Ever since students in Finland emerged as top performers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), many teachers and policymakers in Japan have turned to this Scandinavian country of 5.2 million for insights on how to educate children.

Symposiums and seminars on Finnish education abound. Experts say that Finland’s schools are flooded with requests for tours from abroad. At the Marunouchi head store of Tokyo-based bookseller chain Maruzen, books touting “Finland education methods” have been selling well since the end of 2005, when the first in a series of practical guides to Finnish education was published, says store employee Yoshitaka Kudo.

Started in 2000 and held every three years since, the PISA survey measures 15-year-olds’ abilities in reading, math and science, and is unique in that it tests how students apply the skills and knowledge they learn in school to real-life situations, rather than testing their skills or knowledge per se.

Finland ranked No.1 in the PISA’s 2006 survey in the area of science, followed by Hong Kong and Canada. In the same survey, Japan came in 6th, followed by South Korea’s 11th, the U.K.’s 14th and the United States’ 29th.

What’s so special about Finland? Japanese parliament member Marutei Tsurunen, a naturalized Japanese citizen who was born in Finland, told reporters at a recent lecture in Tokyo that in Finland teachers help children learn on their own, rather than giving or teaching them answers. Finnish kids get virtually no homework, even on weekends, and their summer break is 2 months long, he said. Coupled with such a relaxed style of learning is a sense passed down from parents to children over generations that the Finnish must learn on their own and communicate well with others to survive, given the nation’s weather and a history of being invaded by its neighbor Russia.

Seiji Fukuta, a professor of comparative culture studies at Tsuru University in Yamanashi Prefecture who has written numerous books on Finnish education, pointed out several factors that make the Scandinavian country’s education stand out. First, the purpose of education there is to nurture character and instill a sense of independence among individuals, whereas in Japan, many students study to achieve high scores in exams and thus entrance into high-ranking high schools and universities. Second, Finnish teachers, all of whom must have a masters’ degree in education, enjoy relative freedom on what and how to teach. Third, Finland gives no tests to students until the age of 16, which means they are driven not by competition but their own desire to learn.

“Students’ motivation to learn will not last long if they are studying just to compete,” Fukuta says. “If they are studying just to pass the exams, they forget what they learn the minute the tests are over.” Fukuta expressed skepticism over the recent publication of Japanese-language books claiming to teach “Finnish methods,” saying that they are not authentic. Methods of logical and analytical thinking in such textbooks are not unique to Finland, he said.

What can people learn from the Finnish system? Walt Gardner, a retired public-school teacher from California who occasionally contributes essays on education to the media, says Americans have always believed in pragmatism, whereas Finland “considers education for its value per se.”

“I think the lesson that schools in the United States can learn from Finland is that testing shouldn’t be used punitively but constructively,” he says. “Assessment is an indispensable part of the educational process. But it should be used to help teachers improve their instruction.”

With the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 in the United States, the results of mandatory standardized tests are posted, and “naming and shaming are thought to be the best way to shape up schools,” says Gardner.

There is no sign that Japan as a whole will adopt the Finnish approaches any time soon. In fact, the Education Ministry in February released drafts of a new course of study at elementary and middle schools that should become effective in 2011 and 2012. For the first time in 30 years, schools are increasing the number of class hours and teaching content and reducing the number of hours to teach “integrated study classes” a course in which schools decide what to teach, and which resembles the integrated, experience-based way many Finnish teachers teach such subjects as physics, geography and mathematics.

“Finnish education is future-oriented in that it fosters students’ ability to keep learning,” Fukuta says. “The question is whether we too can nurture a lifelong habit of learning.” (Tomoko Otake)

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