What comes to mind when you think of Finland? For many people, not much. Finland is not a giant player in the world market and doesn’t have many news-worthy controversies to grace our television screens in the US. I’m Finnish (maiden name: Sarkkinen) and when I think of the land of my ancestors I think of peacefulness, social order, cold weather, close families, and blonde hair. I’ve noticed something interesting in the past month or so, though. Several large media organizations have mentioned how awesome the Finnish educational system is and how the failing American school system could learn a thing or two from our Finnish friends.
Finland’s schools consistently earn some of the top rankings in the world. In 2006, Finnish students topped world charts in science and reading. They came in second in math to South Korea. Their rankings were at the top of the list for many years before that, and remain at the top today. Finland transformed a poor educational system in the 1970s to one of the best in the world today. What’s most interesting (or concerning) about this? Their strategy is exactly the opposite of what we’re doing in the US.
Here are a few things you probably didn’t know about Finland: Out of 7,000 applications to primary school programs, only 10% of applicants are accepted. Since the 1980s, every Finnish teacher has been required to obtain a master’s degree before teaching. While teaching, Finnish teachers continue to take high-level professional development courses. Teaching is a highly prestigious and respected profession in Finland. The US could learn something from this! Finnish teachers are well-prepared for the classroom through many years of rigorous education and training and are paid very well too. The state pays for their education too! Did you know that a career in teaching beats out a career in medicine as the most competitive field in Finland?
The Finnish school system is dramatically different from the American version. According to the UK Guardian, Finnish children don’t start school until they’re 7-years-old and there’s no pressure on them to do anything academic-related before then. While American schools are cutting recess, Finnish school days are short and interspersed with active time running around outside and even sledding. Play and hands-on learning are an integral part to the learning process. Every child gets a free lunch and a free education through college. Class sizes are small and teachers keep the same group of students through elementary school. This is awesome, because it allows teachers to truly get to know student’s needs and get to know their families. Teachers work very closely with parents.
Another unique difference is that Finland abolished standardized testing in the 1980s. Can you imagine if American teachers could spend more time teaching useful information that they are passionate about rather than teaching for tests? The results could be amazing. Empowering great teachers leads to great results. Finland transformed from a highly centralized and failing system that put a lot of value on testing to a localized system in which highly trained teachers design their own challenging curriculum around national standards. Teachers are extensively prepared for this job and are well funded. Classes are small and well-equipped. Rather than sitting and listening to a teacher lecture for 50 minutes, students walk around, work in small groups, rotate through workshops, ask their teacher questions, and research. Independence and active learning are vital parts of this educational system and help students learn to learn productively, solve problems, and evaluate and improve their work. Teachers work hard to engage students in research and inquiry. Teachers also meet together weekly to develop challenging curriculum, create lesson plans, and put together great related learning materials.
Our American schools have a lot to learn from the Finns. First and foremost, teachers need a whole lot more respect. Have you ever hear the saying, “Those who can’t do, teach?” That mindset has simply got to go. We need to train our teachers better and to pay them more, so that high-achieving individuals are attracted to the field. In Florida, the starting salary for a new teacher is around $22,000. Not many college graduates are willing to work for that little money. I couldn’t pay for my children’s daycare on that salary, let alone pay for a house and food. Now, imagine if the starting salary were $60,000? Imagine if teaching were given more respect? Our schools would be transformed.
Next, we need less emphasis on testing. No Child Left Behind, although well meaning, has turned our schools into a nightmarish place where teachers must teach kids only what they need to know in order to pass state testing. There isn’t time to grow passionate learners or for teachers to design lessons about things they are truly passionate about. Many schools are cutting out recess and other free time to focus on testing. Rather than making sure no child gets left behind, this legislation has ensured that the entire country gets left behind.
This is the exact opposite of what Finland has done and may be a contributing factor to why America’s schools are doing so poorly. We need to change and we need to do it now.
In what ways do you think the American educational system needs to change to be more competitive?
“Finland’s Schools Flourish in Freedom and Flexibility.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/05/finland-schools-curriculum-teaching
“Why Do Finland’s Schools Get the Best Results?” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8601207.stm
“West Virginia Learns Finland’s Most Honorable Profession: Teacher.” http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/08/29/education.wv.finland/index.html?hpt=hp_bn1
“How Finland Reached the Top of Educational Rankings.” http://neatoday.org/2010/10/07/how-finland-reached-the-top-of-the-educational-rankings/
- Lessons from Finland (thewesternexperience.com)
- Extra lessons at Free Schools: Is cramming more teaching in a good idea? (mattpearson.org)
- US vs. Finland… Again (downes.ca)
- Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful? (smithsonianmag.com)
- How Finland became an educational leader (salon.com)