CAN FINNISH EDUCATION OFFER AN ALTERNATIVE TO HIGH-STAKES TESTING, NARROWING CURRICULA AND FIX TEACHER SHORTAGES?
There is a worldwide shortage of well-trained teachers. 69 million teachers must be recruited to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030 according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2016). Good education for all is not just about the quantity of teachers, but more about the quality of teaching. More children go to school than before, but learning and literacy have not improved as well as they should have, because of lack of qualified teachers.
Are leaders, educational policies and systems promoting good teaching or are they failing schools and learners? Teachers low status and salaries as well as high-stakes testing and increasing workload are all affecting education negatively. Teachers have a crucial role in the lives of individuals and future of whole nations. But are teachers supported well enough so that they can do their work well? Policy-makers need to understand the challenges in education and work towards attracting as well as attaining more qualified candidates into teaching (Sahlberg, 2011).
Accountability is about interpreting evidence, identifying problems and working out how to solve them to be able to achieve quality education for all, according to Unesco (2017). Collecting data on learning outcomes to shed light on factors that drive inequality in education is important. However, drawing precise conclusions takes time, resources and skills that few countries have. Thus, drawing wrong conclusions can be all too easy. All countries should produce national education monitoring reports explaining their progress against their commitments – currently, only about half do so and most of them do not do it regularly.
Assessment can provide valuable insight on learning outcomes, but there are also negative side-effects of high-stakes testing. Standardizedtests based on narrow performance measures can encourage to ‘play the system’, which will negatively impact education.Leaders might be relying too much on data and mainly aiming to gain good results in tests. Thus, education becomes more about preparing children to be good test-takers and teaching towards tests. Schools might focus on the academic subjects, which can be measured, at the expense of “non-academic” subjects and competences. When only test results matter, it can lead to investing more on children, who score well in tests, to make the school statistics look better. In this case children, who struggle with learning, might not receive as much teacher's support as they would need. A system, which values standardisation over holistic education is damaging to learning.
Finnish education is different from many countries educational systems, which have standardized tests, long hours at school, plenty of homework and private tutoring. There are no school inspectors or standardized testing in Finland; only matriculation examination (A-levels) in high-school. The external inspection of teaching and testing of students’ learning has been transferred from national authorities to teachers and principals. Despite the lack of testing, Finnish students score well in international tests such as TIMMS, PIRLS and PISA. The equity in education is valued more than being on top in PISA rankings. The differences between schools are minor, and also, the differences between the weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world (OECD, 2015).
Finland has put together a well-respected education system by focusing on teaching and learning instead of accountability measures. A holistic approach to education, and a system which supports teachers in their work are seen essential in enhancing learning. The successful system is also one of the most cost effective systems in the world (OECD, 2017). Around 5% of Finland’s gross domestic product (GDP) is spent on education, which is lower than in Norway, Sweden, South Korea, Brazil, and Colombia. This is a bit over $10,000 per student, which is about average for an OECD country.
Teacher salaries in Finland are at the OECD average and yet, teaching is seen as an attractive career choice amongst young Finnish people, and they usually commit to their profession for a lifetime. All teachers in primary and secondary schools must have Master's degrees. Thus, they are trusted and respected professionals with a great deal of autonomy deciding how to support learning in the most suitable ways in their schools. Teaching targets are set by the national curriculum, but within this broad framework, teaching is highly independent. The curriculum allows them to have freedom to implement it in the best possible way to meet the needs of their local community, school and learners.
Finnish education is not just about academic subjects, but competences and equal educational opportunities for all children. There is a shift of focus in the curriculum from teaching students content (what to to learn) to broad-based competencies (how to learn). Skills such as collaboration, critical thinking and entrepreneurship are considered essential life skills to be learned at school. A balanced curriculum includes arts, music, physical education, home economics and other non-academic areas as well as traditional school subjects. Also recess and free school meals have important roles in an equitable education system.
TEACHERS ARE THE KEY
Many teachers choose to walk away from teaching within first years into the profession; however, becoming a great teacher takes years of practice. To be able to attract and retain more people into teaching, it should be made a rewarding career choice. Education and social policies as well as adequate funding to schools should support teachers to do their demanding work in the most effective way. Teachers' initial and continuous development need to be invested to improve education.However, it is not enough to just have well-trained teachers. It takes an effective system, good working conditions, a positive societal status as well as competitive salary to encourage more people to get into teaching, stay in the profession and continuously work towards better education.
Finnish education is not based on high-stakes testing, narrow curricula and neither there is a shortage of teachers. Teachers do not need to stress over test results, spend tremendous amount of time in preparing children for tests or assessing them. Instead, they can create a learning environment, which supports the holistic growth and development of learners. Perhaps investing less money, time and efforts in testing and focusing more in actual teaching and learning instead, could fix many problems in education globally? Education in Finland can provide an alternative to other countries, but it means long-term investments for sustainable development of schools. Perhaps the next innovation in education should improve learning by investing in teachers, diminishing testing and making teaching into an attractive career choice?
- Global education monitoring report: Accountability in education, Unesco, 2017. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0025/002593/259338e.pdf
- PISA 2015 key findings for Finland, OECD, 2015. http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisa-2015-finland.htm
- Public spending on education, OECD, 2017. https://data.oecd.org/eduresource/public-spending-on-education.htm
- Sahlberg, Pasi, Finnish lessons 2.0, 2011.
- Teachers, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2016. http://uis.unesco.org/en/topic/teachers
- Teachers Matter: Attracting, Developing and Retaining Effective Teachers, OECD report, 2015. http://www.oecd.org/education/school/34990905.pdf
- Teachers' salaries, OECD, 2017. https://data.oecd.org/eduresource/teachers-salaries.htm#indicator-chart
About our guest author -
Miss Pirjo Suhonen specialised in early learning and social services during her undergraduate studies (2000). She continued with her studies on education and received a preschool teacher's qualification in 2003. She also has a recent Masters degree on Educational Technology (2016).
Miss Suhonen is the founder of ALO Finland, a Finnish company offering digital teacher training on Finnish education, curriculum development and implementation for educators globally. She has varied work experience in education and care settings in Finland, England, France and Belgium, including working in the multinational and -cultural environment in the European School of Brussels IV.