Finland: A New Model of Education

In Nelson and Dawson’s article titled “Competition, education and assessment: connecting history with recent scholarship”, it is argued that in order to restore “integrity of learning…we must abandon the assumption that education is about sorting people with discriminatory marks that necessarily sets them up in competition with one another”. Essentially, Nelson and Dawson argue that in the current model of competition, which is prevalent in the majority of education systems across the world, the incentive for a student’s learning comes primarily from extrinsic factors. Nelson and Dawson believe that a student’s motivation for learning should primarily come intrinsically, potentially through a “moderated form of competition that allows for wonder, for an enthusiasm grown from within the learning and its intrinsically beautiful subject matter”.

There is precedent for a system of education that encourages learning for the sake of learning and attempts to keep assessments (a form of competition) to a minimum. Finland, a small country with a population of less than 6 million, has created a system of education that goes against the assessment based model that much of the world uses. Evaluating Finland’s education system and its effects on Finnish youth can potentially provide a meaningful contrast to the pervasive methods of educating youth across the world.

Before evaluating the Finnish education system, it is important to consider the philosophy of the majority of education systems. As Nelson and Dawson put it, in modern day education “students compete with one another for the highest marks (Sadler 2005), for limited educational resources (Bound and Long 2009; Giesinger 2011), for scarce scholarships and ultimately for a better place in the rat race of a competitive graduate job market (Moen 1999)”. Hutcheon further elaborates on the competitive state of education in society in her article “Rhetoric and Competition”. When referencing the “business model of competition” in universities, Hutcheon states “in this model—a zero-sum game, if ever there was one—the opposition must be destroyed; our profits must be maximized by minimizing the profits of others”. 

Competition in education seems to be a product of our need to distinguish individual students over others; we must know who is ‘best’. This is done through many forms of assessment, the most common being standardized tests, such as the SAT. These assessments are essentially, as Werron would put it, “artificial zero-sum games”. Tiffanyma2018 states in her article that “knowledge itself is abundant — in economics terms, it’s a free good. One students’ increase in knowledge does not come at the expense of another”; by ranking students against each other in these assessments, however, a students knowledge does come at the expense of another’s — the student with the top test average, even if it by a small margin, automatically puts that student above another. This method of education that emphasizes distinction between students clearly implements extrinsic incentives for learning, as students feel compelled to learn in order to achieve higher than other students.

Finland, in a contrast to this method of education, has created an education system that limits comparisons to other students. This is seen through a number of distinctions that can be made between the Finnish system of education and the more prevalent assessment based system of education. The most important contrast to be made is that, according to Smithsonian, “not until sixth grade will kids have the option to sit for a district-wide exam, and then only if the classroom teacher agrees to participate”. Most kids still take the exam out of curiosity, but the results of the test are not publicized. Furthermore, “there are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school”. In Finland’s system, students are ranked extremely minimally, if at all.

Another important distinction in Finland is the prioritization of equality; “every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators”, and there are very few private schools. This means that “a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives”. In the end, “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”.

While there is great equality in opportunity in schools, the actual information taught in class can have a great degree of variance, as the curriculum in Finland provides teachers with “guidelines, not prescriptions”. This allows teachers great interpretation and flexibility when teaching students, giving them the ability to make class much more interesting. By contrast, in many assessment based systems, curriculum is more or less set in stone, as in order to rank students properly, they must be taught the same information. This gives teachers far less ability for variance, which can have the effect of making class less interesting.

The final distinction that should be brought up is Finland’s apparent emphasis on a stress free environment. In addition to the lack of assessment discussed earlier, Finland also has minimal homework. Furthermore, young students in Finland begin compulsory school at a much later date than children in most countries. Until the age of 7, Finnish children are not required to attend school. Many children still attend preschool, however, where the emphasis is on play and developing social skills. This emphasis on play continues into elementary school where, according to Business Insider, children get “75 minutes of recess a day…versus an average of 27 minutes in the US”.

All of these distinctions have created an education system that contrasts greatly with the system that we are accustomed to. As a result of the lack of assessment, the prioritization of equality, the teachers’ ability for variance, and the emphasis on a stress free environment, education in Finland allows students to develop the enthusiasm for learning that Nelson and Dawson discusses in their article. This has had great effect on Finland’s performance in education on the world stage. Based on information from the Programme for International Student Assessment, which measures 15-year-old students’ performance on mathematics, science, and reading, Finland ranks near the most rigorous assessment based education systems, such as the systems in South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and China. Finland outperformed many other assessment based systems, including the United States. Of course, these results are not of much concern to Finland, but other countries have begun to take note.

Finland offers a very interesting perspective on what education can be; it seems to fulfil Nelson and Dawson’s ideal of an education that gives students the opportunity to learn for the sake of learning. Of course, Finland’s education system is not perfect — for example, there are still issues of disparities between immigrant populations and native Finns, “as affluent, white Finns choose schools with fewer poor, immigrant populations”. Overall though, the contrasts between Finland and other education systems may hold valuable lessons in education, and should at least be discussed more on the global stage; more research should be done to analyze the effects of Finnish education on Finnish teens.

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