Race to the Finnish – by Mark Sparvell

A Scandinavian country is achieving great results in its schools by focusing not on competition but on co-operation, writes Mark Sparvell.

The international benchmarking convention in Winnipeg, Canada, on March 2 bought together educators from countries whose students do well on international measures of achievement, such as the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) and Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

The countries involved included Finland, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

With support from the Principals Australia Institute, I packed my winter woolies and headed to where the temperature hovered around minus 20 but education reform was on the boil.

Organised by Mindset, the Manitoba Network for Science and Technology, a program of Manitoba Innovation, the organisers strategically selected presenters from the field, notable educators who have recent direct involvement in the business of leading learning in schools but also were identified as influencers or systems thinkers. The agenda was to explore how education policy is translated into practice, the social contexts of the education system and the drivers for improvement.

Finland has a very successful education system, so even though I had a heavy presenting schedule, I gathered questions for my Finnish colleague from Australian educators via the <b>www.palnet.edu.aub> Thought Leaders, Twittter and Facebook.

I was overwhelmed with inquiries. From system leaders to classsroom teachers across states, territories, sectors and levels of schooling the Australian education community generated questions around inclusion, early literacy, class sizes, performance pay, governance, disability and, the big one, accountability and testing. I strapped on my ice skates (first time) and joined my (highly accomplished) colleagues from Finland and Canada for a three-hour skating interview along the frozen Red River … it was worth every blister!

Merja Narvo-Akkola has more than 10 years’ experience as a principal in a multicultural environment with special education and language immersion. Narvo-Akkola is a highly respected professional and she is one of the key contributors to the Global Education Leaders Program in Finland.

She noted that she felt “no-one was more surprised by the PISA results and Finland’s relative high standing than the Finns themselves!”

Finnish schools quickly found themselves under an international spotlight with visitors attempting to work out how a system which has short school days for teachers and students (the day finishes about 1pm and teachers have about 26 contact hours) and engage in no system-wide testing of literacy, numeracy or science can do so consistently well.

Narvo-Akkola believes that the conditions for success in schooling are interconnected, like a double helix with the Finnish culture. “Finnish schools achieve excellence by focusing not on competition but on co-operation and achieving equity,” she says.

Students may attend pre-primary from age six but most begin compulsory schooling at seven. Narvo-Akkola believes that at this age students are developmentally ready and able to achieve success. Great emphasis is placed in the early years on play, oral language and social skill development. All schools are government schools and all schooling (including tertiary) is free. Students are provided with hot meals for free.

Whilst school finishes at about 1pm, students can involve themselves in after-school clubs. Homework is very much a foreign concept.


I raised the comparison with another high achieving nation, Singapore. It achieves high PISA results and has an educational climate of regular high stakes testing combined with a national explicit curriculum. In Finland, the only national testing occurs as part of university entrance matriculation. Narvo-Akkola noted the drivers for Singapore are, like Finland, deeply connected with the culture. Similarly, those working in education are seen to be in positions of great prestige and are, accordingly, highly valued. With no natural resources (Singapore even buys its water from Malaysia), a highly educated workforce is a critical asset.

I asked Narvo-Akkola about curriculum design and student achievement information. She explained that whilst Finland has a broad national curriculum overview, the “living curriculum” that is delivered in a school is shaped in consultation between the staff and principal – a very customised and contextualised curriculum.

Narvo-Akkola, like other Finnish principals, recognises their staff as highly skilled and competent professionals. She said she wouldn’t expect her doctor’s daily work to be overseen and case managed by another person, she trusts his professional capacity as she trusts her staffs to make local decisions.

When the teacher identifies a student is underperforming, additional support is provided by the class teacher, a modified curriculum plan may be developed or the special education teacher may be involved (all schools have these and they are outside of the staffing costs to the school). Most students with disabilities or learning difficulties are fully integrated and supported, in some schools special need classes provided targeted support.

In Finland it is harder to become a teacher than it is to become a lawyer or a doctor. To teach, you must have a Masters in Education. Narvo-Akkola believes that the research element to the masters program makes the critical difference. Teachers exit university with the skills of researchers who are able to read and understand research,

I received a few questions for Narvo-Akkola around the management of language and cultural diversity, and in particular, how the indigenous Sami language group are represented in the schooling sector. The Sami people have a degree of autonomy and their lands stretch across the far north, across borders with other countries. The representation of indigenous Sami in Finnish schools is minimal.

Religious education is provided two times per week. If the school has four or more students of a particular religion then lessons in that religion are provided. With an increasingly diverse multi-faith cohort there are some movements to replace religion studies with ethics.

Narvo-Akkola was quite perplexed by education systems where teacher professional judgment was not valued, and where literacy and numeracy were a focus instead of an outcome from a socially just, creative and student wellbeing-focused curriculum.

When asked in the forum about how teachers’ accountability for student achievement was measured, Narvo-Akkola paused and looked perplexed before saying that, in Finland, there is no word to translate that concept and that they trust the work of their teachers.

I received many more questions for Narvo-Akkola from Australian educators than I could politely impose in a one skating encounter. Narvo-Akkola has agreed to provide a webinar through Palnet Events <b>www.palnet.edu.aub> later this year to provide more information.

Mark Sparvell is executive consultant – ICT capability and innovation at Principals Australia Institute. [email protected]

Retreived from http://www.educationreview.com.au/pages/section/article.php?s=Opinion&idArticle=23265

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