Imagine an education system with no ability streaming. No standardized testing. No high-stakes national assessments. No school inspections and no school ranking. Now add to that high learning outcomes and high quality teachers. These are not just ideal attributes of an imaginary system, but features of an actual education system.
As Professor Hannele Niemi1 described these elements of the education system in Finland at the Redesigning Pedagogy conference in June 2009, the audience sat in rapt attention – partly in disbelief, partly in excitement at the possibilities – as what she was saying sank in.
Could such an educational utopia exist? Is it even conceivable here in Singapore?
Is It Possible?
While many would not argue about the rigour and strength of the Singapore education system in producing academically competent learners, we would also readily admit that there is still room for improvement.
The Finnish education system presents us with a challenging model. It has received attention from all over the world because it came out on top in the PISA surveys2 – Finnish 15-year-olds have been number one in terms of skills in science, mathematics, the reading literacy and problem solving.
Now add to that highly qualified teachers, societal trust in the work of educators, and the highest respect for learning, and you have a dream come true. The difference is that this model has been tried and tested – and proven successful.
How Does It Work?
According to the McKinsey report on the world’s best-performing school systems, there are three things that matter most in top school systems:
- Getting the right people to become teachers
- Developing them into effective instructors, and
- Ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child
(Barber & Mourshed, 2007, Executive Summary)
A closer look at the system reveals that the Finnish system fulfils all the above criteria – and then some.
- Getting the right people
Finland’s teachers are recruited from among the top 10% of each cohort. Quality teachers make for a quality education system.
- Developing effective instructors
All teachers are required to possess a master’s degree, even primary school teachers. They undergo a research-based education which aims to nurture analytical and open-minded individuals. By improving instruction, student learning outcomes are also improved.
- Ensuring the best possible instruction for every child
Finland’s educational policy has purposefully aimed at equity in education. Education is free for everyone, through to the higher education level. There are also no “dead-ends” when it comes to learning – the system provides options for everyone to further their education, with extra support available for the weakest students. By putting such support systems in place, the standard of every student, and thus the whole system, is raised.
In addition, the Finnish education system has several unique features:
- There is no streaming. Believing that it is too early to judge individual capacities at age 11 or 12, streaming was discontinued and a common 9-year education introduced.
- There is no top-down curriculum system. Schools design their own curricula, based on a national core curriculum, and decision making is decentralized.
- There is no high-stakes testing and no school inspectorate. Instead, there is an evaluation system where assessments are sample-based and the results used for formative purposes.
It is important to note that the Finnish system has had a head start of over 30 years. An OECD review team (in 2006) described their education system as a “complex of practices” that has taken a long time to mature.
What’s the Next Step?
The Finnish example gives us much to think about. “Is such a system possible in Singapore?” many would ask. This raises many other questions to ponder:
- Do we need ability streaming, and if so, at what age?
- What alternative modes of assessment can we adopt? Will it work?
- Are our schools ready for decentralized decision making and curriculum design?
- Is our society, especially parents, ready for a system that does not seem to produce measurable outcomes?
- What part does culture play in the success of such an education system?
However, the Finnish education system gives us a tried-and-tested alternative to consider, perhaps even a model to aspire towards. If nothing else, it demonstrates that such a system is possible – and can, indeed, be successful!
- Hannele Niemi is Vice-Rector and Professor of Education at the University of Helsinki, Finland.
- PISA stands for the Programme for International Student Assessment.
Barber, M., & Mourshed, M. (2007, September). How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top. Retrieved from http://mckinseyonsociety.com/downloads/reports/Education/Worlds_School_Systems_Final.pdf
Niemi, H. (2009, June). Why on the top? Reflections on the reasons for the success of the PISA success. Keynote paper presented at the 3rd Redesigning Pedagogy international Conference, Singapore. Retrieved August 24, 2009, from http://conference.nie.edu.sg/2009/info/keynote-speaker.php
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (n.d.). OECD Programme for International Student Assessment. Retrieved August 24, 2009, from http://www.pisa.oecd.org/pages/0,3417,en_32252351_32235731_1_1_1_1_1,00.html