Several Lessons to Be Learned from the Finnish School System
The Internet has been abuzz since the release of “What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?” by Ellen Gamerman of the Wall Street Journal. In essence, Finland teens are able to deliver the goods on international tests and now American educators have begun researching the Finnish system to see what tidbits they can glean.
According to Gamerman, the differences between Finland and American education are enormous. High-school students rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night in Finland. Furthermore, children don’t start school until they reach seven. There are no classes for the gifted students and no recognition organizations for those who achieve. There is also little in the way of standardized testing.
In other words, Finland educates its children with a model that is virtually the anti-thesis of what we do in America. Yet out of the 57 countries tested, Finland’s 15-year-old students earned some of the highest scores in the world.
Different Schools and Different Kids
However, though school is different, it should be noted that Finnish youth appear to be very similar to their American counterparts in their teenage behaviors. According to Gamerman, they also “waste hours online, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal.” The difference is that these students are way ahead of their American counterparts in math, science and reading.
At the same time, it must be noted that Finland as a country is nothing like America. It has its own language yet teachers encounter very few students who do not speak the language. In contrast, in America, one of every twelve American students is learning English.
The people are far more homogeneous in terms of both income and education. Perhaps more importantly, there are no poor and no wealthy schools, each school educates children at the same per pupil rate. Perhaps that is one reason why the gap between Finland’s highest performing and lowest performing schools was amongst the lowest of all 57 countries tested.
After examining the Finnish school system, there are at least three items that could be easily applied to American schools despite the cultural and economic differences. Each of these three also address the differing socioeconomic status in our country, providing a helping hand for those with a desire to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Quality Pre-School for All
Kati Tuurala, Microsoft’s education manager in Finland, believes that a great deal of Finland’s educational success can be attributed to major reforms implemented in the 1970s. Those reforms included an emphasis on primary education for every single child in the country.
“That’s the reason for our present-day success,” Tuurala states.
In all three Scandinavian countries students begin formal schooling only at age seven, two years after most American children begin school. However, prior to entering school, all children have participated in a high-quality government funded preschool program. As opposed to a focus on getting a jump academically, these early-childhood programs focus on self-reflection and social behavior. It is interesting to note that one of the most notable attributes of Finnish children is their level of personal responsibility. The early focus on self-reflection is seen as a key component for developing that level of responsibility towards learning.
This approach also seems more in line with the original theory of kindergarten set forth in 1837 by German Educator Friedrich Froebel. His kindergarten, literally meaning a “children’s garden,” was envisioned as a place and time where children could learn through play opportunities. The writings of Froebel reveal these thoughts: “We notice that if children are not given the care which takes their stage of human development into consideration, they will lack the foundation for the task ahead in school and for their later lives in general.” He further wrote “that the present and future living conditions of men and women of all social classes rest on the careful consideration and rounded mental and physical care of early childhood.”
We noted in our recent post America’s Misplaced Priorities, the High/Scope Perry Pre-School study that indicates the lifelong implications of children exposed to quality preschooling. Given the broad socioeconomic status of our residents and the various views of education by parents within that group, one of the best ways to homogenize American youngsters and help create a new generation that values education is through such universal preschool programming.
We also noted in a prior post the anthropological viewpoint of Martin Haberman and a recent study of 207 school-based programs designed to foster children’s social and emotional skills that directly supports Haberman’s views. The four year study sponsored by the Chicago-based group CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, reveals that if the teacher takes the time to teach students to better manage their emotions through the practice of empathy, caring, and cooperation, there will not only be an improved social climate in the classroom, student academic achievement levels also improve in the process.
Finland appears to focus on this process during the preschool years, a factor that leads to exceptionally positive results later on. It is also the first step in eliminating socioeconomic differences within the school setting.
Delineated High School
While there is little grading and in essence no tracking in Finland, ninth grade does become a divider for Finnish students. Students are separated for the last three years of high school based on grades. Under the current structure, 53% will go to academic high school and the rest enter vocational school.
Using that format, Finland has an overall high-school dropout rate of about 4%. Even at the vocational schools the rate of 10% pummels America’s 25% high school drop out rate.
There is no silly “college for all” mantra and there certainly isn’t a push to have all students sit through a trigonometry class if that is not relevant to the student. More importantly, there is also no negative connotation to the concept of vocational school.
We noted previously the writings of Charles Murray in an earlier post, Too Many Americans Are Going to College, that far too many people see such training as second class while college is thought of as first class. Julie Walker, executive director of the American Association of School Librarians, notes the obvious student responsibility results at this juncture.
While “the U.S. holds teachers accountable for teaching” in Finland “they hold the students accountable for learning.”
Perhaps more importantly, there is a realization of the realistic academic potential of the entire student population. As Murray notes in another article, “Half of all children are below average, and teachers can do only so much for them.”
Most educators cringe upon hearing such a statement given an inherent belief that they can make a difference in the life of a child. But Murray does not contest that thought. Instead he focuses on the fact that there are limitations to innate intelligence.
Murray’s opinion, and we concur, is that more American students should examine the option of vocational education/training. Notes Murray, finding a lawyer or physician is relatively easy but finding a plumber, carpenter or other qualified tradesman in America actually tends to be far more difficult.
Such a push would again begin the process of leveling the socioeconomic playing field by giving every young adult a meaningful trade or vocational opportunity at a minimum.
Free Higher Education
All that said, perhaps the most positive aspect may have nothing to do with what takes place at the traditional school age level at all. Instead, it may well have everything to do with Finland’s approach to higher education.
In Finland, there are 20 universities which are owned and largely funded by the Finnish government. University studies are available to all students though students are selected based on the results of entrance exams. Most importantly, theses schools are free to students.
In addition, in Finland, another set of higher education institutions called polytechnics is available, again for free. These schools offer a very close link to working life with a focus on developing expert skills for various different vocational sectors. The entrance requirement for entering a polytechnic is that a student must have passed the traditional academic high school matriculation exam or have completed their initial vocational qualification.
Whereas higher education in Finland levels the socioeconomic playing field, higher education in America currently exacerbates existing social disparities and inequalities. In America, a parent’s income becomes a key component of the higher education process. Therefore, a parents’ social class is a significant predictor of participation in higher education. While it is possible for some very bright children to escape their social and economic situations, higher education in America today tends to perpetuate the socioeconomic stratification that currently exists.
Each of the aforementioned areas would seem to be a potential catalyst for significant change in American education. Unfortunately, none of these is consistent with any of the recent governmental education changes implemented here.
In fact, our most recent attempt at creating a similar catalyst towards improving education, our legislation known as the No Child Left Behind Act, stands as a truly oppressive act when compared to the steps taken by Finland. Whereas both countries indicate a desire to have a highly educated workforce, the government of Finland has created a true system of opportunity whereby its citizens can in fact join that workforce.
Photo of Finnish student by Ekurvine.