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Teacher: Finnish schools let down two-thirds of kids

A provocative new book by teacher Maarit Korhonen calls for urgent action in Finland’s classrooms to stop children being marginalised by what she sees as outdated and uninspiring teaching. The outspoken Korhonen says Finland’s high scores in the PISA international rankings have spread complacency among the educational establishment.

Sam Kingsley

Two out of every three schoolchildren in Finland are being let down by an outdated system and uninspiring teaching.

That is one of the claims made in a provocative new book by primary-school teacher Maarit Korhonen, which challenges the widely-held belief that the Finnish education system is among the best in the world.

In Herää, koulu! (“Wake up, school”), Korhonen argues that Finland’s consistently high performance in international PISA rankings, a test of problem-solving skills among 15-year-olds, has led to complacency among Finland’s educational establishment, and has blinded teachers and decision-makers to the reality of teaching today.

“What we are studying, it’s so old fashioned,” Korhonen says. “We have the same chapters in the science book that I used to have in the '60s. Same subjects in the same order. Nobody changes anything, but something has to change.”

Thrown-away children

After 30 years in the classroom, Korhonen’s central argument is that education is “throwing away” the roughly two-thirds of schoolchildren who are not academically minded, or who do not learn from sitting down and reading a book, or who do not perform well in exams.

As a result, she claims, thousands of pupils are led to believe that they are not good at learning, putting them at risk of becoming marginalised and encountering serious problems later in life.

Korhonen also argues that Finnish schools let down another significant group of learners – those who pick things up faster than average.

“If you don’t learn, there are several places you can go to have help. But if you are talented or gifted, there’s nothing. And I can’t understand how that’s possible,” Korhonen says.

No discussion

Korhonen’s straight-talking attack on Finland’s prized school system will come as a surprise to many who are familiar with the widely perpetuated idea that Finnish education is one of the most progressive and effective in the world, as evidenced by the country’s regular high scores in the international PISA study.

However PISA’s detractors, Korhonen included, claim this one measure of educational success cannot possibly give a full picture. Korhonen insists that PISA does not give any indication of how well schools are inspiring children to fulfill their potential, or to think for themselves. As a result, she does not subscribe to the often-repeated idea that Finnish schools are world leaders.

“I think the only thing we are best at is that the teacher still can keep the classes calm, the classes are mainly quiet when the teacher’s here so the kids are listening and learning,” Korhonen says. “But we don’t teach them to discuss or express their own opinion, we teach them to keep quiet, and we are good at that,” she adds.

Low-cost changes

So what should be done? Korhonen insists that although Finnish teachers have lots of freedom, many are not making use of it. She calls for small, low-cost changes to get children engaged, such as replacing rows of desks with less rigid seating plans, or even sofas, to encourage creativity.

And Korhonen calls on her colleagues to throw away out-of-touch textbooks and instead prepare lessons which are relevant and interesting for the pupils.

At its heart, however, Herää, Koulu! is really calling for a revolution in the curriculum. Korhonen backs a proposal by the best-known ambassador of Finnish education, Pasi Sahlberg, who suggests that half the lessons taught should be core subjects, but the rest can be chosen by the pupils themselves, and should be relevant to the modern world.

“For instance, if I can find 10 kids in my school who want to study Japanese, OK, I’ll have Japanese. I don’t have a Japanese teacher, but I have the internet, so let’s learn Japanese for half a year,” Korhonen says.

Despite sticking a knife into one of Finland’s most sacred of cows, Korhonen says her searing criticism of how primary children are taught has been met with nods of agreement from figures inside the Education Ministry, as well as from many of her frontline colleagues, not to mention parents.

But in an educational establishment which broadly considers itself among the best in the world, Korhonen says she knows that advocating profound change will prove an uphill struggle.

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