Finland's Education Riddle

Finland may represent a different administrative and social culture to Israel, but the operating strategy it has chosen is relevant for Israel as well. Will Israel find the political courage to get rid of traditional centralizing patterns of education, to release the creative and innovative energy that characterizes Israeli society and to grant broad powers to teachers and schools?

Ami Wolansky
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Ami Wolansky

The education world is amazed at the exceptional achievements of the Finnish school system, which leads in international exams. These achievements stand out because this country is dealing with difficulties that characterize many Western countries, such as changes in youth culture and family structure, problems of discipline and violence, parental pressures on schools and a relatively low salary for teachers. A survey recently conducted by the Finnish teachers' association found that 40 percent of teachers are considering retiring from the profession. So what is the secret of Finland's success?

There are two opposite strategies in the world for promoting education. One dictates a uniform curriculum, considers competition among students and educational institutions as a means of improving achievements, uses comparative exams to rank students and institutions and, therefore, labels them as well.

A second, opposite strategy can be found in Finland. Finland abolished the supervision of educational institutions and transferred state and local budgets to schools' authority. The school is responsibility for developing, improving and renewing a compulsory curriculum. Every student has their own personal program for progress, and teachers use exams as a tool for planning students' path to success. Thirty percent of students receive additional help and support.

The concept of choice also takes on new meaning in Finland - not as an idea for motivating competition among educational institutions, but as a tool that enables students to choose among a tremendous variety of fields of interest and study. This is meant to enable development of the sum total of the child's abilities and preferences. Above all, the Finnish education policy has been able to build a culture of total confidence in teachers and principals.

As a result, the best young people in the country turn to teaching. There are 12 teachers applying for every available position, and only those with master's degrees in education are hired. Those who turn to teaching are imbued with a sense of mission and acquire the status of "builders of the nation." This is a society that is dedicated to the education of its children.

In an interview, a student of education explained that family, friends, the country's leaders and the media attach a halo of sanctity to the profession. When I asked how they did away with supervisors, one of the principals asked, "And does the doctor you use have a supervisor?" Regarding the purpose of the exams, Prof. Lea Kuusilehto of the University of Jyvaskyla explained, "We don't believe in standardized tests, which push toward mediocrity." Teaching study skills, critical thinking, judgment and creativity, while nurturing students' various abilities, is the essence of the pedagogical worldview in Finland.

Flexibility is also a key word in running the system. For example, in the secondary school that I visited, where there are 2,500 students, hundreds of students take courses that interest them from other schools in the area. There are no specific class groupings. Instead, students accumulate credits for the purpose of receiving a final certificate. The matriculation certificate is not an exclusive condition for acceptance at an academic institution, and a variety of tools make it possible for students to study higher education even without this certificate.

Although Finland represents a different administrative and social culture, the operating strategy it has chosen is relevant for Israel as well. Will Israel find the political courage to get rid of traditional centralizing patterns of education, to release the creative and innovative energy that characterizes Israeli society and to grant broad powers to teachers and schools?

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