In 2000, a standardized test given to 15-year-olds across the globe revealed Finnish youth were the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries in science. While their ranking has slipped in recent years, Finland’s education model is remarkable.
Unlike our floundering education system, there is only one mandated standardized test in Finland, at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. In stark contrast, driven by No Child Left Behind and Common Core mandates, American students are required in third through eighth grade to take annual standardized tests to track their performance. Basically, we’re now teaching to pass tests.
“We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said Pasi Sahlberg, Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, interviewed in Smithsonian Magazine.
America’s Race to the Top initiative, which invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, horrifies Finnish educators. “I think teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”
As an example of what you might find in Finland’s one high school test – “Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels predicted that a socialist revolution would first happen in countries like Great Britain. What made Marx and Engels claim that and why did a socialist revolution happen in Russia?”
Finland’s schools are publicly funded and every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. Only 10% of the nation’s graduates pass a rigorous application system to earn a required master’s degree in education (earned free of course, which means no student debt). And they typically enter the profession between the ages of 25 and 28.
On average there are more than 10 times as many applicants as positions available in Finland’s teacher-training schools.
Teaching is considered one of the most prestigious jobs in the country. They teach less hours than their American peers and teachers and avoid the stressful, bureaucratic paper work that American teachers are required to do. They are trusted to choose their own teaching methods as they see fit. And teacher unions are an essential and positive part of efforts to maintain and improve the education process.
In contrast with shocking rates of teachers fleeing the American school system after a few years (50% in five years), in comparison roughly 90% of Finnish teachers leave at retirement.
Some other remarkable statistics – Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, and Finland spends about 30% less per student than the U.S.
Children spend far more time playing outside, even in winter, than American students. Homework is minimal. Finnish students spend around 2.8 hours a week on homework. And by law, teachers must give students a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction.
Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said teacher Kari Louhivuori in Smithsonian Magazine. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”
Finland provides preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. The state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Student health care is free.
In first grade students study Finnish, math and science, music, art, sports, religion and textile handcrafts. They add English in third grade, and Swedish in fourth. By fifth grade they add biology, geography, history, physics and chemistry.
But now there’s a change in the Finnish education model – the nation is shifting from traditional “teaching by subject” in favor of “teaching by topic.” And emphasis is being placed on a more collaborative approach, with pupils working in smaller groups to solve problems while improving their communication skills.
Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg in his book “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland?,” shows how Finland established a high performing education system by adopting policies counter to that found in most Western education systems.
He calls these the GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement. The features of the GERM are: standardizing teaching and learning with common criteria for measurement and data; increased focus on core subjects, particularly literacy and numeracy; teaching a prescribed curriculum; transfer of models of administration from the corporate world; high stakes accountability policies – control through testing, inspection, division between schools and an ethos of punishment (for educators).
As far as ADHD, a 2011 report indicated in Finland only 1 out of 1,000 children received ADHD medication. As of 2014, 6.1% of American children are being treated for ADHD with medication.
In Helsinki, researcher Ville Tapio is testing whether a course of special video games could be an alternative to medication. They’re special games that can change how your brain works, with a technique termed gameified neuroplasticity therapy. The concept of neuroplasticity suggests that our brain changes according to what we do.
By using neurogaming, Finnish researchers are seeing how computer programs encourage people to think in ways that changes the operation of certain areas of the brain.
Researchers at the University of Helsinki put together a lab test with 50 people diagnosed with ADHD and 40 sessions of a game where they had to lift an on-screen ball with their thoughts. Different types of thinking do different things to the ball. The goal is to exercise specific sectors of the brain.
“We start the gaming treatment by analyzing the person’s brains, and defining the areas of the brain which are too active or not active enough,” said Tapio. “And then we create a gaming plan that will stimulate those areas of the brain.”
One participant’s scores in the game improved 56% during the course of the study. Some of the feedback included: “I am able to concentrate better,” “I have learned to calm down,” and “The environment does not disturb my concentration as much as before.”
Tapio believes the potential market for therapeutic neurogames is huge.