Please Don’t Differentiate Six Year Olds

I’ve been writing nice words about Estonia. I think it is excellent that they start to teach programming to first graders. However, today reading the morning paper* my jaw dropped: in Tallinn, the nation’s capital, six year old kids take entrance exams to get into the school their parents want them to go.

Entrance exams for six year olds? What is this madness? This again shows how different European educational systems are from each other, even for neighboring countries.

Sweden has introduced standardized tests for many age levels in K-12 education. In Finland the only mandatory test is the matriculation examination at the end of upper secondary (highschool). In Finland roughly 1 in 10 applicants gets to go to teacher education. In Sweden 11 in 10 get in. In other words, there are empty seats in Swedish teacher education institutions. So clearly in Finland the profession of teacher is more valued than in our western neighbor.

And now this. You can basically see Estonia and Tallinn if you stand on your tiptoes in Helsinki and look south, over the Gulf of Finland part of the Baltic Sea. It is so close. However, entrance examinations for primary schools couldn’t be further away from what is valued in Finnish education.

As you might know, all walks of life meet in a Finnish classroom and no differentiation is made before the end of lower secondary, roughly at the age of 16. Often the comment to this for example from the US point of view is that Finland is so small and homogeneous country that this is the best way to go. Well, Estonia is four times smaller than Finland. So there goes that theory.

No, what this really boils down to is individualism vs. equality. Sure, we can differentiate right after kindergarten and put two children into separate tracks so that they don’t meet each other until one is cleaning the other’s house. But is this what we really want?

Or we can put them into the same classroom and teach them not only maths, languages, and history, but also mutual respect and tolerance. I want to believe in a system where differentiation takes place inside a classroom, not between classrooms. Inside a school, not between schools.

* For my Finnish readers, you can find the Helsingin Sanomat story here.

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