While each year brings new droves of students into the infamous world of high-stress standardized testing in the United States, there is one country which values quality individualized programming over early standardized indicators. Finland consistently produces top educational outcomes by doing things quite differently.

First and foremost, students in Finland have no standardized testing. Their only aligned assessment is given toward the end of high school as an elective option as students are evaluating their post-secondary pathways. They instead are graded based on an individualized system set by their teacher. Tracking is measured periodically by sample of student work analyzed by the Ministry of Education.

Furthermore, while teachers are given much broader authority than teachers in the U.S., they also undergo one of higher education’s most rigorous vetting processes to become educators. After being selected, aspiring educators must complete a Master’s degree program before being considered to teach. Furthermore, the accountability for the teacher’s quality performance rests almost exclusively with the principal or head of school who must support and monitor teaching protocols for their connection to students and their overall ability to enhance student learning.

A frequently cited line from a writer named Samuli Paronen states that: “Real winners do not compete.” Ironically, this consistent approach has allowed them to lead the international race. Finland’s educational system also avoids arbitrary merit-based systems. Since there are no lists of top performing schools or teachers, the environment is not one of competition – instead, cooperation is the focus.

Also a stark contrast to what many consider traditional educational practices is Finland’s focus on returning to basics where education is considered to be a critical strategy to help balance social inequalities, providing all students with free meals, quality healthcare, psychological support and individual guidance. Combined with a later starting age of 7 versus 5 in the U.S., students in Finnish schools arrive more mature and better equipped to begin the process of learning.

Furthermore, addressing student’s best learning opportunities, Finnish students typically begin school after 9 a.m., crediting best opportunities to students’ health and development, ending by around 2 p.m. They focus on longer periods of instruction and extended breaks in between, providing an environment of holistic learning. Maintaining a line of consistency, the teachers in Finland often keep the same class for multiple years, avoiding the need to reacquaint themselves with new students each year and allowing a true bond of trust and respect to be established.

Ironically, in this setting which owes much to setting a healthy social-emotional tone for learning, there is little need for extended homework. In fact, students in Finland are given less outside work than any other students in the world attesting to the quality of instruction and learning established during their traditional school days.

Learning for the betterment of society as a whole, schools in Finland have set the bar for establishing that low-stress, student-centric learning environments can outperform the high-stress, high-stakes standardized testing environments that have become the norm in the United States.

Perhaps it’s time that the United States educational system learns a lesson from Finland and begins to switch the focus from standardized performance to enhancing student learning, for the benefit of society as a whole, one child at a time. Additional information on Finland’s education system can be found at www.bigthink.com authored by Mike Colagrossi.

Angela Farmer is an assistant professor of educational leadership for Mississippi State University, a certified Myers-Briggs trainer and a former P-12 educational leader. Readers can contact Farmer at asfarmer@colled.msstate.edu.

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