While the cold weather can become a drudgery over a long winter, there is also no question that active time outside in the frosty air is good for the health of kids. A robust child who welcomes active winter play always seems more fit and focused. We see this every year at school and I am sure the Scandinavians do, too. Besides dominating winter sports in many events (get ready for the Winter Olympics in 23 days!), these very countries often lead in other areas – like education.
Consider the case of Finland. The Finns’ repeated success in national education rankings continue to be the envy of many industrialized countries. What can we learn from their priorities and way of doing “school”? For one, the tiny Nordic country places considerable weight on elementary education. Before Finnish kids learn their times tables, they learn simply how to be kids — how to play with one another, how to mend emotional wounds. But even as kids grow up, the country makes a concerted effort to put them on a track for success.
How does Finland manage to outperform other countries year after year? At the CAIS Heads and Chairs Conference held in Ottawa two years ago, I spent some time chatting with the Finnish ambassador to Canada, Vesa Lehtonen, about education in his country. Here is some of what I learned.
Competition isn’t as important as cooperation in Finland. Teachers are trained to issue their own tests instead of standardized tests. Teachers are trusted to do well without the motivation of competition.
Teaching is one the most respected professions. Teachers aren’t underpaid in Finland. To become a teacher in Finland, candidates must have first received an advanced degree and complete the equivalent of a residency program in US medical schools. Student teachers often teach at affiliate elementary schools that adjoin a university.
Finland listens to what the educational research says. In Finland, research comes with no political baggage. Education policy decisions are based solely on effectiveness.
Finland isn’t afraid to experiment in schools (and Finnish parents welcome it). Finland’s teachers are encouraged to create their own mini-laboratories for teaching styles, keeping what works and scrapping what doesn’t.
Playtime is sacred. This policy stems from Finland’s deep, almost storybook belief that kids ought to stay kids for as long as possible. It’s not their job to grow up quickly and become memorizers and test-takers.
Kids have very little homework. This philosophy stems from a mutual level of trust shared by the schools, teachers, and parents. Parents trust that teachers have covered most of what they need during the school day, and schools deliver. Extra work is often deemed unnecessary by everyone involved. Time spent at home is reserved for family, where the only lessons kids learn are about life – important learning of another kind.
I think it could be summed up by a commitment to teaching students how to learn and not what to learn. It requires thinking about measuring progress and achievement in a different way: one in which assessment is primarily used to pinpoint areas where students lack understanding – and not a means to differentiate performance between students.
That being said, I still hope Canada beats them in hockey in Pyeongchang.
Ric Anderson, Head of School