What We Can Learn From Finland

learn from finland

I came across a fascinating article that was published in the September issue of Smithsonian.com entitled “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” With schools across the USA just beginning a new year, it seems like a good time to reflect upon what factors are involved in school success. I encourage you to read the full article, but here are a few points that got my attention along with my editorial comments:

  • Finland is one of many countries that participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment. PISA is a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 venues around the world. In 2000, Finnish students were identified as the most successful readers tested. In 2003, they earned the top scores in math. In 2006, they were number one in science. The 2009 PISA scores placed Finland second in science, third in reading, and sixth in math among the nearly half million students who were tested around the world.
  • In contrast, the United States routinely scores in the middle of the pack. Our effort to improve education in America is founded on the premise that competition is good and the key to educational excellence. Race To The Top is the current prime example of pitting schools against each other. (One of the things that always amazes me is that those who champion competition in education forget that for every “winner,” there is a corresponding “loser.” How can systemically creating “losers” help us improve education?)
  • Despite lip-service paid to the importance of “the whole child” and the ASCD Whole Child initiative that actively seeks to define successful education as more than good test scores, the USA is currently focused almost exclusively on how well students do on flawed and largely unhelpful standardized tests. How would such a narrow approach play in test-successful Finland? “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect,” says Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. That simple sentence is packed with wisdom.
  • Standardized tests rule in “middle of the pack” USA. What about in Finland? Their PISA scores are certainly impressive. Surely, they must continually test and measure their students to be sure they are on the right track. And their students must be tested regularly, keeping them in good “test shape” so they can blow away their competition, right? No. There is only one mandatory standardized test in Finland. It comes at the end of a student’s senior year. Schools aren’t ranked. They aren’t compared to each other. Hmmm. Maybe our testing frenzy isn’t particularly helpful if the goal is to help kids learn. (Then again, tests are a great way to rank and sort and create winners and losers. Guess it comes down to what we want (as opposed to what we say we want.)
  • While we focus on test results, in Finland the emphasis is on learning. “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. “We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.” Compare that orientation to the celebratory comments by school leaders in the USA when they manage to make AYP! (Maybe it’s not “celebratory” as much as a well deserved sigh of relief because they have eluded the test police for another year.)
  • “But,” you wonder, “do students in Finland complete high school? Are the figures skewed because lots of kids drop out of school before any testing is done?” In Finland, 93% of students graduate from either an academic or vocational high school. That’s 17.5% more than in the USA. (Note: I find it fascinating that Finland seems to value vocational education. In the USA, if students elect not to attend college, they are frequently perceived as failures. In Finland, kids who are less academically inclined aren’t devalued.)
  • “Maybe they’re rich and spend lots of money on education! That’s it. It’s a money thing.” Nope. Finland spends about 30% less per student than we spend in the USA. While it’s tempting to believe that more money equals better education, it’s not that simple.
  • “OK. I think I know what’s going on. In Finland, the kids must start earlier, put in more time, and have a rigorous academic curriculum. Our kids suffer because the school day and the school year are too short. That’s just common sense.” Sorry. No dice. Teachers in Finland spend less time in school than their American counterparts. Kids spend much more time outside. Playing! Not much homework is assigned. And compulsory education doesn’t begin until age seven! While we have made our early childhood experiences horrendously academic, Finland’s orientation towards early childhood education is expressed by teacher and principal Kari Louhivuori: “We have no hurry. Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?” So what exactly is Finland doing while we focus on testing and the creation of high standards and a national curriculum? Let’s see. Kids begin school later. They spend more time outside. Play is encouraged. The emphasis is on learning, not doing well on the test. (Paradoxically, when the emphasis is on learning, the kids do wonderfully well on the tests. And teachers don’t need to have pizza parties to “fix” student answers like was done in Atlanta!) Teachers are required to earn a master’s degree and are well compensated. Rather than adopting a national curriculum, Finland has only broad guidelines. Teachers and principals are given wide latitude and autonomy, based on the belief that they know better than anyone what each child needs. Rather than a top-down, Race To The Top-like system based on the principles of external control, local educators are the key decision-makers. The results are best expressed by Kari Louhivuori : “We have our own motivation to succeed because we love the work. Our incentives come from inside.” Will we ever learn?