Monday, June 06, 2016

Monday Forum - what lessons does the Finnish education system offer?

A few weeks back, there was a story about the reshaping of the Finnish education system, the replacement of subject based education with topic based. According to the story, the Finns believed that this would make education more relevant, that students would still be able to pick up required subject knowledge via the topic approach. My heart sank, My instinctive reaction was to wonder why replace a system that appears to be working well?

As we shall see in a moment, not all was as it seems. For the moment, I just note that the Finnish school system has attracted world wide attention, in part because its students score so well on the international PISA rankings.

There has been much debate about the reasons for this apparently good performance. Finland spends around the OECD average on education. Its teachers receive around the same pay as teachers in other European countries. Class sizes are similar to those in other Nordic countries, Why, then do Finnish schools perform better?

Various explanations have been advanced. One is the difference between high context and low context countries. In Finland with its homogeneous society and intense shared values, many things can be taken for granted, are understood. They do not need to be taught or explained. By contrast, in lower context countries such as Australia or the UK, more time has to be spent in class establishing a common base, in explaining things.

Another explanation often given lies in teacher training. Since 1970, all Finnish teachers require a masters degree. Of more significance, I suspect, is that a quarter of Finnish graduates see teaching as an attractive options, creating a larger talent pool. Then, too, the structure of the Finnish school system is very different from that holding in Australia. There is no private school system, schools have greater freedom, while the disparities between schools in standards and resources appear relatively low regardless of location. The now very large discrepancies that have appeared in Australia between private and public, between city and country schools, do not exist in Finland.

I said that not all was what it seemed with that story. It came via a current feed. It was only when I checked the story properly to write this piece that I realised that it dated from March 2015, so just over a year old. Whoops! I have been caught that way before. So then I did a search around looking for follow up stories. Thus I found this piece by Valerie Strauss - No, Finland isn’t ditching traditional school subjects. Here’s what’s really happening. It appears from this and other stories that I saw from around the same time that the original Independent story really grabbed world wide attention because of the interest in the Finnish school system but that its presentation was a bit over the top..

The Strauss piece is the simplest description of the Finnish system that I have found. If I had to draw a single lesson from it, its the relative simplicity of the Finnish system, the absence of controls, the grant of autonomy to schools and teachers, the apparent absence of prescriptive measurement, that goes to the heart of performance.

This brings me to the topic of this Monday Forum. What do you think makes for a good education system? How would you restructure the Australian system or your own for those outside Australia to improve performance? As always, feel free to wander.


In a comment, Rod pointed to three Quadrant pieces:
2 tanners was not impressed."The Quadrant articles", he wrote,"seem to be based largely on comparisons which might or might not hold true over time. It seems to me that school is more academically demanding than it was in my day.

It will probably also be a cold day in hell when I acknowledge Quadrant itself as a defender of Western civilisation."

Clearly, 2t has a problem with Quadrant. I have only skimmed the pieces, but add the links now as a contribution to discussion.



Rod said...

Eliminate the teachers federation? Both my parents who were school teachers thought that all the federation did was to keep poor teachers in good paying jobs.

I don't know the answer but I was interested to note a couple of interesting articles in Quadrant Magazine.

1. Spending more money equals worse outcomes:

2. Some ideas why children are falling behind

3. Falling school outcomes are a reflection of our society in general:

2 tanners said...

My brothers and I all went to State schools. We have four degrees, a masters and a doctorate between us, and one is an academic. My sons went one to a state school and ended up pretty nicely - he has two degrees, a solid job and is paying off a mortgage (has been since about age 23). The other went to a private school, did not so well, but is nevertheless at Uni and got a really well rounded education - can discuss post modernism or Bismarck's Germany with equal facility. The Quadrant articles seem to be based largely on comparisons which might or might not hold true over time. It seems to me that school is more academically demanding than it was in my day.

It will probably also be a cold day in hell when I acknowledge Quadrant itself as a defender of Western civilisation.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Rod. I brought the links up in the main post to see what people thought. The first has some useful points wrapped in the dialectic, the second revisits the curriculum arguments, the third raises quite another set of issues on the relationship between schooling and society and the role of schooling in values.

The institutionalisation of the role of the Federation, ironic that it was a Country Party Minister in the person of David Drummond who played a major role here, is problematic because a centralised union works best with a centralised system!

2t, not sure quite what your personal examples prove!

The content in the curriculum is far greater than when I was a kid. There are not only more subjects but more content in each subject.There are also a whole lot of skills that kids are meant to learn. Project management is an example. I started off thinking that this last was a good thing when the girls were at primary school and then concluded it was a waste of time. More in a moment.

Jim Belshaw said...

There is also a lot more process stuff generally. The academic standard in some areas is far higher, at what would have been uni level once. On the other hand, some of the uni stuff is lower! All this is very difficult to measure. Things such as the PISA scores measure certain skills, not the quality of education. That is why I used the word "apparently" in the context of Finland. I don't actually know that the Finnish system is better (define better) beyond certain test results, although I suspect it is.

There is no evidence that I know of beyond certain test results suggesting a "catastrophic" decline in the standard of Australian education. I agree with the business sector that Australian graduates are less literate and probably less numerate than they were, I have seen some classic examples. But then, I remind myself of this.

So many more people proportionately go to university, that they will be picking up students who are less literate and numerate just based on the normal distribution. You would therefore expect some decline in those qualities in the graduate output. The fact that universities have had to introduce remedial courses is, at one level, simply a symptom of larger numbers. To then argue that this is a school failing is an implicit shift in standards. There is nothing wrong with that. It just needs to be recognised.

Putting this another way, standards of literacy that were okay and are still okay in a day to day sense, people can function perfectly adequately, they don't actually need the higher level, are no longer acceptable because people are going to uni.

It all gets very complicated!

2 tanners said...

Jim, the personal examples were to illustrate, not prove, that the state and private systems had no necessary impact on academic results and the academic results did not necessarily reflect life skills. And school is supposed to prepare us for life, not merely to be the subject of opinion pieces and statistical analysis.

No-one gets a 'leaving certificate' these days, the way tradies used to (they are now required to have an HSC or equivalent, which was long ago reserved for would-be university entrants). Most tradies I come across these days are numerate, but perhaps still not very literate. Your point about more people being in each stage of the system (and the statistical implications) goes all the way down to year 10 these days, with obvious consequences.

I tend to think that business leaders complaining about literacy and numeracy are like Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen. I wonder how many of their junior staff they actually know. Their senior staff may well have been products of an older system.

Anonymous said...

From yet another article on the Finnish school system, this time with reference to vocational-type education:

During year 10, they acquire basic skills in servicing cars, including oil changes. In year 11 they learn to repair both passenger vehicles and heavy-duty trucks, including checking brakes and undertaking wheel alignments.

Dunno where that places me and me mate, who were perfectly comfortable fitting his mum's Falcon Futura with twin carbies, at the same stage - through personal interest, untrained. Result: went even more like the clappers :)

He's now a successful (but retired) lawyer, and to this day neither he nor I could, erm..., "discuss post modernism or Bismarck's Germany with equal facility". (Although now I think about it, perhaps the "with equal facility" bit is applicable, if it allows for "both incapable") However, at year 12, he was in the State top 10 for history; I the same in math; personal interests, two-way parental regard, and a couple of inspiring teachers.

The trouble with all these anecdote-based articles (and my own ramble) is that they treat what may be outliers as "evidence". Society-level conclusions are inevitably directed by society-level measurements, and that means testing of some sort. Interpretation of tests often completely ignores what might be equally determining factors in the differing results achieved imo - for simple instance, the climate. But it's all good, and keeps a few academics in paid work, I expect.

From the reading of links both here and my own searches, one consistent factor about Finland seems to be the high esteem granted teachers, coupled with the high value placed on education as a national marker. Sticking my neck out: I don't think that is as deeply embedded in Australian society?

ps not a dig at tanners or his children; and I tend to agree with his points.

Neil said...

My latest post may have some relevance: Fly on the wall school doco: Revolution School.

Anonymous said...

As for school being more academically demanding - sorry, but can't resist:


Anonymous said...

I am with 2 tanners on cold day in Hell and Quadrant.

Thomas said...

Just some anecdotes from my side of the desk - largely remarks that I often make (and hear made) around the staffroom:

1. Teacher quality is perhaps the biggest concern for a school that impacts results/outcomes, wherein there seems to be a noticeable downward trend in teacher quality (albeit my observations are much more short-term).

2. Raising the leaving age for school has had a largely negative impact on senior years (years 11 and 12) and, thus, will have a negative impact on whole-cohort results/averages.

3. Social perceptions of vocational pathways is (that is, TAFE and trades are seen as a 'lesser option') are keeping students in school who will find greater success in a different context.

4. Parents (and, in a more 'criminal' sense (as they should know better) politicians) are woefully ill-informed about what the results of things like NAPLAN, the HSC, etc. actually show.


Anonymous said...

Good site.

Jim Belshaw said...

I had missed that post, Neil, because of other pressures. Very interesting indeed. I will bring it up in the main post.

Well, kvd, I do remember some similar tests, but I would have failed that one! Again, will bring it up in the post later today.

Interesting comments, Thomas. I will reply properly later.