Let's Think in Finland

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As a Let’s Think tutor I visited Finland in spring at the invitation of teacher educators at Turku University. They are very interested in the Let’s Think approach and I was interested in what sets Finland apart as a high performing education system with a narrow range of attainment.

There are of course many differences between Finland and the UK.  Finland is a lot colder in late March than the UK. Helsinki was -20 whilst London was +8 Celsius.  Finland has a small population in a larger country: 17 people per square km. The UK has a larger population in a smaller country: 259 people per square km. There are a lot more trees in Finland and the Finns love to eat food gathered from the woods.  You are more likely to find a sauna in a Finnish home!

Because education systems are not isolated from the climate and cultures we might expect differences and some of the differences do seem to arise from the geographical, political and social history of Finland rather than any educational principles.  For example a difference that seems to affect the psyche of people in Finland is the extent to which there was and is land ownership.  Finland has a population used to land ownership and it is widely distributed. As one Finn put it, ‘We all had a small farm, a lake and forest’.  This wide distribution of land wealth meant that Finland didn’t move from a feudal social system to an industrial one in the way that the UK did.  Another evident difference in the Finnish approach to life was explained to me as being based on the experience of Finland after gaining independence from Sweden and the subsequent resistance to the Russian and German invasions of the 20th Century.  There is a fierce independence and resilience in extreme conditions that permeates people’s choices. People are pragmatic rather than political. The social contract with Government is that it takes taxes to solve problems that affect the population and these problems are best solved by collaborative action and agreement.

What stood out for me as a different about education in Finland from such a brief visit was:

  • There’s an emphasis on early play, cooperation and the values and skills needed to live a rounded life.
  • Inclusive and comprehensive with additional support as part of mainstream schooling for children with educational needs.
  • It’s a permeable system where progress to higher tiers in education remains available to all. Support and counseling for students throughout education aiming to help before problems arise.
  • There are no tuition fees for basic or higher education.
  • Free school meals throughout education.
  • No testing but professional assessment and student self assessment.
  • No inspection system but lots of guidance, support and additional funding.
  • Highly educated teachers given professional autonomy over pedagogy, curriculum and assessment.
  • Local authority maintenance of schools.
  • A broad base of schools, universities, teaching unions, local authorities and the central education department that support the vision for education and develop reforms collaboratively.
  • All provided at a similar cost to the UK!

Apart from feeling I had found my happy educational place I found that we also had something to share via Let’s Think.

The feedback given after CPD based on some Let’s Think science and maths activities and the pedagogical principles that underpin our approach convinced me that teachers colleagues in Finland are striving for the collaborative and challenging educational environments that Let’s Think creates. They also want  to access the rich and engaging activities in the various schemes that have been produced for primary and secondary age children.

They feel that their students are lacking the opportunities to develop their own strategies for problem solving within the curriculum and can avoid challenges. The children’s reluctance to work together on problems within the curriculum was also an issue for them. They also wanted to know how to shift the emphasis form teacher input to pupil ownership. Does that sound familiar?

Fortunately we have a chance to visit Finland again as Turku University is one of our strategic partners within the ACTS project led by the University of Lincoln. Another partner is  the Thinking Approach Group of Latvia .

This 3 year project has begun to develop An Assessment Companion for Thinking Skills which aims to help teachers become more clear when children are thinking, the opportunities for developing thinking and the progress made by pupils as their thinking develops.

We are at an early stage of understanding each partner’s perspective on thinking and there will be more to write about this later but already our differences and similarities are the origin of some challenging collaborative work. More evidence, if any were needed, that a mixed group in Let’s Think is most likely to be profitable for thinking.