Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Finland's schools flourish in freedom and flexibility

State prescribes the curriculum but leaves teachers alone to decide how to teach the subject

At Meri-Rastila primary school in a suburb of Helsinki, pupils shake the snow off their boots in the corridors, then peel them off and pad into class in socks. After a 45-minute lesson, they're out in the playground again.
The Finnish school day is short and interspersed with bursts of running around, shrieking and sledging outdoors. Children start when they're older, the year they turn seven and there is no pressure on them to do anything academic before then.
The Finnish education system contrasts sharply with England. Every Finnish child gets a free school meal, and a free education, which extends to university level.
There are no league tables, and no school inspections. There is only one set of national exams, when children are about to leave school, aged 18. The government conducts national assessments, sampling the population to keep track of school performance. But these results are not made public.
Meri-Rastila's principal, Ritva Tyyska, said: "I think it's quite good that they don't rank the schools because we have good teachers, we have a curriculum and we have to obey it. In every school we teach about the same things. The methods can be a little bit different, [but you] get the same education.
"We have these tests, in the fifth or sixth forms, that are the same tests at each and every school. We get the results and we see where we stand. But that is not common knowledge. And if it's not good we have to check what are we doing wrong, what we have to improve."
In Finland, the state decides what should be taught, but not how. If they like, teachers can take their children outside for "wood mathematics" – where they go into the nearest patch of forest and learn to add and subtract by counting twigs or stones in the open air.
A typical lesson compresses several disciplines into one; in one class, children who don't speak Finnish as their first language are taught to identify and name the parts of a mouse ("ears", "whiskers", "tail") and then mark on a chalk outline of the country where the animal lives. It's a literacy lesson, but biology and geography as well.