Fewer tests, more play: Qatar asked Finland to open a progressive school in Doha — and it’s a huge success

DOHA, – My daughter Annie is probably worse at spelling than her Canadian friends. She also spends less time in class. At school, she is encouraged to daydream.

In fact, in her first year of classes in our new country, she was utterly unconvinced at first that the place I was dropping her off each day was even a school. Most of her time was spent playing, she told me, somewhat confused. Math was taught using skipping ropes. Besides lunch and recess, the schedule included “long break,” “breakies,” mini break” and “golden time.” The principal would put on puppet shows.

Qatar-Finland International School / FacebookQatar- International School / FacebookStudents at the Qatar- International School.

When I first enrolled Annie and her sister Jane, then 5, in a school in Doha, it was an act of desperation. My family had just moved to Qatar — a tiny country in the Persian Gulf perched atop some of the ’s largest gas reserves. Qatar’s staggering wealth has spurred a flurry of development, so much that Qataris have been eclipsed by expats, who account for 90 per cent of population. Families flock here for work, but face long waiting lists and punishing entrance exams to secure school placements.

It was no different for us. When we first arrived, about a year ago, I knew my daughters didn’t stand a chance of getting admitted to Doha’s most prestigious schools. Luckily, we stumbled onto a solution: Qatar’s ruling Sheikhs had invited Finland, famous for its progressive approach to , to open a satellite school in Doha – with both teachers and textbooks imported from Scandinavia.

It felt like a bit of a gamble. The Qatar-Finland International School was an experiment, really, the first “export” of a child-centric educational program that eschewed standardized testing and rigid curriculum in favour of play-based learning. Hence the skipping ropes.

But I was intrigued by Finland’s approach. The country has routinely ranked among the top countries on the Program for International Student Assessment, ironically a standardized test that measures the educational outcomes of 15-year-old students in 65 developed countries around the world.

Finland’s success has been especially remarkable because it’s happened relatively quickly — 30 years ago the country ranked dismally compared to its OECD peers. And because neither a child’s social background nor their innate ability seem to be a huge factor in Finland’s academic prowess; it has one of the slimmest achievement gaps in the world.

Qatar-Finland International School / FacebookQatar-Finland International School / FacebookStudents use tablets at the Qatar-Finland International School.

It has also made school fun. Jane, my youngest daughter, had her first real introduction to addition and subtraction by playing “shop” with play money. She’s learning her alphabet phonetically. Each sound corresponds to a dance. In science class, the kids made paper airplanes, launching them from the second floor balcony. Once a week, the principal would convene an assembly – but instead of giving a dry speech about, say, the importance of using seat belts, he performed a puppet show on the topic with “Mr. Fox.”

The other day, the school proudly posted its latest educational acquisition on its Facebook page. It wasn’t a book, or anything technical. It was a table hockey game. “Imagine how great it will be to play with friends during break!” the post exclaimed.

All this has gone over poorly with a few parents.  One mother, whose family was from London, pulled her child out because she worried he wasn’t “learning anything” at his new school. But every day, my children looked forward to going to this school. So do others.

And learning does happen. I saw profound improvements in my children’s abilities over the course of the year. The play-based approach to education also made a big difference to children who had struggled in previous school settings.

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Natalie Browning moved to Qatar from Maryland. Her son, Elijah, was diagnosed with ADHD. He wasn’t admitted to other schools because he couldn’t pass their entrance exams. It was incredibly deflating: “Elijah’s super smart, but he couldn’t pass an assessment. It felt so wrong to put a kid under the microscope like that,” she said. Her daughter, Ivy, was in a British-based Pre-K. One day the teacher had divided her students into two lists on the blackboard: “Good kids and naughty kids.” That was it.

She described the Finnish school as “an answer to a prayer.” Elijah’s Finnish teacher has never treated his ADHD as a problem. In Finland, students with learning disabilities are typically placed in regular classrooms but receive extra support, if needed. They are also given individual learning plans, to set them up for success on their own terms.

“His teacher thinks he’s smart and that means the world to him. She respects him and helps him discover what he is good at,” Browning said.

Children aren’t tested on how “good” they are once they’re in class, either. By the time my daughter hit first grade in , she had tests two or three times a week in spelling, math or geography. I dreaded these more than her. Sunday nights were often spent drilling her on how to spell “Wednesday,” something she’d remember the following morning for her test, but by Wednesday, she’d inevitably forgotten.

Qatar-Finland International School / FacebookQatar-Finland International School / Facebook

I just didn’t see the point. Neither do the Finns.

This may mean that Annie will be spelling Wednesday wrong for a while yet, but when I asked her teacher whether this was a cause for concern, he was non-plussed. Children’s ability to spell develops naturally, he explained, in tandem with their ability to read. He dismissed spelling tests in primary grades as little more than gimmicky memory tests.

Finland credits this rejection of standardized testing as one of the biggest reasons for its success. While my kids weren’t being tested, though, their abilities were being constantly assessed. Their teachers scrutinized their work throughout the year — not to decide whether they would pass or fail — but to understand how their skills were developing and how to help them.

In Canada, I felt like my child’s report card from public school was written in code. In Finland, it was plain English. There were no letter grades. Instead, they praised Jane for her “exceptional ability to look at matters from someone else’s point of view” and “noticing if someone needs a friend.” Parent-teacher conferences didn’t focus on grades either but on how each child could be best supported to thrive.

The absence of standardized testing was liberating for students, but equally so for teachers. “The ability to learn about a student rather than see what they already knew was really striking,” said Maria Mataia, an Australian mother whose son, Manini, attends the school. “They’re more interested in his ability to learn rather than seeing what he already knew.”

The other thing that sets the Finnish system apart from its peers is those teachers. In Finland, teaching is considered a highly prestigious profession. All teachers must hold at least a Master’s Degree and it’s a job that commands the equivalent respect of a doctor or lawyer. In the classroom, Finnish teachers have a huge amount of freedom compared to their Canadian counterparts.

In Manini’s class, the teacher would structure each day according to her students’ energy levels, rather than a strict lesson plan. “If they seemed tired, she would give them more breaks. The day wasn’t about getting through a set curriculum. There was a lot of flexibility,” said his mother.

But here’s the best sign of an experiment (or gamble) gone right: Virtually all of the families who enrolled in the Qatar-Finland school – including mine – are returning.

This year, there will be new students as well. Jo Livingstone is a teacher who was born in Montreal and moved to Doha a few months ago. Her sons gained admission to a British school and the Finnish one. Unable to decide, she posted her dilemma on Facebook and asked her friends, around the world, to help her decide.

“Everyone voted Finish,” she said, somewhat surprised.

Special to the National Post

About Sonia Verma, Special to National Post