There is no standardized testing in Finland! As an educator, I came to Finland wanting to understand this and see if it is really true. I have found that it is true but there is a BIG caveat. There is no standardized testing in basic education (compulsory education grades 1-9) and general upper secondary school (grades 10-13), but in grade 13 there is THE TEST. (Upper secondary school is roughly the equivalent of US high school but the students start when they are about 16 and finish when they are about 19. If high school in the U.S. started in 11th grade and went through 13th grade, it would be more like Finnish upper secondary school.)
In the late spring of a student's third and final year of upper secondary school, he or she must sit for matriculation exams. The matriculation examination is a national examination based on the curriculum of the Finnish upper secondary school. Third year students (the Finnish teachers and principals call these students 3rd graders which makes me laugh) finish their school classes in February and have a reading period of 6 -12 weeks to study for the matriculation exams. Each student must pass 4 subject exams to graduate from high school. One exam must be their mother tongue (Finnish or Swedish) language and literature. (Swedish speaking Finns make up 5.6 % or 300,000 people according to information on the website of the Embassy of Finland to the Hague.) Students choose the other exam subjects and how many exams they will take based on their coursework in upper secondary and what they intend to study at University. There are 12 exams subject areas and they are: second national language (Finnish or Swedish); Foreign language: English, German, Russian, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Latin; Mathematics; Sciences and humanities: general studies, such as history, religion, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and philosophy. According to an upper secondary school principal in Jyavaskyla who I spoke to, it is rare for a student to take all 12. He said the average is 6-8.
University admission requirements are different for different subjects and careers but all require matriculation exams. For example, to be a doctor (and begin studies right after upper secondary school) a student would need to plan from the start of upper secondary school to take chemistry, physics, biology and advanced math courses so he or she can score well on the matriculation exams. A student who wants to be a journalist would need to take more language, writing and history classes to score well on those subject exams.
It is important to note that Finland has a "no dead end" education system. Students of all ages, including adults, can attend academic, vocational or applied science institutions to start new careers or tweak existing expertise. If a student is studying art in university and realizes they want to be a doctor, they can find a place to study what they need to and pursue that goal. Higher education is tuition free for Finnish citizens.
One of the most interesting differences that I and my fellow Fulbrighters see in students is a willingness to do the class work and homework even if it won't be graded. We've asked students about this. The response is: "I need to know this so I will do the work to learn it" and "I know I won't pass this class if I don't do the work so I do it and I don't want to do this class again." Ultimately, they want to score well on their matriculation exams so they can move forward with work or schooling. Similar to students in the U.S., Finnish students experience stress around school, the matriculation exams and university acceptance. Teachers, counselors and principals have said that the stress is increasing.
There is another important component to learning and the school/work-career relationship to consider. From what I understand, getting a job in Finland without having any training is not possible. I asked someone about construction workers and they said that a person can not walk up to a construction site and get a job as a laborer. A construction worker must complete a vocational program for building trades before a company will employ them. I think this is similar in other areas of employment that in the U.S. that have low barriers to entry like restaurant work. Really different than the U.S. As a result, students understand that there is no real pathway to a career without completing some form of schooling beyond basic education (grades 1 to 9) so doing the work in school matters.
In the next month, my observations will turn to vocational education and training. I am curious to see student engagement, learning and testing in that setting too.
My university class requires that I teach a short lesson to a craft class and write a lesson plan for it. Since I've been visiting the technical craft class at the Tikkakoski school almost weekly, I decided to lead a problem solving activity called Saving Sam with the classes I visit. Problem solving and creativity activities and experiences have not been stressed in Finnish education in the past but the new national curriculum requires teaches devote more time to them. They are an important part of my art classroom and I do a variety of these types of exercises with my students at home.
Generally, this type of activity requires that students complete a task that involves specific constraints and using materials in non conventional ways. In Saving Sam, Sam is a gummy worm who has been thrown from his boat, a plastic cup, lost his life jacket and oar, a gummy ring and wooden craft stick. Students must rescue Sam. They must right his boat, the plastic cup, put the life jacket on him, put him in the boat and rest the oar across the top of the cup. Doesn't seem so hard but they must do it without touching Sam with their fingers. They have 2 paper clips to to use as tools to Save Sam. They can manipulate the paper clips any way they want but they should not stab Sam in the rescue process.
My experience has been that the activities are fun and students enjoy them. Importantly, with the proper guidance in reflecting on this exercise, students gain a deeper understanding of how the exercise relates to the learning process. When learning new information, skills or processes, there is often frustration, problem solving, collaboration, reflection and hopefully success.
The craft teacher from Tikkakoski emailed me after my visit to tell me that he continued to do the project with his students and Sam had been saved over 100 times that week! When I was there he told me that he thought the U.S. did problem solving and creativity better than the Finns in general. Since Finnish education is held up as the gold standard in the world, I was happy to share something Americans do well and something that is new and innovative to Finnish education.
Lesson Plan below:
The other Fulbright teachers in Jyvaskyla and I talk a lot about the "secret sauce" of Finnish education. When we talk, we ask a lot of questions about Finnish education. Why does Finnish Education work so well for so many? Why do these students, who attend school for fewer hours per week and have less homework than American students, score so well on the PISA tests? Is it funding? Is it how the teachers are trained? Is it because teacher education programs accept only the top students from high school? Is it the social safety net? Is it the autonomy given to children? Why are the kids so calm? Is it the mental and physical cleanse of the weekly sauna? (I'm serious about this.) Why can elementary teachers leave a classroom of students unattended for short periods and students stay on task? Today, I found one of the ingredients of the "secret sauce": The Finnish Constitution.
This information comes from a document that is accessed through a link on Finland's Ministry of Justice website. ( http://oikeusministerio.fi/en/constitution-of-finland)
The document has a disclaimer that says it is an unofficial translation.
Section 6 - Equality
Everyone is equal before the law. No one shall, without an acceptable reason, be treated differently from other persons on the ground of sex, age, origin, language, religion, conviction, opinion, health, disability or other reason that concerns his or her person.
Children shall be treated equally and as individuals and they shall be allowed to influence matters pertaining to themselves to a degree corresponding to their level of development.
Equality of the sexes is promoted in societal activity and working life, especially in the determination of pay and the other terms of employment, as provided in more detail by an Act.
Wow! Read the paragraph about children again. Children are specifically identified as a group with specific rights, protections and self determination. Wow! That explains a lot. All of us in Jyvaskyla have marveled at the varying degrees of autonomy shown by Finnish children depending on their age. Young kids walk to and from school alone and they play in parks without direct adult supervision. Middle and high school students choose the classes they want to take based on their interests and strengths. Technical Craft students are allowed to use power tools and machines with varying degrees of supervision.
As we talk to teachers and counselors, we have learned that the adults in Finland trust students to make decisions for themselves. Students are responsible for making the most of their education. Teachers have told me that if a student wants to spend class time on their phone texting friends or playing video games, it's their choice. The teachers job is to teach the class. The student's job is to be the student. Ultimately, the student will have to live with the consequences of their actions. Finland has a "no dead end" higher educational and vocational system so students can return to school and study another subject or begin a new career.
Importantly, students are trusted to direct and follow an educational path that is meaningful them. There are fewer requirements for graduating from upper secondary so students have more flexibility in pursuing subjects they are interested in. The secret sauce isn't sitting on top of the educational sundae, it's an ingredient in the ice cream.
I am a high school art teacher from Boulder Valley School District in Colorado studying craft education in Jyvaskyla, Finland. I am in Finland through a grant from the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching program and the Fulbright Finland Foundation.