Every three years, education systems from around the world are evaluated by a system known as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) to determine the quality of education in maths, reading and sciences that the students in each country are receiving. Two countries have regularly ranked among the best ever since PISA was introduced in 2000; one of which expectedly, the other perhaps less so: South Korea and Finland.
That this happens is interesting because the two have a widely differing approach to education. The Korean results are largely down to sheer work ethic with the students regularly spending 14 hours a day studying for the all-important college entrance exam. It is as if Eriksson's 10,000 hours rule were applied to education, with the students looking to cram in as many hours of study as possible in order to gain the expertise they believe is required.
In Finland it is strikingly different, with students being asked to study fewer hours than in many other countries with their school work being supplemented by additional work they have to do at home. They are also encouraged to develop an interest in other activities like sports or music.
This approach is so different from most people's experiences with education and the results are so impressive that it bears a further look in order to determine what can be applied to football.
A PHILOSOPHY OF THOUGHT
One of the current 'buzzwords' in football is philosophy; that vision of how a club should be playing the game. This is present in Finland in the form of a core curriculum but, contrary to other countries, this is not an exhaustive guide of what should be taught and how.
Indeed, the main philosophy centres round the individual and each student is important. If a child isn't keeping up with the rest he is to be helped so that he has the opportunity to improve. Those who are doing well are encouraged to keep their desire to learn high.
That is how it should be in youth football where all players are given the opportunity to play and not just the best players to ensure that you win. You focus your coaching not only on those whose talent is obvious but also those who might lag behind.
The Finnish philosophy is also present in the way kids are taught. Education doesn't take the form of information being transmitted from teacher to student but rather learning is encouraged by allowing the children to experiment. Lessons learned in such a manner are more likely to be remembered.
The parallel in football is that, rather than the coach telling the children how they should be doing everything, they should be allowed to try things for themselves. To play football in a modern way, you need players who can think and that is more likely to happen if they're brought up in a system that encourages this. If you give the children problems that they have to work out how to solve, rather then set solutions for set problems, then you get them in the habit of discovering solutions.
TEACHERS ARE THE STARS
Being a teacher in Finland is not a fall back option taken if the route to other choices is barred; it is one of the top career options among young Finns where it is given the prestige that is afforded to doctors or lawyers elsewhere. The work that teachers do is highly valued, appreciated and regarded.
What makes teaching so attractive isn't simply the respect that they are shown but rather the amount of autonomy teachers are given. Indeed, whilst there is a core curriculum, teachers are taught how to build their own curricula and then evaluating them based on their experiences whilst teaching. Teachers are trusted that they know how to do their job and do not need a centralised curriculum to tell them what they should be doing every step of the way. Such confidence cannot but motivate the teachers.
There is also trust that the teachers themselves will keep on seeking further education and this is a key requirement for them. Without it they wouldn't be able to effectively do their work. So too it should be for coaches, who must never feel that they've done or learned enough.
Inevitably, being such an attractive career option, teaching leads to the most talented individuals taking an active interest in it. With eight universities educating teachers, standards are high and so too are entry requirements: the minimum requirement to teach in Finland is a research-based masters degree. At the University of Helsinki, each year there are in excess of 2,000 applications for some 100 spots in its primary school teacher education programme.
Such high levels mean that children have access to excellent teachers from the start rather than getting access to the best teachers when (if) they reach University.
This point in particular is especially important in football where the novice trainers are usually assigned to the younger age groups so that they can cut their teeth (and make their mistakes)there. The Finnish experience shames this notion and instead reinforces the belief that you need great teachers from the start.
Up till they are 13, children do not have to face exams where their results are graded. This is done to diminish the pressure that they face and the potential anguish over the results. It also aims to reinforce in them from an early age a love of education rather than a fear of the end of year exam.
This ties in with the growing belief that football up till the age of 13 should not be competitive and the sole aim for children (particularly the younger categories) should be to have fun, learning whilst they do so.
This does not mean that the kids are not given any feedback. Quite the opposite as they are continuously being told what they are good at (positive reinforcement) whilst showing them where they need to improve. Such an approach leads to more effective results because the students know that they are good at some things rather than be told by exam results how short they've fallen.
It should be this way during training, where children get favourable comments about what they're doing well with hints as to what they need to improve. Ranting and raving, for so long a traditional coaching tactic might achieve short term results, but in the long term it will only serve at demoralising your charges especially as they aren't mature enough to handle criticism.
Note: The aim of this article isn't to discuss the merits or demerits of PISA or those of different educational systems but rather to identify what can be learned from a system that is doing something right.
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