Many of us have heard how awesome the schools in Finland are. How their students rock international tests in reading, math and science year after year. How respected their teachers are, and how motivated their students. But that wasn’t always the case.
In the 1970s, Finland’s schools were sputtering after 108 years under Russian rule and the many wars that followed their 1917 liberation. Not only were their schools struggling, their economy was too. Unemployment was near 20%. Then the Finnish parliament made an historic decision to revamp their schools. They believed that education was the best way out of their country’s predicament. So the Finns decided to really leave no child left behind and implement a system promising every student in their country a stellar education regardless of how much money their family made or where they lived. Their goal was to give every single student a great education. Their success caught the attention of the world.
In the past decade, Finnish students have hit it out of the park. Their PISA scores in math, science and reading have been at, or very near, the top year after year, while the US has floundered near the middle and bottom. In 2000, the Finnish surprised everyone when their students placed first on the reading portion of the test. In the latest results released in 2010, Finland scored third in reading, sixth in math and second in science. The US trailed coming in at seventeenth in reading, twenty-third in science and thirty-first in math. Finland also tops the charts in PISA’s “study effectiveness.” They spend less time in school and on homework than most nations but still see incredible results.
Finland vs. United States 2009 PISA Results
What Is Finland Doing Right?
It’s hard to point to just one thing that’s the key to Finland’s success. The rise of their schools was a slow and steady one; more tortoise than hare. There’s no doubt that their approach to education is vastly different from the US and many other high-achieving nations. In fact, it’s almost the complete opposite approach.
The emphasis in Finnish schools is on cooperation, not competition. Nina Brander, a Finnish teacher with 17 years of experience, says this is a key to Finland’s success. “In Finland we orientate more towards learning and working than towards marking and evaluating,” she said. Schools aren’t ranked and they’re all equally funded so parents can rest assured that whether they live in a city or a small country town, whether they are wealthy or not, their child will get the same, awesome education. “We have an equal elementary-school education for all children,” said Ms. Brander.
Unlike the norm in the United States and many Asian nations, there aren’t a ton of standardized tests in Finland—there is only one right at the end of their equivalent of high school. Progress is charted by exams the teachers devise themselves. “We do have tests at the end of almost every course, but the only standardized test is the matriculation examination at the end of high school,” said Ms. Brander. “We evaluate the students during courses,” she continued. “I usually give marks and oral feedback. Positive feedback is the most effective way to promote good learning!”
Students in Finland also do less homework than kids in almost any other nation. The average is less than an hour per day! They learn what they need to know in the classroom so they can have plenty of time for friends, family and other interests after school.
Students in Finland aren’t rushed. Finnish kids don’t start school until they’re seven years old compared to the average Kindergarten age of five in the US. But 97% of their students go to free, subsidized play-based preschools starting at age five where they get a gentle introduction to academics and classroom expectations.
And kids in the schools play … a lot! Finnish children have way more playtime than American students. The average Finnish student has 75 minutes a day of recess compared to the mere 27 most US kids get. And not only that, teachers give the kids a 15 minute break after every lesson. Students in Finland are encouraged to play outside, even when it’s freezing out.
While all of these reasons are important to Finland’s success, the country’s teachers and the esteem in which they are held may very well be the most important ingredient. “In Finland teachers are quite respected, especially university or college teachers,” said Ms. Brander. Primary school teaching is the number one career choice for young Finnish people. Teachers in Finland are selected from the top ten percent of university graduates and are given a free ride to earn a required master’s degree in education before they can teach. And competition for these spots is fierce. Out of 6,600 applicants, only 600 were admitted to the program in 2010!
There are many rumors about how much money teachers in Finland get paid. Internet memes floating around claim they get paid like doctors and lawyers; which is only sort of true. They get paid like Finnish doctors and lawyers, not American ones. The fact is, the gap between doctor/lawyer/teacher salaries in Finland is a lot less than in the US; their income distribution tends to be more equitable.. Dollar for dollar, teachers in the US actually get paid more than teachers in Finland. But compared to other professionals in our country, teacher salaries are not as competitive. What is also striking is that Finnish teachers earn more pay increases than US teachers’ over the course of their careers. Still, young people in Finland can earn just as much in many other professions. So what motivates them to clamber for the job? It’s all about the R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
Overall, teachers in Finland are highly valued and given a ton of autonomy to create their own curriculums filled with plenty of art, music and science. They are given guidelines on what to teach, but aren’t told how to teach. They are empowered to make bold choices to do what they think is needed to get their kids to learn. They are championed for thinking outside the box. And they do it all in less time. Finnish teachers spend fewer hours at school and less time teaching than their American counterparts do. Most schools are in session from eight or nine a.m. until one or two p.m. So they have more time to prepare and evaluate their students. And not only that, most teachers stick with the same group of kids for five years, so they can really get to know their students.
They also have teaching aides in each school dedicated to helping struggling kids and the growing population of immigrant children. This helps insure that no student falls behind, no matter what! Some critics have dismissed Finland’s success, saying their homogenous population is the reason why they can pull off such fantastic results. But immigrant populations in Finland have grown steadily over the past decade and their schools have remained stellar. Educators have made sure that immigrant students are given the resources they need to be just as successful as their native-born peers.
Another major goal of the Finnish was to create a safe environment at their schools. All students receive free lunch and access to health care, mental health services and guidance counselors. So all students are more likely to be well fed and healthy both mentally and physically and thus more prepared to learn.
Lastly, there are no private schools in Finland. Every school from preschool to university is public. So all Finnish citizens support the public school system, rather than draining money, energy and resources on alternative school systems. The gap between the top students and bottom students in Finland is the smallest in the world. And if a school is struggling, they pair it up with a successful school to help pull it up. Likewise, teachers are encouraged to reach out to each other if they’re facing a particularly difficult student or problem.
The kicker? A superb Finnish education is cost effective... The US spends a third more than Finland on a child’s K-12 education.
What Can We Learn From Finland?
On the policy side, there’s a lot we can learn from Finland. Give more autonomy to teachers. Fund schools equally to create greater equality and give every child access to a good education. Have more recess. Reconsider standardized testing. But short of a complete overhaul of the US system, what can we as teachers learn from Finland? What can we take from Finnish educators to implement in our classrooms today
? Here are a few ideas:
- Ask for help! Finnish teachers aren’t afraid to reach out to their colleagues and ask for help. When faced with a particularly challenging student or class, they help each other succeed. The whole system encourages cooperation, not competition. So don’t be afraid to ask other teachers or administrators for advice. The people you work with are some of your most valuable resources! And ditto for the parents. If you need help, a student’s mom may be your best ally!
- Get outside! Give your students a breath of fresh air … literally! In Finland they take their students out of the classroom often. “We do work in the field,” said Ms. Brander. “We go to riversides, eskers, city centers, forests, marshlands.” She even takes her students on a yearly sailing excursion! And when you’re outside, you can take advantage and use natural resources to enhance your lessons. Sticks, rocks, blades of grass can all be used to teach anything from math to spelling to science!
- Get to know your students! In Finland many teachers have the same students year after year and they spend a lot of time and energy to get to know their students. The more you understand your students, the better you’ll be at teaching them. If you really get how a student thinks, you’ll be more effective and able to tailor your lessons to her learning style.
- Implement more play time! Kids in Finland spend more time playing than students in pretty much any other nation. But it doesn’t hurt their results a bit. So try to give your kids more play time during the day! Even if you can’t send them out for extra recess due to regulations, take a break every hour or so and have the kids jump up and down or play a game of Simon Says. If they get a moment to unwind, get their wiggles out and recharge, they’ll be ready to sit still and get back to work.
- Think outside the textbook! In Finland, teachers are given free rein to use all different kinds of methods and materials to teach—whatever will get their kids to learn. Here in the US, we don’t have as much flexibility. We have standards to meet and tests to prep for, but try to breathe some life into your lessons. Think outside the books!
- Keep learning yourself! If you have a passion for learning, it will rub off on your students. Ask any adult who their favorite teacher was in school, and they’re bound to name the teacher who had a true passion for her job. So keep it interesting for you, too! Encourage your administration to invest in professional development for the teachers and take time to learn the latest and greatest info in your field. “Learning is a life-long adventure,” said Ms. Brander. “As a teacher it’s important to keep learning all the time!”