For classroom success, import the Finnish method, says Israeli group

The Israel Center for Educational Innovation compares notes with a Finnish education professor, and laments that the Jewish state gives ‘lip service’ to good education for all

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

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If you’ve got kids in school, you’ve probably come across glowing articles about Finland’s educational system.

With the highest global test scores, an emphasis on cooperative learning, 15-minute outdoor breaks every 45 minutes, lots of music and reading, no formal learning until the age of 7 and shorter school hours, the Finnish experience is something every country wants to emulate, including Israel.

The Israel Center for Educational Innovation, a nonprofit that helps turn around underachieving Israeli elementary schools with high concentrations of students from the Ethiopian immigrant community, last week hosted Finish education expert Professor Marja-Kristiina Lerkkanen from Finland’s Jyväskylä University to learn from her country’s experience.

Upon visiting the Yavne elementary school in Hadera’s Givat Olga neighborhood, which works closely with ICEI, Lerkannen said the class didn’t look very different from what they’re doing in Finland.

That was the good news.

“People said, ‘Yes, but this is only in the schools where the center is doing work and in Finland, you do it in all the schools,’” she said.

Don Futterman from the Israel Center for Educational Innovation (left), with Marja-Kristiina Lerkkanen, teacher Michal Levy, Finnish Ambassador to Israel Anu Saarela, and Finnish Cultural Attache Susanne Milner (Courtesy Ilan Spira)

Finland is known worldwide for educational excellence, said Lerkkanen.

“It’s not easy because politicians might say other things are more important than education but then citizens and parents say they want to keep education as the first thing because of the future of the children,” she said. “For a small country like Finland, it’s extremely important. We have to invest in education at all levels, not just high school and college but starting at kindergarten.”

ICEI, which counted 24 schools and 7,000 students in its network in the last year, is known for serving Ethiopian families, but it won’t leave anyone out and aims to create a level playing field, said Don Futterman, executive director at ICEI.

“Education is the place where kids can rise into the middle class,” said Futterman. “In Finland, that’s seen as a national mission and in Israel, we just pay lip service to that.”

Lerkannen was impressed by ICEI’s work with the Ethiopian students. It also  works closely with the parents, helping them overcome difficulties with Hebrew in order to help their children in school.

“How Israel is educating the parents of immigrant families is amazing,” said Lerkkanen. “We don’t have so many immigrants yet, but in recent years there are more and we’re looking for best practices around the world and what might be the best solutions to help children and families.”

“What really impressed us was how much we have in common,” said Futterman. “Their [the Finns’] language development and instruction is similar to ICEI’s intervention in reading, writing and speaking and listening.”

As part of the ICEI program, it has placed 800 to 1,000 books into each of its classrooms so that students have books at their fingertips.

“Speaking and reading and writing feed each other,” said Futterman. “The average Israeli teacher speaks 75% to 90% of the time, and we try to move away from that. Teachers have to relearn how to teach, but it’s more effective.”

“Why learn to read, if you don’t have anything to read,” added Lerkkanen.

The center was interested in Finland’s reading scores in international OECD surveys, “and the secrets behind that,” said Lerkkanen, laughing.

What the Finnish are doing gets good results, she said, but there’s no one single reason or “magic tricks,” she said. “There are many answers.”

Elementary schools in Finland put a focus on literary development, said Lerkkanen. Students begin their formal learning at seven, a year later than many other countries, with research suggesting they catch up quickly and are then developmentally ready to read.

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The teachers also try to individualize instruction, aiming to help each student progress and expose them to new areas of interest. Teachers do a lot less formal assessment and have more autonomy, said Lerkannen.

“There’s a lot more that’s common than different in the practices of our schools and Israeli schools, but what made Finland succeed is a focus on education in the whole society,” said Lerkannen. “Everyone agreed, on the policy level, in teacher training, in the municipalities and in families, that education is the number one priority in the future of the country.”

The ICEI would like to expand its efforts to more schools, but needs more public and private investment.

Don Futterman and Professor Lerkkanen at the Yavne elementary school (Courtesy Ilan Spira)

“This should be a national objective,” said Futterman. “I think the clock is ticking; Israel has a very high correlation of outcomes on national testing and socioeconomic levels. That means a child in a better-off school is having a better education and then better opportunities in the army and then in the work sector.”

Gila Kroll, the Education Ministry’s director of language instruction and foundations skills for elementary schools, co-hosted an event with Lerkkanen last week She said that Israel needs to head in similar directions to Finland, according to Futterman.

The Education Ministry wouldn’t comment about Lerkkanen’s visit, other than to verify that she met with members of its staff, including Kroll, who works directly with the ICEI.

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