190309 Pasi Sahlberg
Pasi Sahlberg Image Credit: Supplied

DUBAI: Considered a benchmark of educational innovation, Finland’s approach to schooling and sparking young minds has a history that can be traced back to the 1860s when Uno Cygnaeus, who is sometimes referred as the father of basic education in Finland, said that in an ideal classroom, pupils speak more than the teacher. Pasi Salberg, an internationally renowned voice on Finnish education, in an exclusive email interview with Gulf News, said Cygnaeus’ pragmatism has greatly influenced the country’s outlook.

“There is a clear emphasis on progress that is powered by fundamental life skills,” he said. “Learning to do basic daily things needed at home by hand — cooking, preparing household things, and making clothes — remains an important element in Finnish schools. All boys and girls in Finnish schools study home economics, woodwork and handicrafts to develop those practical life skills.”

Sahlberg signposts the way Finland addresses its education:

Development of the ‘whole child’

In Finland, the principle of ‘whole child’ means that school curricula must balance between different subjects and that the success of individual children must always be based on how well they do in various areas of learning, not just in a few subjects.

The question we ask is, “How is Johnny good in school?” rather than “How good is Johnny in school?”

Perhaps the best theoretical model of that whole child view is Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences he created in early 1980s.

It maintains that we all have not just one or two but several different intelligences or ‘ways to be smart’ and that school education should take these different areas of talent equally into account in curriculum and pedagogy.

This is why Finland has been very reluctant to adopt standardised testing in core academic subjects. Finnish schools use more holistic means of student assessment and reporting of schools’ work.

Primary school pupils don’t get any grades in their assessments before the fifth grade

Finnish teachers and parents don’t want children go to school for grades, or to compete for the best grades.

Instead, most Finns understand that especially in early years, learning and personal growth must be based on whole child development and that individual children learn in very different speeds at that age.

Many teachers would say that when students don’t receive grades, they focus more on their own learning.

These are essential skills in so called executive control that is the engine of deep learning.

The 20% principle

School days are typically from about 9am to about 2pm for younger and to 3pm for older students.

There are no school uniforms.

Teachers also dress very informally.

Students always address teachers by first name. Therefore, the atmosphere is relaxed and in many primary schools, almost homelike.

After each 45 minute-lesson, children earn 15 minutes for downtime. This is exactly the same principle that Google introduced some years ago to their knowledge workers — the 20 per cent principle.

Teachers also benefit from these frequent breaks.

(This is an aspect I am most proud of).

Individual child’s needs in a classroom

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky said that what a child can do today, can do that alone tomorrow, and he was right.

Collectivism or cooperation and individualism are not the opposites as people often mistakenly assume.

Much needs to be done to help all schools and teachers make better use of accomplishments in cooperative learning and social psychology to correct the fallacy that collectivism and individual needs are in contradiction to one another.

Grades, competition, cramming. How can schools move beyond?

All parents want the best for their children. They do what the system requires them to do.

Many school systems are run by old-fashioned models of testing how much children remember what teachers have told them, or examining how well students have learnt to take standardised tests.

The problem often is in the system itself.

On the top is the university admission machinery that still relies on examination results and grades.

On the bottom is the accountability model that holds schools to account using test scores from academic subject tests.

In short, schools still operate like 20th century industries with production schedules and assembly lines.

Luckily, there are new models mushrooming here and there that challenge these historical relics of schooling.