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By age 14, Finnish children have spent 5,500 hours in class, 2,000 hours less than in Canada. The result: better grades, less anxiety. (Heikki Saukkomaa/Associated Press)
By age 14, Finnish children have spent 5,500 hours in class, 2,000 hours less than in Canada. The result: better grades, less anxiety. (Heikki Saukkomaa/Associated Press)

Why my children were lucky to get accepted to a Finnish school in Qatar Add to ...

I had set my alarm for 2 a.m. the night before and awoke in utter panic. I mentally rechecked the time difference between Toronto and Doha, fumbled for the phone and made the call on which my children’s educational future depended.

“Is this Juha? Juha Repo?” I asked the Finnish man who answered.

“Yes, this is Principal Juha.”

I launched into the same speech I’d given a dozen others before him: My family is moving to Doha. I am seeking school placement for our daughters. Yes, I realize it is late to enroll. I know, your school probably has a wait list, and my daughters don’t have a hope in hell of getting in. But my children are bright (!) creative (!) gifted even (at least I thought so).

I was one breath short of nominating them for a Nobel Peace Prize when he interrupted: “Actually, you’re one of the first parents to call. We’d be delighted to meet with your girls,” he said.

Two weeks later, my children and I boarded a plane for Doha on a quest to secure them a Nordic education in the Qatari desert.

My daughters have spent most of their lives happily ensconced in Toronto’s west end, a neighbourhood filled with farmers markets and some of the best public schools in the city. But when my husband was offered a job in Doha in Qatar – a tiny Persian Gulf country roughly twice the geographic size of Prince Edward Island – their educational trajectories veered off course.

On one level, this was devastating. Our children – Annie, 7, and Jane, 5 – loved their schools and thrived there. On another level, we were thrilled at our upcoming move to Doha and the opportunity to expose our children to life abroad.

The emirate is a land of superlatives. It sits atop some of the world’s largest gas reserves, has the world’s fastest growing economy and the world’s highest per-capita income.

In the past decade, it has channelled some of its staggering wealth into realizing its outsized ambitions: the World Cup in 2022; a sprawling new airport terminal; a state-of-the-art transit system.

Admissions problems

When it comes to education, Qatar really goes to extremes. Education City, a 14-square-kilometre complex on the outskirts of Doha, wants to be the Ivy League of the region. Cornell, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon University and Georgetown University have all opened satellite campuses there. Doha’s drive to become the Middle East’s hub for education has filtered all the way to the primary-school level.

In theory, we would have our pick of prestigious international schools for our daughters. But as our departure date drew closer, I realized with gnawing horror that we weren’t the only expats seeking school placements. Five hundred new people move to Qatar every day, often with children in tow. Virtually every school I called to inquire about admissions was either full or oversubscribed. Even the Canadian School firmly – but politely – turned us down.

The most sought-after schools were British and American. They also had the most punishing admissions process. One asked for my daughter’s class rank. “She’s in junior kindergarten. She doesn’t have a rank,” I explained in vain. Virtually all of the schools demanded proof of our children‘s academic prowess. They emphasized behavioural discipline, competition and measured learning outcomes.

“Tell them your children are prodigies at math, or that they’ve memorized the periodic table or something,” one mother advised. The insanity of it all was off-putting, to say the least. Jane’s most recent report card stated: “Her understanding of the physical world is an engaging mixture of science, magic and personification.” In most of these schools, I worried her spirit would be suffocated. But the truth was our school options were quickly disappearing.

Then a friend sent me a link to a story from the Doha News announcing a brand new school: The Qatar-Finland International School would admit students five to seven years old. It promised a more progressive approach to education than the British and American systems, modelled on Finnish child-centric education principles.

I had stumbled upon the perfect solution to our current mess. I had studied Finland’s education system while serving on the editorial board of this paper. It was one of the best in the world. The Finnish system wasn’t just instructive for my children – but for Canada at large, as various provinces struggle with educational reform. Sisu, a Finnish word that means determination, bravery and resilience, is said to capture the Finnish spirit. I had to get my daughters admitted into this school.

A new system

Why Finland? The county has consistently performed among the top countries on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test that measures the educational outcomes of 15-year-olds in 65 countries around the world. What makes Finland especially interesting is that it wasn’t always at the top of the class. Modern Finnish education was built relatively recently – in the last 30 years – with stunning results.

It was done so with the belief that all children, regardless of their social circumstances or innate intelligence, are capable of achieving academic success. Today, Finland has one of the narrowest achievement gaps in the world. Academic success appears to have lifted all sorts of other economic and quality-of-life indicators. According to the OECD, “Finland is one of the world’s leaders in the academic performance of its secondary-school students, a position it has held for the past decade. This top performance is also remarkably consistent across schools. Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background, socioeconomic status or ability.”

Finland has accomplished all of this by moving in the exact opposite direction of most other countries undergoing educational reform. Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author, has chronicled Finland’s rise to educational powerhouse in his book Finnish Lessons. He argues that when most countries experience declining educational outcomes, the tendency among policy-makers is to crack down. They increase standardized teaching and testing. Students are subjected to more school, given more instruction in the core subjects of reading, writing and math. Ministries of education draft stricter curricula. Schools are compared to each other, with the hope that greater competition will trigger better results. Schools, teachers and students that persistently lag behind are punished – closed down, fired, failed or expelled.

Finnish education rejects all of these notions. “This little Nordic country of barely 5.5 million people has illuminated a different path to educational and economic goals than those being forged by the Anglo-American groups of nations,” Mr. Sahlberg writes. My family was about to walk it.

Bracing for the worst

When we arrived in Doha, I frankly didn’t know what to expect from the Finnish admissions team. I was braced for the worst. We did math drills on the car ride over. We practised the pronunciation of “Helsinki”.

We were met by a striking woman in square-framed glasses whose last name I could not pronounce to save my life. Tiina Raatikainen, a lead education expert with the school, spent about 45 minutes with each of our daughters. The assessments seemed bizarre. The girls weren’t really given any desk work. Instead, they were asked to throw a ball back and forth 10 times, use scissors to cut a circle, draw a picture of themselves and walk on a straight line – something that incongruously reminded me of a drunk-driving test.

Ms. Raatikainen took incredibly detailed notes, which she shared with us afterward. She seemed just as intent on our reaction to her evaluation as the evaluation itself. Later, she explained many parents were as confounded as we were by the tests.

“To be honest, we are not interested in a child’s academic skills at all. From our perspective that would be silly,” she said. The motor skills tests, by contrast, “show us a lot and help us diagnose any learning disabilities,” she explained. If a learning deficit was detected, it didn’t count against the child or banish her to a different classroom.

In Finland, children with learning disabilities are generally placed in regular classes but receive extra support from “learning assistants” if needed. The student may also be given an individual learning plan with adjusted learning goals.

Annie and Jane’s evaluation, it turned out, had nothing to do with being accepted or rejected to the school. Finnish education philosophy accepts all sorts. Assessments are only used by Finnish teachers to get a sense of how they might best be supported to thrive. In Finland, students aren’t subjected to standardized tests, nor is it possible to fail a grade.

Finland abandonment of standardized testing is one of the biggest factors that sets it apart from other systems. Another is its teacher training. In Finland, teaching is a highly prestigious profession, equivalent to medicine or law. All teachers, regardless of what grade they instruct, must hold at least a Master’s Degree. For every hundred people that apply to teacher’s college, only six are accepted at one of eight Finnish universities.

Mr. Repo tells me he only managed to gain admission on his second attempt. “Becoming a teacher in Finland really means something,” he said. “In Finland, we believe we have to have highly educated teachers because we have to trust them to do good work.”

Finnish teachers are paid roughly the same amount as Canadian ones, earning more based on their years of experience. Professional burnout – something that seems to be epidemic among the teachers I know – simply isn’t a factor in Finland. Both Mr. Repo and Ms. Raatikainen credit this to the fact that teachers are given more freedom to exercise their professional training and more autonomy. They can be creative with how they teach without fear of reprisal, or being second-guessed by the principal or administrator.

Less is more

The final paradox of Finnish education only dawned on me when I received the girls’ school calendars. At first, it looked a little thin. School began at 7:30 every morning and ended at 1 p.m. No lesson appeared to last longer than 45 minutes, after which 15 minutes was given for a break. The Finns appeared to have several names for this down time. Besides “break” there was “lunch,” “long break,” “breakies,” “mini break,” “extracurricular activities” and (my personal favourite) “Golden time.”

The theory is that children learn just as much during unstructured play as they do inside a formal classroom setting – arguably more. The Finnish system flies in the face of the logic that poor student performance can be somehow cured by increasing class time. In Finland, students don’t begin school until the age of 7. The school days are shorter and students are almost never given homework.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a typical Finnish student, by the time he or she has reached the age of 14, will have spent 5,500 hours in the classroom. A Canadian student of the same age has spent 7,500. Several OECD studies show Finnish students experience far less anxiety than their peers in other countries. They also do better at school.

When we flew back to Canada to pack up, I reflected on the differences between our approach to education and the Finnish model. Canada’s provincial education systems aren’t broken, but they could be improved. The most recent Program for International Student Assessment survey showed several provinces were slipping in academic performance, particularly in math. Much of the debate that ensued emphasized stricter curricula and more accountability through yet more testing.

Finland shows there is another way. In the end, Annie and Jane were both offered admission to the school. Their offer letter issued by the Qatar-Finland International School required my husband and I to sign our names. It also required the children’s signature – which struck me as odd but was ultimately symbolic.

In Finland, children are neither coddled nor condescended to. They are expected to take an active role in their learning. When our daughters signed their names, it symbolized they were expected to take personal responsibility for their own education. I wish them all the sisu in the world.

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