Focusing on educational programs, a successful approach from the North

Focusing on educational programs, a successful approach from the North

September 07, 2018

Focusing on educational programs, a successful approach from the North

Finland proves that investing in educational programs brings benefits for the whole country. Today, Italian schools are also ready for new educational programs relating toenvironmental education.

No multiple choice tests, end-of-year exams or mountains of homework. Yet the figures seem to prove the success of Finland's educational guidelines, since students from the Scandinavian country always come out at the top of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) classifications run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to compare the performances of schoolchildren in different countries. This is thanks to the country's decision in the 1960s to invest in  educational programs to fuel economic growth after two world wars and a long history of Soviet influence. 

The BCFN is also aware of the fundamental role of young people and sustainability education, running a large number of completely free projects for pupils and teachers in Italian schools (the project is currently restricted to Italy partly due to the differences between the structures of the various educational systems). The BCFN's educational programs establish an all-important link between food education and environmental education, since they help children to understand the deep-seated connection between food and the environment, health, society and migration. In particular, the program “Us, our food and our planet”provides teaching aids ranging from fairy-tales to materials teachers can use in their lessons, by way of specialist courses on the environment and on sustainability education, all contained on a dedicated website constantly updated with new contents. 

The BCFN's activities are also inspired by projects run in other countries on the teaching of environmental sustainability, a subject which requires a multidisciplinary approach, combining knowledge of earth sciences, chemistry, biology, geography and mathematics. The BCFN combines all this with a completely original form of support relating to food sustainability in school, to highlight the strong connection between these two objectives within a single approach.

More cooperation, less competition

Finland has been the trailblazer in educational programs relating to environmental sustainability. In 2000, the year when the international PISA program was launched, Finnish children were best at reading; in 2003 they came first in mathematics and in 2006 in science. And today, although no longer at the top of the table, Finnish students are still amongst the best in the world and they are always above the OECD average. 

But in the final analysis these rankings do not have that much impact in the Scandinavian country, where competition, so important in more traditional educational systems, has been superseded by cooperation and freedom of expression amongst pupils and teachers. “If you only look at the statistics, you miss out on the human side,” explains Timo Heikkinen, Headmaster of a Helsinki high school. “We prepare children to learn a method for learning, not to pass a test," adds Pasi Sahlberg, Professor of Education Polices, author of many publications and adviser to the Finnish Ministry of Education. “We are not particularly interested in the PISA test results, since this is not what we are aiming for," he underlines. 

The secret of success

The most critical commentators maintain that this educational model is only feasible in a country like Finland, where the population is barely 5.5 million, over 90% of the population are of Finnish descent and there are few really significant social differences. In fact, there are many reasons for the success, as described in the documentary “The Finland Phenomenon”, in which the director Bob Compton follows Tony Wagner of Harvard University in a journey of discovery into the Finnish educational system. 

First of all, equality: the Finnish educational program is based on the determination that no-one must be left behind. All schools have the same objectives and are State-funded, guaranteeing all children the same quality of education, whether they live in the capital or a small rural village. 

A quality school requires well qualified teachers: in Finland, teaching is a highly respected profession, viewed as extremely important, in addition to being well paid. However, aspiring teachers have to work hard to achieve their goal, which also implies a compulsory Master Degree in education. 

Education is personalized: there are no rigid curricula or progress deadlines to be met. Teachers are free to choose what to teach and how to teach it, in accordance with general educational guidelines. So lessons may be held in the forest, where students can discover and learn to respect nature and the ecosystem. 

Doing things at children's pace is essential: children start to attend school at 7 years of age, with the option of preschool courses in the previous years, and they only spend a few hours a day in the classroom. The idea is that children have to be able to play and be free to "be children", and this is another reason why homework loads are quite low. Students are being prepared for life and you cannot rush progress towards such an important goal. 

What is the impact of this educational model on sustainability education? One practical example is that of the Siltamaki Primary School in Helsinki, where pupils and teachers discuss the various problems of diet and environmental sustainability with a problem-solving approach: the problem is identified, possible solutions are discussed on the basis of children's scientific and practical knowledge, and then they go on the Internet to find best practices and the solutions already found by others worldwide to deal with the problem. If the solution can be adopted at the individual level (for example, in the choice of foods to be put on the table to improve food sustainability at school), the class tries it out for itself, and then analyzes its impact some time later. 

This makes learning into sharing, and a tool for finding a solution for improving not only individual students' knowledge but also the state of the Planet.

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