Educate Oklahoma: Finland, Part 2

Tuesday, August 30th 2016, 11:52 am
By: News On 6

Finland is a Nordic country of five million people and an innovator when it comes to education.

Finland's equivalent to a state superintendent is Aulis Pitkala.

"So it's social innovation and also for all our kids in order to have the same opportunity. Learning is a fun thing. Joyful thing. It's an adventure actually," Pitkala said.

Oklahoma School Board Member Bill Price traveled the 5,000 miles with us to learn more about what the Finnish have tried and how it could work back home in Oklahoma.

But there is one similarity that Finland is adopting this year and that is in part because Finland's world ranking has been falling.

Since Finland exploded onto the world stage in 2000 as one of the top education systems in the world, the test scores for Finnish students have been on a steady decline on the international PISA Test, a test taken every three years by 15 year olds all over the world.

Out of about 70 countries Finland ranked either first or second in Math, Reading, and Science in 2000, 2003 and 2006.

But, in 2009 and 2012 Finland fell slightly in every category, ranking as high as fifth in the world in Science and down to as low as 12th in Math. 

To compare, the U.S. has ranked at or below average in every category since 2000. In 2012, the most recently released results, the U.S. ranked 17th in Reading, 20th in Science and 27th in Math.

While Finland still remains the top performing country in Europe, critics argue the golden years in Finland are now over and the top results in 2000 were just a flash in the pan.

"Well, we haven’t been rehearsing for the PISA like they have in Shanghai and Eastern Asia countries so we've been doing our job as we can, so it's not the competition for us," says Pitkala.

Still, Finland has implemented changes.

"We thought that we shouldn't change anything because it's working well. We got to develop the schools and the school system all the time so not thinking, this is it,” says Pitkala.

"The world is changing very rapidly right now so we cannot leave the schools to be isolated from the real world, and children's lives are changing," says Anneli Rautianianen.

As the head of early childhood education, Anneli is now leading the effort to introduce an early childhood curriculum that is more similar to Oklahoma's highly praised early childhood program.

In our state, children can begin a structured plan at birth, but are upgraded to a different plan at 4 years old. Finnish children traditionally have not started school until they were 7 years old. Starting with the 2016-17 school year, Finnish children could start the learning process as early as 9 months old.

Rautianiainen says, “Learning through play is one of the key issues in the coming curriculum and it seems to be very exciting to build a learning path from the very beginning. Growing as a human being and as a citizen, that's the main goal. Growing as a human being. Of course, we still have the subjects there but transversal skills are embedded in each course, so we need to make sure each student has this 21st century skills."

As a socialist country, every family is entitled to daycare and around 97 percent of parents take advantage of the opportunity. That's where this new curriculum will be carried out. 

Then at age 7, the maze begins. In Finland, students from age 7 to 16 are all on the same site. But they don't consider it elementary, junior high or freshman year. Instead, it is all under the same name -  comprehensive school.

With hardly any private schools in Finland, each and every comprehensive school is made up of students in its neighborhood and is controlled by the neighborhood. A board made up of parents, teachers and students. They make decisions about how to spend money from the national board and how to layout the school's schedule.

To help students mature there is constant interaction between students. Group tasks are encouraged and initiated by arraigning desks in groups of three or four. Students from different grade levels will even work together.

For example, first and second graders will spend about two hours a day together in class. Even at recess, older students will wear yellow bands to not just monitor, but also to teach younger students structured play and help keep them active.

The national board requires at least one hour of recess a day. The school's board decides how it is broken up.

And they're led by teachers like Petteri Elo.

"If you are very content oriented it probably means you forget the skills and they don't get the deserved attention. But, if you're skilled orientated and wisely use the content practicing these skills then you likely get both, and my question is which one is more valuable?" says Elo. "If you should have to start talking about chemistry things or something you're not so passionate about or if you learn skills such as very good power point slides or critical thinking or in comparison how you use that in your everyday life?"

Petteri has spent time in America consulting with school districts in a handful of states, most recently Virginia. What become obvious to him, he says, is that American education is based on content and testing. It is much different than the broad Finnish curriculum that encourage students to decide what's next.

"In 6th grade you have speech. Practice that. After that we go crazy. We wildly plan what kind of things we could do. We ask them and that's how we plan a project. Whereas, what I saw in Virginia, I saw it's more detailed in the curriculum that these things need to be done. You have very little freedom to go nuts and go crazy which is the best thing in Finland,” says Elo.