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Should Canada take lessons from Finland's approach to education?

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Can Finland share a few bright ideas about educational reform with Canada? (iStock)

Finland has quietly built the world's most successful public education system.

Finnish students have been consistently at the top of international surveys, tests and rankings over the past decade, a status earned by going completely against the grain of conventional thinking on how to improve education.

Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, one of Finland's foremost thinkers on educational reform, shared the secrets of Finland's success in an interview with CBC Sunday Edition host Michael Enright.

Sahlberg, a vocal critic of standardized education, is presently touring Alberta and Saskatchewan to explain ideas that many North Americans might considered controversial, even radical.

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Underpinning the Finnish approach to education is the notion that school should be a place of self-discovery and personal development.

Instead of creating a hierarchy of subjects -- with math, science and literacy at the top -- Sahlberg says schools should be helping children find their natural interests or abilities.

Here are a few other Finnish approaches that may surprise Canadians:

  • All educators, even those who aim to teach the youngest students, must themselves be highly educated. There are no fast-tracks into teaching, and every teacher must obtain at least a master's degree. Sahlberg notes that teachers go through a system as rigorous as those training lawyers and doctors.
  • Standardized testing isn't a part of a child's early educational experience. Their work is largely evaluated through samples of their work. Students don't undergo formal testing until their teen years.
  • Although there are preschools, children do not enter a formal classroom setting until they are seven years old. In children's earliest years, the emphasis is on informal play and on encouraging a child's imagination.
  • Schools are "fear free" places, where homework and standardized testing are not seen as pillars of education.
  • All schools in Finland are publicly funded. There are no charter schools or private schools in the country.

How are you smart?

Although Finland is a leader in implementing such ideas, there are institutions and thinkers pushing for similar approaches in North America.

California-based creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, for instance, also argues that too many school systems privilege standardization and conformity over customization and diversity.

Robinson, who was knighted in the U.K. for his contribution to re-imagining education, argues that educators should not be asking "how smart are you?" but "how are you smart?" -- adding that the current system of education was designed and conceived for a different age.

"The problem is [governments around the world] are trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past, and on the way they're alienating millions of kids," he said.

What do you make of the ideas presented by education reformers like Sahlberg and Robinson? Should Canadian provinces be radically rethinking the way they educate students?

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