Teaching and testing – the Finnish case

Helsinki Panorama by Flickr user Huzhead
Helsinki Panorama by Flickr user Huzhead











A tweet from Trevor Cairney, a fellow writer-educator based in Sydney, led me to David Sirota’s recent article on Finnish education in Salon.com.

Sirota’s article gives the lie to claims that a culture of rigorous testing is the only way to improve standards in US schools – pointing to Finland’s success in creating a world-class education system by cherishing teachers, rather than imposing tests.

The Finns have a remarkable system which produced top scores in the last PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) study by the OECD.

Teaching staff lie at the heart of Finland’s achievement. Well-trained, well-supported and given a great deal of independence, Finland’s teachers are trusted academic professionals, choosing their methods and materials themselves. Testing is used as the teacher sees fit – for self-evaluation and development, rather than for league tables and outcomes.

The Finns’ success is a great riposte to forces in the UK and US who continually push intensive testing regimes on our schools. As I said at the House of Commons last year, the current culture of testing and targets is so harmful to learning, especially in the field of literacy.

As a primary school teacher, I was horrified by practices of teaching to the test. In some schools, children were explicitly asked to consider how they could ‘up-level’ their writing. I like a neologism as much as the next man, but the difference in meaning between ‘up-level’ and ‘improve’ is telling. Children were being encouraged to consciously make their writing tick government assessment boxes – hardly instilling a passion for literacy!

Finland offers a wonderful contrast to the Anglo-American perspective, as the Salon article shows. David Sirota gives Finland credit for delivering excellent results even in areas with a bilingual population, but it’s important to recognise that the country still faces challenges in educating a diverse population.

Globalization presents new teaching challenges in a country that has not traditionally seen high levels of immigration. Today, around 4% of Finnish primary pupils are immigrants – most of them located in the capital, Helsinki. The Finns have introduced a number of excellent schemes to support pupils from overseas – including small-group lessons prior to entering mainstream schooling and “mother tongue” teaching in over forty languages.

However, the teachers delivering mother tongue lessons don’t have the same thorough training as mainstream Finnish educators – a challenge that must be overcome through investment and professional development. It will be interesting to see how the new government, and new Education Minister Jukka Gustafsson, rise to the challenges of a changing society.

There’ll be more from Finland later this year, when I’ll be visiting Helsinki to look deeper into the education system – exploring how outcomes, accountability and pupil achievement are addressed by Scandinavia’s “miracle nation” of teaching and learning.

One thought on “Teaching and testing – the Finnish case

  • This and that article from Salon make me wish that the US was going in a new direction with testing in education. Testing does nothing but create high stress situations for students to recite memorized facts that will disappear shortly after it’s over. It doesn’t matter whether the test involves essay writing or not. And the focus and reliance on testing has made learning a chore when it should be presented as fun and a pleasure in life. Literacy, language retention and the most basic forms of mathematics and sciences to a certain extent can be tested to see where someone sort of is for basic learning, but what about something like Humanities? Learning about the perspectives of other people in different times? How can that possibly be tested?

    Honestly, I think the focus on testing is also a big issue with why there are gender gaps in higher sciences. Learning mathematics as formulas to memorize is not nearly as interesting as pondering how numbers show up in everything from the surface of a bubble to the movement of the universe in space. The idea that actual knowledge can be summarized in fill-in-the-bubble machine graded testing form degrades the value of education to the point that no one wants to get involved in it. Not to mention the whole teachers-as-glorified-babysitters-and-yet-they-must-beat-the-testing-set-by-a-third-party thing.

    Basically, I’m chiming in with a “preaching to the choir” comment/rant.

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