As Japanese academic levels show some decline in recent years, there is in Japan currently a great deal of interest in overseas educational systems that are consistently at the top of global test rankings. Below is an article that scrutinizes the Finnish school system for its strengths.
Every child special in Finland’s schools
Keiichi Honma Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
While eight students in a special-needs class were learning math at Juvanpuiston School, an 11-year-old boy suddenly threw the pencil he was using before hiding under his desk and screaming. The boy apparently lost control of himself after losing a dice game he was playing with his classmates.
Juha Kiilunen, 32, the teacher in charge of the class, comforted the boy, but the rest of the class did not stop as assistant teacher Heli Salminen, 32, took care of the other seven students.
This was one of the scenes The Yomiuri Shimbun observed during a recent visit to Espoo in southern Finland.
Juvanpuiston School is a comprehensive school covering six years of primary and three years of middle school education. The municipal government-run institution has three special-needs classes for slow learners and students with behavioral problems. There are a total of six teachers in charge of these three classes. Thanks to careful instruction, more than 10 percent of the students in the special-needs classes can go back to regular classes.
Juvanpuiston School has fewer than 32 students per class, including regular ones, with an average teacher-student ratio of 1:12.
“We don’t neglect the education of any single child,” Principal Ossi Airaskorpi, 52, said as he observed the special-needs class that was restored to order when Kiilunen calmed the boy down. “Every child receives the attention they require.”
When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the results of the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) it conducted in 2006, Finland again ranked in the top class, as it has since the survey was first conducted in 2000.
Japan, in contrast, has realized through the PISA that scholastic abilities among its children have been significantly declining.
As the third assessment, the 2006 PISA was administered to a total of about 400,000 15-year-olds in 57 countries and territories, including some that do not participate in the OECD, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. Among the OECD participants, Finland was ranked at the top in both scientific and mathematical literacy, while taking second place in reading literacy. In the 2003 PISA, the country took first place in all three domains.
Experts have pointed to Finland’s philosophy of education as the driving factor behind such high levels of scholastic performance. The Finnish way aims at helping all students–including those in special-needs classes–develop their scholastic abilities in small-group instruction, rather than focusing on pulling up a limited number of the brightest students.
The history of this philosophy dates back about 90 years. Finland laid down a free education policy in 1919, two years after becoming independent from Russia. In 1968, the law on comprehensive schools was enacted, by which basic education for children was extended to nine years from four. During the nine years, everything from tuition and learning materials to school meals, health checks and transportation are free of charge.
The 2006 PISA shows that the variance in student performance between Finnish schools was within a range of 5 percentage points, the lowest figure among the OECD participants. Moreover, teachers working at the primary and middle school levels are required to earn at least a master’s degree, while their pay system also has been improved over the past decade or so. By motivating teachers well, Finland has turned itself into a “major educational power.”
The fate of Finland, which has a population of just more than 5 million and lacks rich natural resources, has largely depended upon human development.
Finland’s National Board of Education, an advisory panel to the Education Ministry, establishes basic policy, based on which about 450 municipal governments compile respective curriculums. These curriculums are distributed to public schools, which account for more than 95 percent of all schools at the basic-education level.
Local governments compete against each other in their respective education programs as nationwide achievement tests are conducted every year that show variance in students’ performances among schools.
“Our deliberate and continued investment in education has again been rewarded with the top position in the PISA ranking,” said Education and Science Minister Sari Sarkomaa, stressing the success of Finland’s national policy.
The National Board of Education has been receiving inquiries from more than 100 countries worldwide, and welcomes five to 10 organizations every week for tours to observe local schools.
Answering a question during one such tour, Irmeli Halinen, head of the board’s Preschool and Comprehensive School Education Unit, said: “The principal [aim] of our education is to improve the skills and abilities of all the children we teach.”
(Feb. 14, 2008)
In another press article, Japan Times examines the Finnish school system as well.
A Finnish way for the Japanese educational system?
Tuesday, May 6, 2008 Japan Times
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Ever since students in Finland emerged as top performers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), many teachers and policymakers in Japan have turned to this Scandinavian country of 5.2 million for insights on how to educate children.
Symposiums and seminars on Finnish education abound. Experts say that Finland’s schools are flooded with requests for tours from abroad. At the Marunouchi head store of Tokyo-based bookseller chain Maruzen, books touting “Finland education methods” have been selling well since the end of 2005, when the first in a series of practical guides to Finnish education was published, says store employee Yoshitaka Kudo.
Started in 2000 and held every three years since, the PISA survey measures 15-year-olds’ abilities in reading, math and science, and is unique in that it tests how students apply the skills and knowledge they learn in school to real-life situations, rather than testing their skills or knowledge per se.
Finland ranked No.1 in the PISA’s 2006 survey in the area of science, followed by Hong Kong and Canada. In the same survey, Japan came in 6th, followed by South Korea’s 11th, the U.K.’s 14th and the United States’ 29th.
What’s so special about Finland? Japanese parliament member Marutei Tsurunen, a naturalized Japanese citizen who was born in Finland, told reporters at a recent lecture in Tokyo that in Finland teachers help children learn on their own, rather than giving or teaching them answers. Finnish kids get virtually no homework, even on weekends, and their summer break is 2 months long, he said. Coupled with such a relaxed style of learning is a sense passed down from parents to children over generations that the Finnish must learn on their own and communicate well with others to survive, given the nation’s weather and a history of being invaded by its neighbor Russia.
Seiji Fukuta, a professor of comparative culture studies at Tsuru University in Yamanashi Prefecture who has written numerous books on Finnish education, pointed out several factors that make the Scandinavian country’s education stand out. First, the purpose of education there is to nurture character and instill a sense of independence among individuals, whereas in Japan, many students study to achieve high scores in exams and thus entrance into high-ranking high schools and universities. Second, Finnish teachers, all of whom must have a masters’ degree in education, enjoy relative freedom on what and how to teach. Third, Finland gives no tests to students until the age of 16, which means they are driven not by competition but their own desire to learn.
“Students’ motivation to learn will not last long if they are studying just to compete,” Fukuta says. “If they are studying just to pass the exams, they forget what they learn the minute the tests are over.” Fukuta expressed skepticism over the recent publication of Japanese-language books claiming to teach “Finnish methods,” saying that they are not authentic. Methods of logical and analytical thinking in such textbooks are not unique to Finland, he said.
What can people learn from the Finnish system? Walt Gardner, a retired public-school teacher from California who occasionally contributes essays on education to the media, says Americans have always believed in pragmatism, whereas Finland “considers education for its value per se.”
“I think the lesson that schools in the United States can learn from Finland is that testing shouldn’t be used punitively but constructively,” he says. “Assessment is an indispensable part of the educational process. But it should be used to help teachers improve their instruction.”
With the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 in the United States, the results of mandatory standardized tests are posted, and “naming and shaming are thought to be the best way to shape up schools,” says Gardner.
There is no sign that Japan as a whole will adopt the Finnish approaches any time soon. In fact, the Education Ministry in February released drafts of a new course of study at elementary and middle schools that should become effective in 2011 and 2012. For the first time in 30 years, schools are increasing the number of class hours and teaching content and reducing the number of hours to teach “integrated study classes” a course in which schools decide what to teach, and which resembles the integrated, experience-based way many Finnish teachers teach such subjects as physics, geography and mathematics.
“Finnish education is future-oriented in that it fosters students’ ability to keep learning,” Fukuta says. “The question is whether we too can nurture a lifelong habit of learning.” (Tomoko Otake)
In related reading…
” Imagine an educational system where children do not start school until they are 7, where spending is a paltry $5,000 a year per student, where there are no gifted programs and class sizes often approach 30. A prescription for failure, no doubt, in the eyes of many experts, but in this case a description of Finnish schools, which were recently ranked the world’s best. Finland topped a respected international survey last year, coming in first in literacy and placing in the top five in math and science. Ever since, educators from all over the world have thronged to this self-restrained country to deconstruct its school system – “educational pilgrims,” the locals call them – and, with luck, take home a sliver of wisdom…snip…If one trait sets Finland apart from many other countries, it is the quality and social standing of its teachers, said Barry Macgaw, the director for education at the O.E.C.D. All teachers in Finland must have at least a master’s degree, and while they are no better paid than teachers in other countries, the profession is highly respected. ” — Educators Flocking to Finland, Land of Literate Children
Overviews of the Finnish educational system may be found at the Virtual Finland website as well as at the Japan Times-shukan bilingual page (Japanese and English).
The Finnish miracle by Hank Pellissier
High test scores, higher expectations, Presidential hype by Hank Pellissier This article examines whether America should follow the S. Korean educational model