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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 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.

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