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U.S. educators seek lessons from Scandinavia

High-scoring nations on an international exam say success stems from autonomy, project-based learning

U.S. educators seek lessons from Scandinavia

A delegation led by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) recently toured Scandinavia in search of answers for how students in that region of the world were able to score so high on a recent international test of math and science skills. They found that educators in Finland, Sweden, and Denmark all cited autonomy, project-based learning, and nationwide broadband internet access as keys to their success.

What the CoSN delegation didn’t find in those nations were competitive grading, standardized testing, and top-down accountability—all staples of the American education system.

As CoSN officials explained during a webcast held Feb. 27, the delegation traveled to Helsinki, Stockholm, and Copenhagen to talk with the ministries of education in each country and exchange ideas with local business and school leaders.

The group’s goal was to learn how these countries are approaching education, reaching students, involving teachers, and implementing policy. Specifically, CoSN wanted to see how strategic investment in information and communications technology (ICT) was affecting education in the region.

As in the United States, most Scandinavian classrooms are connected to the internet, students and teachers have access to computers, and there is an ample supply of online learning resources and virtual-schooling programs. However, according to Keith Krueger, CoSN’s chief executive, ICT in that area of the world “is supportive of programs, rather than a driving force, and is viewed as important primarily to ensure students’ success in their future careers.”

Kati Tuurala, Microsoft’s education manager in Finland—whose students scored the highest in both math and science on the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)—said there is a “huge change in the knowledge economy because of the global market. In order to ensure future success, we need to know how to go from good to great.”

She credits Finland’s success to its major reforms of the 1970s, which included an emphasis on primary education for everyone in the country. “That’s the reason for our present-day success,” Tuurala said.

In all three countries, students start formal schooling at age seven after participating in extensive early-childhood and preschool programs focused on self-reflection and social behavior, rather than academic content. By focusing on self-reflection, students learn to become responsible for their own education, delegates said.

Barbara Stein, manager of external partnerships and advocacy for the National Education Association, said Scandinavian countries “encourage philosophical thought at a very young age. … Grading doesn’t happen until the high-school level, because they believe grading takes the fun out of learning. They want to inspire continuous learning.”

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