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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 ...

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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