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Should We All Learn the Finnish Way?

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In the world of education, these days Finland is like a rock star. Finnish experts are all over the media, describing the "Finnish education miracle" and suggesting that other countries copy their practices.

Just the other day, for example, Pasi Salsberg (a big education cheese in Finland) was on CBC's "Sunday Edition" with Michael Enright, claiming that Finland is at the top of international rankings and suggesting that other countries follow Finland's example.

There's just one problem with this picture. The trouble is -- Finland didn't do all that well on the recent trends in international Math and Science study.

• In Gr. 4 math, Finland scored the same as Florida -- well ahead of any Canadian provinces to be sure, but still miles behind Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan, as well as a couple of others.
• In G. 8 math, Finland scored in the middle of the pack -- worse than Quebec, for example -- and absolutely skunked by -- wait for it -- Korea, Singapore Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan.
• In Gr. 4 science, Finland did very well, but still trailed Korea and Singapore.
• In Gr. 8 science, Singapore left all the other countries in the dust. As well as being trounced by Singapore, Finland was beaten by Massachusetts, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Minnesota. Alberta did almost as well as Finland.

When it comes to math and science, the Asian tigers (Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan) are head and shoulders above the other countries.

• In Gr. 4 reading, Finland was neck and neck with the leaders -- Hong Kong, Florida, Russia, and Singapore. Japan and Korea did not participate.

No one disputes that Finnish children are very good readers; however, there are a couple of non-educational reasons that may have contributed to their success.

For one thing, Finnish spelling is very regular -- with every sound almost always being represented by its own designated letter. It's as if Finns need to read only sentences like the following:

A BIG CATAMARAN MUST NOT BUMP ITS MAST.

Secondly, most Finnish children watch a lot of Swedish TV, a language they can't understand. Although the programs for very young children are dubbed into Finnish, the programs for older children are sub-titled in Finnish, meaning the children have to be good readers if they are to enjoy their TV shows. Thus they get a lot of extra reading practice.

By way of contrast, English spelling is highly irregular, and most English-speaking children need very skillful teaching if they are to become fluent readers. Try teaching kids to read the following sentence, with its seven difference pronunciations of 'ough'.

I THOUGHT I HICCOUGHED, THOUGH, AS I WENT THROUGH A TOUGH TROUGH in the BOUGH.

Then there's the sound /oo/ (as in "moon"), which can be represented in at least 12 different ways: for example, stew, soon, glue, judo, soup, do, lose, tune, shoe, fruit, neutral, and through. And of course the letter 'y', which can be a vowel or a consonant and represent several different sounds: for example, yes, key, happy, boy, gym, sky, type, day, and they.

The bottom line is: what happens in Canadian Grade 1 classes really matters. But what happens in Finnish Grade 1 classes is far less critical. The success of Finnish kids on reading tests may not have all that much to do with Finnish schools.

All of which begs the question: why is so much fuss being made about the Finnish education system? Why are Canadian educators not interested in learning more about what the Asian tigers are doing?

The answer has got to be that Canadian educators like what is happening in Finland but don't like what is happening in Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

Canadian educators like to point to Finland, which pays its teachers a lot and doesn't have many private schools.

Canadian educators don't like to point to the Asian tigers, which use direct instruction and drill and large classes and sequential curricula.

If Canadian educators were truly interested in high student achievement, they would stop making pilgrimages to Finland and start packing their bags for the countries that are producing far superior results - Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.