Sep 23 / Simcha

Learning Without Grades or Standardized Tests

Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School. Photo: Stuart Conway, Smithsonian Magazine, Sept. 2011

Finland’s educational system began a process of transformation some 40 years ago that has turned it into one of the most successful in the world.  According to a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine (Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful? by Conway & Hancock), this  became evident in 2000, from the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues.

The PISA results revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide.

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

The reasons are many, and the article is worth reading in its entirety.  For the purposes of this post, I will share some  facts that jumped out and surprised me.

As someone who avoids traveling the competitive road to success, I was first and foremost impressed by the fact that there are no mandated standardized tests in Finland (apart from one exam at the end of senior year in high school), and that there are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions.  “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. “We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.”

The emphasis on equality was also striking: Finland’s schools are publicly funded, and the people in the government agencies who run them are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school (whether in a rural area or in a university town) draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing; this emphasis continues into the early elementary school years.  (I am thinking of the pressure on our American parents to send their toddlers and young children to every imaginable sort of “headstart” program, at the expense of free play time.)  “Play is important at this age,” said Rintola, a teacher of 7- and 8-year-olds.  “We value play.”

Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free. It’s almost unheard of for a child to show up hungry or homeless.  In addition, it cannot hurt that the state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17. Ninety-seven percent of 6-year-olds attend public preschool, where children begin some academics.  And more….

Anybody listening??