James Walsh

Education reform: Should we follow the Finnish first?

Approx Reading Time-12The Australian education is in dire need of an overhaul. We look to Japan and Finland for inspiration in hopes to achieve similar success.

 


In any discussion about education, it never takes long before Finland creeps into the convocation. Western societies, namely us, are always found to be lacking, with Finland often being longingly looked upon with envy from both educators and students alike.

Comparatively we’re good, but we’re not great.

We have to ask ourselves as a society “why aren’t we?”.

Many would say we have to burn down the system and start again from scratch. I don’t believe this to be true. It is not a case of creating a carbon copy of Finland’s education system and then applying it to Australian society, however, given the keys to the kingdom, this is how I would adapt our primary and secondary education systems to better serve our students for their future.

One of the biggest philosophies that underpins the Finnish education system is that “less is more.” Finland has a significantly shorter school day with more breaks and limited to no homework. This potentially is the hardest aspect to incorporate into our education system. In so many ways our education system is not solely geared towards education but is intertwined with the economy. Changing school hours has more to do with parents than it does with students. If you can send your child to school for longer hours during the day, then you are then free to work longer hours to earn more money to pay more taxes. It may be that Finland’s socialist foundations help in this respect in contrast to our own capitalist, profit-driven motivations.

In Finland, the actual learning component of the day is relatively small. Roughly half the day is dedicated to the standard classroom practices we are familiar with in Australia. That means English, mathematics, science, language skills etc, are all done before lunch. But wait, it continues, because Finland believes that in every hour there should be a 15-minute break. Every Australian surely can get behind more breaks throughout the day. Imagine in your workplace if you were allowed multiple refreshing breaks throughout the day. If you as an adult start salivating at the prospect of less work and more free time, imagine how much more beneficial it would be for a child.

The month of the year a child is born can dramatically dictate success. There could be 10 months of brain development between two children, yet we judge and grade them the same. We all know children are as diverse as they are individual.

The hours spent at school are shorter, the time in the classroom has been reduced and the amount of homework expected from a student is barely existent. The Finnish do not believe your child needs to have pages of homework to arduously occupy them once they have returned home from their day at school. I’m sure any parents reading this have had the battle with their child to get them to do their homework of an afternoon; Finnish students in secondary school report to only having 10 minutes of homework a day.

Simply amazing. I myself am in two minds about this. On one hand, no homework means more time for a child to explore the world around them through play and also more time can be spent with family and friends. Who could argue with that? Don’t we want our children to be fully realised individuals instead of overly stressed work machines? I think we can all agree that the answer would be yes. The problem I see with modern children is their dependence on technology to entertain them during the times not spent at school.

On the other hand, homework does have beneficial aspects that can help students retain information and improve their learning practices. I think the major problem is the type of homework set. I believe there should be an element of self-directed learning on the part of the child. For example homework could simply be for students to read a book, listen to some music and reflect on how it makes them feel, run around the block, build something out of wood or even cook dinner for their family.

What is needed here is for parents to allow their children the opportunity to grow. Yes, it is easier for parents to cook dinner every night and children might make a giant mess that parents will have to clean up afterward, but in cooking dinner they are using the math and English skills they have learnt at school in real world situations. There is too much of a disconnect between information learnt from school and the application it may have to life.

Finland also shares a major educational practise with another global education leader, Japan. These two countries share the top positions in education.

Both countries don’t start formal primary education for their children until the child is around 7 years of age. Some Australian children start primary education as young as 4 years old. Even with an extra 2-3 years of education, our students do not achieve the same academic results as those countries. Brain development is such a crucial aspect of education, and is so frequently overlooked. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell demonstrates that the month of the year a child is born can dramatically dictate the individual’s success in academics or even athletics. There could be potentially an extra 10 months of brain development between two children, and yet we judge and grade them the same. The arbitrary age divide we have created to group our students is foolish. At what point should a person’s capacity be determined by age? We all know children are as diverse as they are individual.


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One of the biggest things we have to abolish in Australia is our reliance on standardised testing. NAPLAN is one of the most detrimental influences on Australian education. In Finland, there is one standardised test and that is taken at the end of their secondary studies. Tests like NAPLAN don’t enhance the learning environment of school and certainly don’t give you a complete picture of a child’s competence or capacity in life. Memory recall is not the most importance aspect of a person’s knowledge that should continually be tested in a national test. The epitome of education shouldn’t be based on the aptitude of a person’s ability to remember facts and figures, but on how those facts and figures are informing and being applied to that person’s actions and decisions. We’ve lost the importance of teaching towards mastery and are settling for “near enough is good enough”. If you fail a test or an assignment at school, rarely are you allowed a second attempt. Education is made up of stepping-stones. There is a process to effective education. To learn the advanced skills and philosophies you must first learn the basics. You will perpetually struggle with most aspects of academics you if you have difficulties with the basics. Say you struggle with geometry… too bad, welcome to algebra.

We can see that there is nothing too major about the changes we can make to education. It is more about trimming the fat of our education system and redefining what our intent for education within Australia actually is. There isn’t anything that Finland does that we ourselves could not. It wouldn’t by any means be an easy transition; the main thing that would be required of us, though, is effort.

Our literacy rate in Australia is 99%, which seems pretty high. Finland on the other hand has a 100% literacy rate in its country. In that one percent lies the issue of difference. That means out of 100 people in Australia, 1 cannot read or write. Out of 24 million that equals 240,000. Finland may have 5.5 million people, but that is 5.5 million of their population that is literate. We know what works.

We have the evidence for the most effective practices worldwide.

We just have to apply those practices.

I don’t believe our education system should be judged as “near enough is good enough”.

James Walsh

James has completed a Bachelor of Music, Masters of Secondary Education and is close to completing a Bachelor of Behavioral Studies. A student of life who thinks everything is interesting and is always looking to learn something new.

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  • John Kelmar

    Finland presents a very interesting comparison with Australia, and shows how far behind the Australian system is compared to the best in the world.
    As a Visiting Professor at Lappeenranta University (Finland) in 1992-3 I was pleasantly surprised that the students undertook their studies in 8 different languages – Finnish, Swedish, Russian, German, French, and English, with the option of Japanese and Spanish. My classes were in English, thus my Finnish knowledge had little opportunity to expand.
    Finland is a very innovative country and encourages the people to explore opportunities with a “Can Do” attitude, unlike Australia where bosses stymie and suggestion of “deviation from the norm”. This attitude is more prevalent in the Public Sector, including Australian Universities where senior staff are afraid their treasured position could be challenged by an innovative Research Student.

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