July 6, 2020

Teaching: A World View

Finnish Line: Teaching in Finland

Mike Vogel | 5/28/2019

Another factor: Autonomy. Finland says it must have the best teachers because it pushes control down to the school and individual teacher level. There is a national curriculum but local decision-making. “We are very free to do what we do, how we do,” says Tiina Karjalainen, an upper secondary teacher and vice head of her school. “The freedom of the individual teacher is rather high in Finland.”

Teacher accountability — except to their individual selves — seems an alien concept. Finland abolished school inspections in the 1990s, and teacher pay isn’t tied to student performance. Reflecting Finland’s belief in finding the right people to teach in the first place, the top method of evaluating teachers, according to a government publication, is self-evaluation.

The country and its teachers have challenges. Karjalainen, who teaches in Kuopio in a lake-covered region of eastern Finland, says schools need more classroom assistants and special-needs teachers — principals agreed in a recent survey. She and other teachers complain about class sizes.

“It’s not so glorious anymore,” says Karjalainen, who is president of the 150-member teachers union council, a union legislative body. “In Finland, the profession is appreciated, but it’s coming down because the profession is getting harder all the time,” she says. Children with learning issues, demands for reporting and documentation, and international cooperation efforts with teachers and schools in other nations all take more and more time. “We all feel too much is required,” Karjalainen says.

According to national reports, achievement by boys and immigrants lags. The country scores low in mentoring among teachers and also in professional development, even though teachers must have three days a year of continuing education. The Ministry of Education and Culture worries that competence acquired at the beginning of a teaching career isn’t being updated and isn’t flexible over time. While still strong, Finland’s performance on the benchmark international standards test — the Programme for International Student Assessment — has declined.

But both Lehtinen — excited by team-teaching with a colleague — and her third-graders are optimistic. “Today’s students are so eager to learn and also have the capacity for it,” she says. “They are more open-minded and confident to do different tasks.”

Education in Finland

The national government provides funding, direction and information but leaves implementation and spending decisions to local governments. There’s a national curriculum, but teachers have the freedom to choose their own methods and materials to follow it. Because it gives teachers so much autonomy, Finland requires teachers to have at least a master’s. Principals hire teachers. Class size is up to locals. There are no national assessments (tests) in primary education. Teachers are supposed to give students daily feedback and inculcate self-assessment in pupils. There is a national graduation exam for upper secondary students.

 

Read more in the June issue.

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