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Imagine a school system that doesn’t start until the age of seven. Imagine few exams and even less homework. Imagine that your primary school child won’t face a single test or assessment for the first six years of his education. Imagine no streaming – that all children are taught in the same classrooms, regardless of their intelligence and aptitude. Imagine that there are no private schools.
And then imagine that this school system produces a 93 per cent graduation rate, with 66 per cent of its graduates going on to college.
Now consider this: This school system does exist – in Finland. Since it implemented educational reform four decades ago, Finland’s students have consistently bested education rankings worldwide.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study that ranks how well 15-year-old students perform in mathematics, science and reading. While its recent results have paled in comparison to its previous achievements, there’s no denying that Finland has been ranked higher for longer than almost everyone else in the world.
It’s not just PISA rankings that make this case – the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report agrees as well, saying the Finland has the best primary school system in the world in its 2016-2017 report.
While the Finnish have been excelling for years, Singapore isn’t doing too bad and has been catching up recently. In 2015, Singapore students topped the rankings, and bested Finland in science and maths. Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement and it is worth considering what Finland does differently – perhaps Singapore can still learn a thing or two.
1. Let the children play
According to Heikki Happonen, head of the University of Eastern Finland’s teacher training lab, children’s brains work better when they are moving. Finnish children learn through play until age seven, and throughout their primary school life, get 15 minutes of outdoor free-play every hour of each school day.
2. Let the teachers teach
There is only one set of standardised tests at age 16. Other than that, teachers design their own assessment methods in a way that suits them best. Teachers are also well supported and expected to be well-educated – you cannot lead a Finnish primary school class without at least a master’s degree.
3. Respect students
In Finland, teachers prefer being called by their first name instead of by their honorific. It’s a great example of the egalitarian vibe of the Finnish school system, where teachers are thought of as being co-participants, rather than as instructors. This empowers students and makes them feel more in control – and more responsible for – their learning.
4. Design the school with students’ needs in mind
Common areas in Finnish schools are allocated to students. Empty rooms can be used for study groups or hanging out, libraries and gyms are left open as long as possible and where possible, lighting and colour schemes are kept inviting and warm. This encourages students to feel more welcome and thus feel respected and empowered.
“Children must feel like their school is a home for them, it belongs to them,” Happonen told the Sydney Morning Herald. “They are very clever, they feel and appreciate an atmosphere of trust. We offer them an environment where they understand, ‘This is a place where I am highly respected. I feel safe and comfortable here. I am a very important person.’ My job is to protect that environment for children. That's why I come to work every day.”
5. Encourage questions
Sure, most good teachers want students to ask questions if a topic or module is puzzling. But Finland takes it one step further – teachers also ask students questions about how the class is conducted and what they understand about the learning objectives. This is a challenging approach for even the best teacher, but it fosters a candid learning environment that allows students to have a voice. Teachers also benefit from real-time, accurate feedback, which helps them to improve.