Just behind the developed Asian economies of Singapore, South Korea, and the Chinese metropolises of Hong Kong and Shanghai in terms of the OECD’s 2012 PISA assessment scores, the persistent success of Europe’s model of education has been marvelled the world over. With its emphasis on problem solving and catering to the needs of every child, many pedagogues and teachers have visited multiple European schools to seek answers in its highly rated education system. For instance, while teaching in Southern California, Janet English travelled to Finland in 2013 under the US “Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching” programme to discover what made their education both different as well as successful and gives a valuable insight in her book, “The Finnish Way” to Optimize Student Learning.
An Innovative Approach to Problem Solving – Educational Success
Europe’s approach to allowing young students to think about a solution to a problem rather than being provided the answers can be explained with the example of handicraft classes for nine- and ten-year-olds; and this is not your typical, safe, “let-us-play-with-crayons” kind of class but includes drilling, hammering, and sawing, with power tools! If this seems to be too unsafe, then wrap up your child in cotton wool forever since hitting a nail twenty times or so will result in a child being hurt on a rare occasion. However, this will force the child to learn to be cautious and refine his or her motor skills.
From a creative viewpoint, if a child makes something used in daily life, such as a towel rack, shelf, or a pottery-fashioned cup, without showing them specifically how to do construct it, then their problem solving skills will be enhanced. Showing the goal and not telling the students how – because they will ask repeatedly – forces them to think about the problem in their own terms and the result is fascinating: after seeing the shape of what their object is meant to represent ultimately, the variety of ways in which the children solve the problem is ingenious. Of course, a little guidance on certain handicraft techniques and giving some self-confidence is required but too much of it and the mental process required is taken away. Overcoming their fears and mental obstacles is the best environment a teacher can create for students. Most importantly, informing the child on the dangers of tools and techniques creates mental barriers and obstructs their learning; allowing them to make mistakes and learning from them is vital to a child’s development.
An active and engaging form of learning
They emphasise the importance of patiently optimising student learning, incorporating problem solving in every subject (even music!), approaching standardised tests as mostly useless, and dictating the pace of learning by the rate of student learning. Their seeming obsession with problem solving – especially in areas such as music and painting – may appear far-fetched to those unfamiliar but it is remarkable in its results. Initially, the child’s brain must be stimulated. For instance, creating different shades of brown to paint a forest scene from a basic pallet of blue, red, and yellow coerces a child’s mind into thinking and then actually mixing the three original paints to come up with those shades of brown; simply showing how brown is created defeats the purpose.
With the proliferation of technology in all areas of life, Finland – a leader when it comes to European school system – combines doing things by hands with modern tools such as iPads to make students solve problems every day. In science classes, Grade 3 students open useful educational applications, such as How It Works: Machines by Geek Kids, to create any object they desire – whether a rocket, washing machine, hairdryer, or another – using virtual parts to construct the virtual machine. There is freedom of choice to pick an object, thereby engaging the interest of all students. Another application involves using line segments to construct bridges and it is up to the student to stimulate the structure. Essentially, solving problems is based on the familiar, practical objects that children see around them every day, thus allowing them to picture mentally the usefulness of such structures.
With exception of the Matriculation Examination taken at the end of secondary school to qualify for university entry, the lack of tests may seem strange but most assessments in European schools come in the form of writing reports or presenting about their tasks facilitates their reasoning skills. Essentially, they are asked to think about how and what they have done; consider a chair building activity, the children know what a chair actually looks like and they make their own. A short presentation of how their version is different from the one on which they are sitting develops the metacognitive skills.
In short, many nations could learn from Europe’s inclusion of problem solving in every lesson, every day. The emphasis on the outdoors and the natural, physical things seen in everyday life provides stimulus to children and engages their mind in learning – a skill nine out of ten school in India lack at. Finnish emphasis on experiential learning and a lack of standardised testing has led to their school system’s international acclaim.