A week or two ago my friend and former colleague David Skidmore posted a link on Facebook to a review that appeared in the New York Review of Books nearly three years back. The book is Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? by Pasi Sahlberg. The review, published in March 2012, is by Diane Ravitch. The description that comes across is of an education system diverging in fundamental ways from the global mainstream, and at the same time consistently recording some of the best results found anywhere in the world.
The key departure made by Finnish policymakers is a rejection of standardized testing and the data-driven competition built on it. In short, the entire new public management philosophy of professional accountability is pushed to one side. In its place is put of philosophy of professional responsibility. In Sahlberg’s words, Finland has spent the past 40 years devising an education system focused on “improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to education professionals”. Instead of working towards standardized tests, students are encouraged “to know, to create, and to sustain natural curiosity”.
Central to the system is committed investment in teacher education, which at a minimum spans five years and can be longer. All teachers must complete a broad-based undergraduate degree in a standard discipline, and then a masters degree in education. Just eight universities are allowed to offer elite teacher education programmes and competition for places is fierce, with only one in ten applicants gaining places. The teachers who emerge from this system are respected professionals invested with responsibility to teach as they see fit. They have wide discretion in framing their classes, and are never assessed on the basis of student scores.
This is, then, an educational nirvana. As Ravitch writes, “the central aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, not the attainment of higher test scores, and the primary strategy of Finnish education is cooperation, not competition”. Will reformers in Myanmar want to learn from these Finnish lessons?