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Why do we envy Finland's education system?

By Sam Di Sano on 28 March 2019NSWstaffroomInnovation

Not sure if anyone else noticed the delicious irony on the Education page of the Sydney Morning Herald recently (Five Tips for Choosing a School - and Three Things to Avoid

and From Play to Pressure; a Finnish Perspective on Australian Schools, 17 March 2019).

Whether by accident or design two articles appeared which clearly demonstrated at 10 paces, the differing values we place on education.

On one hand, the crown prince of Finnish education (and now resident academic at the University of NSW Gonski Institute for Education) Dr Pasi Sahlberg, was espousing all the thought he put into finding a school for his six-year-old son, Otto. On the other, the dynamic duo of academics, Julie Sonnemann and Peter Goss, directors of school education policy at the Grattan Institute, gave their top five tips for finding a school for your child and three added tips on what to avoid.

According to Sahlberg, in Finland, parents never asked about a school's academic record, whereas here, it is often the first thing we want to know. When pressed on what he would change, it would be this obsession with academic achievement. In a subsequent radio interview, when pressed on what to do with NAPLAN, he advised that just like an old car, he would just get rid of it, rather than try to fix it.

Meanwhile, over at the Grattan Institute, Sonnenberg and Goss made a compelling case for exactly the opposite. NAPLAN results featured in their number one tip on eliciting how the school measures learning progress over time. Following on from that, teaching methodologies, assessment, resource equity, faculty collaboration and feedback all made up the top five.

Long have we compared ourselves to the Scandinavian countries, using their PISA and TIMSS results as a benchmark for where we want Australian education to be, despite effectively having a quite distinct pedagogical approach to education. (PISA - the Programme for International Student Assessment is a worldwide study by OECD countries comparing 15-year-old students results in mathematics, science, and reading while TIMSS measures Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study)

While the context is quite different, there is much to learn from Finland, and much to envy.  My sense is, they have a far clearer roadmap for what outcomes they want from education and how to achieve them.

The last international test results for Maths and Science painted a glum picture of stagnating outcomes in Australian schools. Relative to other countries, we are going backwards - fast.

Our results have largely flatlined since the inception of the TIMSS test in 1995. Our politicians tell us to put these international rankings into perspective. They say test scores are not everything and that we also want our children to develop broader skills and resilience for success in both work and life. That is true, but nonetheless, the practical knowledge and the skills of Maths and Science matters too.

Our future scientists and engineers need not only to be well-rounded individuals who can communicate and work in teams, but they need to be able to count too.  

Building subject-specific expertise is where countries like Finland leave us for dead. In high-performing school systems, such as Finland, teachers are trained as subject specialists, and they continue to learn from the best in their disciplines.

Meanwhile, Sahlberg was concerned more with whether his son actually enjoyed attending school and understands why he is there. His academic preparedness, according to Sahlberg, just don’t rate. Back home, he adds, play time is considered learning time too. Here, he senses parents view play time as wasted time.

When asked to describe the school he and his wife finally settled on for their six-year-old, Sahlberg said this; "I think it has a child-friendly, gentle approach ...They really care about the child feeling safe and comfortable, and learning to find his place in the school."

He acknowledged that in Australia, choosing the right school for your child is a complex decision, unfairly influenced by otherwise irrelevant issues including proximity to home, whether the school is public or private, or its facilities and grounds, none of which have any impact on student learning.

The Grattan Institute also had some advice for prospective school parents to be wary of. Unless they are under 20, avoid being swayed by class sizes; avoid schools that hold back students; primary schools that do not teach phonics and finally (and I concur entirely with this one), any sense of a lack of social and cultural diversity.

Needless to say, Professor Sahlberg’s closing words were incredibly prophetic — he says he is not sad to have left Finland but has probably learned to appreciate Finnish education even more now that he has. Little wonder really.


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