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Could the U.S. Adopt Some of Finland's Educational Policies?

Posted by on Oct. 29, 2015 at 9:45 AM
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Happy Teaching, Happy Learning: 13 Secrets to Finland's Success

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Most educators have probably found themselves wishing for a simpler solution to the hardships and inequities of the U.S. education system. I recently got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the Oppi Festival in Helsinki, Finland, with a group of seven U.S. educators to learn more about the Finnish school system and the lessons it might offer.

During the trip, our group had the chance to visit several innovative schools. While I can’t say that I uncovered some mysterious holy grail of education, I did discover something that I had never considered before: the importance of happy teaching and happy learning.

The teachers and students that I observed were happy. Students seemed to actually be enjoying their learning experiences, and teachers appeared satisfied and valued.

It made me wonder: “What makes school in Finland such an enjoyable experience for students and teachers?” Here are 13 factors that I identified.

Students in Finland work together frequently, and the material they study is important to them.
Students in Finland work together frequently, and the material they study is important to them.
—Sophia Faridi

1. A heavy emphasis on play. In Finland, people believe that children learn through play, imagination, and self-discovery, so teachers not only allow but encourage play. Development of the whole person is highly valued, especially in the early years. Even at the high school level, you can see students playing foosball or videogames in the student center.

2. No high-stakes standardized testing. Finnish schools believe more test preparation means less time for free thinking and inquiry. Accountability is measured at the classroom level by the experts—teachers.

3. Trust. This was perhaps the greatest difference I observed. The Finnish government trusts their municipalities, the municipalities trust school administrators, administrators trust teachers, teachers trust students, and in return, parents and families trust teachers. There is no formal teacher-evaluation system. Teachers, similar to doctors in the U.S., are trusted professionals.

4. Schools don’t compete with one another. There are no school evaluations since it is believed that all schools should be good. Non-competitive school structures result in no need for school-choice programs.

5. Out-of-this-world teacher prep programs. Part of the reason why teachers are so trusted in Finland is that becoming a teacher is an extremely rigorous and prestigious process. Only the best of the best are accepted into education school. In addition to having high test scores, candidates must pass an interview investigating their integrity, passion, and pedagogy. Universities are committed to finding candidates that are the right fit for the teaching profession. Their programs are research-based, and teachers finish with master’s degrees, including a published thesis.

6. Personal time is highly valued. Every 45 minutes, students have the legal right to 15 minutes of free time. Finns believe that students’ capacity for engagement and learning is most successful when they have a chance to unwind and refocus. In turn, students work productively during class time, with the understanding that their needs to play, talk, or even read quietly will be met shortly. Going outside frequently also encourages greater physical fitness.

In Finland, schools emphasize play, and students are encouraged to play during the school day all the way through high school.
In Finland, schools emphasize play, and students are encouraged to play during the school day all the way through high school.
—Sophia Faridi

7. Less is more. Students do not start school until the age of seven. School days are also shorter. Most elementary students only attend school for four to five hours per day. High school students, similar to college students, only attend the classes that are required of them. So while one student might have an 8 a.m. Swedish class, another might not start school until 10 a.m.

8. Emphasis on quality of life. The Finnish system recognizes that happy teachers are good teachers, and overworked teachers will not be at the top of their game. Teachers prep from home and only teach to students about 20 hours per week.

9. Semi-tracked learning. After age 16, students choose gymnasium (academic-based) or vocational school. However, both paths are highly respected in Finnish society. The vocational school we visited was an amazing state-of-the-art facility with hands-on learning infrastructures that surpass most American universities. Students graduating from either type of high school may attend university.

10. National standards are valued. Finland uses a national set of standards that are similar to the Common Core State Standards. Teachers have complete autonomy over curriculum and how the standards are implemented.

11. Grades are not given until 4th grade. Evaluation of early learners focuses on metacognition and learning how to learn.

12. Ethics is taught in the primary grades. While many students learn their ethics curriculum through religion class, even nondenominational or nonreligious students are required to take ethics courses.

13. Collaboration and collaborative environments are strongly emphasized. The infrastructure of schools is designed to promote collaboration. Classrooms branch off from a shared learning area where students from various classes and grade levels work together and teachers can interact in a common space. High school students have all sorts of cozy nooks and crannies to work together comfortably on campus, and students move freely around the building with minimal supervision. The teachers’ lounge was a literal greenhouse allowing for sunshine and plants to thrive. With access to a massage chair and computer lab, teachers feel relaxed and comfortable when working together.

Students in Finland appear happy, engaged, and invested in their work.
Students in Finland appear happy, engaged, and invested in their work.
—Sophia Faridi

Perhaps what struck me most about schools in Finland was the relevant, genuine learning taking place right before my eyes. For example, I had the chance to sit down with a group of high school seniors working on a project examining U.N. extradition trials. Without any teacher present, students were engaged simply because the subject was important to them.

While I’m still not sure exactly how Finland has managed to cast such a positive light on education (or how to replicate that attitude), I did walk away with one tool to begin the conversation about improving American education. As one Finnish principal explained, “When a student struggles, the question is not what’s wrong with the student or what’s wrong with the teacher. The question is, what’s wrong with the system?”

I think this is just the beginning of many questions we need to ask ourselves as we develop our own models for improving schooling for all U.S. students and teachers.

by on Oct. 29, 2015 at 9:45 AM
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by Ruby Member on Oct. 29, 2015 at 9:46 AM
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Finland has, I believe, the top school system in the world.  Not everything they do could be applicable in this country, but it seems that a lot of their policies - more play, less homework and standardized testing, more teacher autonomy - could be adopted in our schools as well.

by on Oct. 29, 2015 at 9:55 AM

Teacher: Finnish schools let down two-thirds of kids

A provocative new book by teacher Maarit Korhonen calls for urgent action in Finland’s classrooms to stop children being marginalised by what she sees as outdated and uninspiring teaching. The outspoken Korhonen says Finland’s high scores in the PISA international rankings have spread complacency among the educational establishment.

Video: Maarit Korhonen
Video: Yle

Two out of every three schoolchildren in Finland are being let down by an outdated system and uninspiring teaching.

That is one of the claims made in a provocative new book by primary-school teacher Maarit Korhonen, which challenges the widely-held belief that the Finnish education system is among the best in the world.

In Herää, koulu! (“Wake up, school”), Korhonen argues that Finland’s consistently high performance in international PISA rankings, a test of problem-solving skills among 15-year-olds, has led to complacency among Finland’s educational establishment, and has blinded teachers and decision-makers to the reality of teaching today.

“What we are studying, it’s so old fashioned,” Korhonen says. “We have the same chapters in the science book that I used to have in the '60s. Same subjects in the same order. Nobody changes anything, but something has to change.”

Thrown-away children

After 30 years in the classroom, Korhonen’s central argument is that education is “throwing away” the roughly two-thirds of schoolchildren who are not academically minded, or who do not learn from sitting down and reading a book, or who do not perform well in exams.

As a result, she claims, thousands of pupils are led to believe that they are not good at learning, putting them at risk of becoming marginalised and encountering serious problems later in life.

Korhonen also argues that Finnish schools let down another significant group of learners – those who pick things up faster than average.

“If you don’t learn, there are several places you can go to have help. But if you are talented or gifted, there’s nothing. And I can’t understand how that’s possible,” Korhonen says.

No discussion

Korhonen’s straight-talking attack on Finland’s prized school system will come as a surprise to many who are familiar with the widely perpetuated idea that Finnish education is one of the most progressive and effective in the world, as evidenced by the country’s regular high scores in the international PISA study.

However PISA’s detractors, Korhonen included, claim this one measure of educational success cannot possibly give a full picture. Korhonen insists that PISA does not give any indication of how well schools are inspiring children to fulfill their potential, or to think for themselves. As a result, she does not subscribe to the often-repeated idea that Finnish schools are world leaders.

“I think the only thing we are best at is that the teacher still can keep the classes calm, the classes are mainly quiet when the teacher’s here so the kids are listening and learning,” Korhonen says. “But we don’t teach them to discuss or express their own opinion, we teach them to keep quiet, and we are good at that,” she adds.

Low-cost changes

So what should be done? Korhonen insists that although Finnish teachers have lots of freedom, many are not making use of it. She calls for small, low-cost changes to get children engaged, such as replacing rows of desks with less rigid seating plans, or even sofas, to encourage creativity.

And Korhonen calls on her colleagues to throw away out-of-touch textbooks and instead prepare lessons which are relevant and interesting for the pupils.

At its heart, however, Herää, Koulu! is really calling for a revolution in the curriculum. Korhonen backs a proposal by the best-known ambassador of Finnish education, Pasi Sahlberg, who suggests that half the lessons taught should be core subjects, but the rest can be chosen by the pupils themselves, and should be relevant to the modern world.

“For instance, if I can find 10 kids in my school who want to study Japanese, OK, I’ll have Japanese. I don’t have a Japanese teacher, but I have the internet, so let’s learn Japanese for half a year,” Korhonen says.

Despite sticking a knife into one of Finland’s most sacred of cows, Korhonen says her searing criticism of how primary children are taught has been met with nods of agreement from figures inside the Education Ministry, as well as from many of her frontline colleagues, not to mention parents.

But in an educational establishment which broadly considers itself among the best in the world, Korhonen says she knows that advocating profound change will prove an uphill struggle.

by Platinum Member on Oct. 29, 2015 at 9:55 AM

Really interesting article.  My DD attended a start-up British International School that utilized a lot of these principles and it was an amazing educational experience for her.  My first thought was that the cost per student would be too high but I was surprised to see that of the cost per student in Finland is significantly higher than in the US.  My second thought was that perhaps Finland doesn't mainstream SN students into their classrooms but they do.  While Finland has a much smaller student population compared to the US, it would be worth while for the US to look to their extremely successful education system.

by on Oct. 29, 2015 at 9:57 AM

Having lived there for two years, ages ago, and keeping in touch with the people I saw daily  there, it is not the panacea that so many American liberals want to tout.

by on Oct. 29, 2015 at 10:05 AM

Despite Finnish education's strong performance in Pisa, it isn't all perfect – science and maths standards are declining and top-performing students aren't being pushed enough Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, Iceland Northern Lights: is the Finnish education system letting down its brightest students? Photograph: Arctic-Images/Getty Images Dr Juha Ylä-Jääski Wednesday 4 December 2013 02.00 EST Last modified on Monday 24 November 2014 13.22 EST Share on LinkedIn Share on Google+ Shares 426 Save for later As a Finn, I know we can have a reputation for being dour and seeing the glass half-empty. Perhaps such pessimism is a feature of small, northerly nations, where people see more of the inside of drinking establishments than they do sunshine in winter months. To avoid national stereotyping, I will therefore caveat what I am about to say by noting that the Finnish education system has much to commend it, notably equality of access, high societal regard for the value of education, and teacher respect. Finnish performance in the programme for international student achievement (Pisa) league tables has led to an influx of educational tourism to Finland since the rankings were first published in 2001. We may have slipped in the latest judgment from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – which tests more than 500,000 pupils in 66 countries ranking performance in reading, maths and science – but we are still very much at the top tier of the world's best performing educations systems and the attention isn't likely to disappear soon. Today's results, however, show Finland dropping out of the top 10 performers in maths, with a score of 519, 22 points lower than the last ranking three years ago. Reading skills fell 12 points to 524, while the science ranking dropped nine points to 545. Signs of this were already showing in PISA 2009, although the slippage was less than anticipated. I am concerned that the Finnish education system is letting down our brightest students. In every country, there is a debate about whether education systems should group children according to their ability. In Finland, we have taken a firm stance not to do this based on the belief that having mixed groups has distinct advantages, such as children teaching each other. But are we giving enough room for our most intelligent young people to flourish? Every summer the organisation I run, Technology Academy Finland, brings the brightest teenagers in the world to Finland to work on science projects together. This year, the Millennium Youth Camp welcomed 60 students from 31 countries to work on sophisticated problems such as designing sanitation systems for a space mission to Mars. At this end of the educational spectrum, where the children's ambitions are to improve on the work of Nobel prize-winners, it is vitally important to stretch the young people's minds. In many Finnish classrooms, however, the pace is determined by the lower-achieving students. In the lower grades, all children from the most talented to the least talented are grouped together. Some commend our system for serving all students well, regardless of family background or socio-economic status. But it means our brightest cannot maximise their potential. No other country has so little variation in outcomes between schools, and the gap within schools between the top and bottom-achieving students is slim. We are kidding ourselves if we think these smart young people can make up the gap at university. Firstly, we run the risk that their intellectual energy is diverted into less worthwhile pursuits, getting them into trouble at school. Secondly, starting from behind makes it much less likely that the Nobel prize-winners of tomorrow will come from Finland. To address these fault lines, we should maximise the use of the possibilities of technology in the classroom. Studies have shown that the use of tablet computers in the classroom improves learning, while some video games have been shown to improve brain function. More use of the flipped classroom model, where instruction is delivered online and homework is moved into the classroom, allows students to learn at their own pace. It would also allow us to economise the expensive resource of teacher time for direct interaction with students. Another benefit is that instruction is given by those best qualified in a given subject. For our future competitiveness, we also need to encourage more students into maths, science and technology. While teaching these subjects is very difficult, flipped learning could make a difference especially for very young children. Teachers of younger students are expected to teach practically all subjects, and there is some criticism that many may be unsuited for instruction in mathematics. In the upper grades, Finland has introduced a lot of freedom for students to select courses. As a result, fewer and fewer students select physics, chemistry and some of the more intensive maths courses. When it comes to university, some are finding that they are not qualified to their faculty of choice. Although they did not realise it when selecting their courses, too many are disqualifying themselves from courses such as computer science, where graduates are better paid and more likely to get a job in their chosen profession. Much of the fall in today's ranking, however, boils down to a simple question of economics. Education budgets are under pressure in these times of austerity, but we should be wary of cutting funding for our future. Investment in education is as crucial to nations' long-term fiscal health as fiscal prudence in other areas. If Finland's education system is to succeed, we must avoid complacency and continue to focus on reforms so our young people are best equipped for the competitive world of tomorrow.

by Silver Member on Oct. 29, 2015 at 10:15 AM
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I'm not sure, maybe a happy medium?

I think our schools start too early, standardized testing bogus, too much homework and far too much regiment ( sit still for hours, don't squirm or stretch, etc...).

My best experience was with a teacher that made learning fun, not a chore.
by Angie on Oct. 29, 2015 at 10:27 AM

My DD roomed at university with a Finnish exchange student.   The difference between her and the average American college student was pronounced. She was ready and eager for higher education, intelligently more advanced and well rounded for her young years.

by Gold Member on Oct. 29, 2015 at 12:36 PM
In the Scandinavian systems, they weed out the lower academic achievers which is how they receive such high results. The only issue with that students who might mature a little slower or might need extra help or time to grasp a couple of concepts are held back. They can't just work hard to achieve the same results. I don't think most of us want to be held to our strengths and weaknesses we had at age 15 for the rest of our lives. And the reason trade schools are thought of highly is because they have less income inequality so they aren't sending kids to a lifetime of financial stress and instability or to be looked down on in society.

We could certainly learn some lessons but our society and beliefs as a country are so different it would not be successful here.
by Silver Member on Oct. 29, 2015 at 12:49 PM

We have a very different culture and multi-ethnic make-up in the US.

by Gold Member on Oct. 29, 2015 at 12:51 PM

Why do we always look to small countries with homogenous populations for solutions?       Pick and choose schools that meet the overall demographics of Finland and guess what?      We excel too!           

It's not a one size fits all solution because we're not a one size country.     Approaching it like this assures that we will throw the baby out with the bathwater.....  again.        We need to address our weakest links but we don't have to throw out our strongest links to do that.   

I like the idea of providing more vocational education but I think it should be after high school.     Kids from blue collar backgrounds will choose that direction because that's what they're comfortable and familiar with.     That doesn't mean that's where their best potential is.  

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