes education in Finland that good? 10 reform principles behind the success.

Posted by Bert Maes on February 24, 2010


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Students from Finland outperform peers in 43 other nations – including the United States, Germany and Japan – in mathematics, science and reading skills. Finland is also ranked top in economic competitiveness.

The performance of this small and remote European country springs directly from education policies set in motion 40 years ago, according to the World Bank in its report “Policy Development and Reform Principles of Basic and Secondary Education in Finland since 1968.”

A summary:

Explaining the excellence of the schools in Finland is extremely complex. They have beautiful school buildings, well-trained teachers, state-of-the-art technology any fancy textbooks, but that doesn’t explain everything. I will not present an exhaustive or exclusive explanation for Finland’s success, but 10 CHARACTERISTICS MAY BE HELPFUL TO UNDERSTAND:

  • (1) When Finnish kids turn 7 years old they go into compulsory primary school during nine years. All kids start at the same level, no matter what socio-economic background they have. They learn the basic knowledge, skills and attitudes of lifelong learning, which is consistently paying off with better academic achievement in later grades. These primary schools are places where playing and learning are combined with alternative pedagogic approaches, rather than mere instructional institutions.
  • (2) All teachers are prepared in academic universities. Teachers are highly respected and appreciated in Finland, partly because all teachers need a master’s degree to qualify for a permanent job. And the selection is tough: only 10% of the 5000 applicants each year are accepted to the faculties of education in Finnish universities. Finland improved its public education system not by privatizing its schools or constantly testing its students, but by strengthening the education profession and investing in teacher preparation and support. Their high level knowledge and skills makes that Finnish teachers
  1. can have considerable independence in the classroom to choose their preferred appropriate pedagogical methods;
  2. are very willing to continuously update their professional skills via post-graduate studies;
  3. are more willing to work on themselves, are open to new ideas and developed broader perspectives (I refer slightly to the article: MBAs Make Better CEOs… But Why?);
  4. are eager to be involved into the school development processes in their own schools as well as in national and international projects.
  • (3) Since the 1960s political authorities always have seen education as the key to survive and thrive in an increasingly competitive world. All governments, from left to right have respected over the past 4 decades, that economic growth is the primary goal, with education as the critical driver (according to some researchers, education explains 25% of Finland’s growth): “Investment in people is the best investment”.  To be competitive, the governments concluded, Finland has to substantially boost investments in education and research to foster innovation and cutting-edge development.
  • (4) Because the central government ensured sustainable funding to ensure FREE education for all, i.e. took care of ALL costs of tuition, warm school meals, learning materials, text books, transportation, new equipment, new facilities, student counseling, etc,  the teachers are able to focus on teaching and learning, and bringing new ideas and practices in schools.
  • (5) There are no mandatory tests or exams; except for the nationwide National Matriculation Examination, in mother tongue, foreign language, mathematics and social/natural sciences, at the end of the upper-secondary school (from 17-19-year-old). Teachers make their own assessment tests, not quoting numeric grades, but using descriptive feedback, no longer comparing students with one another. This helped teachers and students focusing on learning in a fear-free environment, in which creativity and risk-taking are encouraged. Teachers have more real freedom in time planning when they do not need have to focus on annual tests or exams.
  • (6) Trusting the schools and teachers is a common feature in Finnish schools. Schools receive full autonomy in developing the daily delivery of education services. The ministry of education always believed that teachers, together with principals, parents and their communities know how to provide the best possible education for their children and youth. Except for guidelines for learning goals and assessment criteria, The National Board of Education (taking care of curriculum development, evaluation of education and professional support for teachers) doesn’t dictate lesson plans or standardized tests. School can plan their own curricula to reflect local concerns.
  • (7) For Manufacturing Education: In higher education, Finland offers university level studies or the polytechnics insitutions.  The polytechnic system was the focal point of education policies in Finland during the 1990s and the top priority for regional development. There is a wide consensus on increasing technology, environmental sciences and entrepreneurship education – all of which seem to contribute positively to economic development and growth. As a result regional support networks are developed to help schools and teachers to adopt new technology in education and incorporate technology into classrooms.

  • (8) Building upon the expertise of local players, whose experience, opinions and abilities allowed them to indicate the best ways forward. The teacher unions and the educators themselves have always had the opportunity to be heard, to help crafting a blueprint of the reforms.
  1. The key to get their commitment and support was tapping into and welcoming their expertise as professionals in laying the groundwork of reform. Expert committees of teachers, union representatives, university researchers, textbook authors and government officials designed the new frameworks, hashing out their differences and using each other’s valuable and varied expertise.
  2. Another key was reassuring teachers would not lose employment security and salaries. Before the reforms even commenced the teacher trade organization achieved this in negotiating higher teacher compensation for the extra more demanding work.
  3. Also experiments and pilot programs in developing curriculum reforms have helped ease concerns and win the teachers’ professional commitment. All experimental projects, coming from bottom-up as well, were monitored by university researchers, bringing a consistent culture of innovation in the Finnish education system.
  4. Education reform could only have proceeded if it gave the teachers a way to maintain their pedagogical freedom, creativity and sense of professional responsibility, by allowing them to choose textbooks and learning materials, and to determine the best way to cover the curriculum.
  5. The execution of new curricula, learning materials and new instructional methods was always carefully planned, province by province. Provincial Offices approved the plans from every municipality. The switch to a new reform was also guided by in-service training by a network of national level instructors.
  • (9) Political consensus and the capacity of policy makers to pursue reform: governments, trade unions and employers’ organizations form a tripartite in Finland, closely coordinating, communicating and heading to a common goal. In many countries the opposing-parties usually polarize debates and public opinion. Since the beginning of the 1970s until 1987 the ministry of education had two ministers from the main parties, requiring close political cooperation, resulting in workable solutions as both parties could endorse them. This proved to be the key factor behind the continuity of Finnish education policy. The parties detached from their populist political objectives and strategic maneuvers and began focusing on the subject-matter, on cooperating and acting together.

    Via the close partnership between the labor organizations and the governments, between the employees and the employers, in both planning and implementation stages, the teacher union changed from external political pressure group into a stakeholder in government decision-making, i.e. into one encompassing labor organization, that looks at the interest of the COMPLETE SOCIETY, just like the government. This key element in good quality of governance and public institutions turned out to be the driving force of education performance and economic competitiveness in Finland.
  • (10) Regional development and networking: Today the most important component of providing good education is the management and leadership skills of local political authorities, experts and school principals (carefully selected for their understanding of education development, their experience in teacher-education and their solid proven management skills). The key in the educational reforms was ‘how to find ways to help schools and teachers come together and share what they have learned about productive teaching techniques and effective schools’. The result was the creation of multi-level, professional learning communities of schools sharing locally tested practices and enriching ideas, and matching the needs for local economic development.

RELATED POST: Finland Gets Its First Haas Technical Education Center

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