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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.

ekurvineAt 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. wikimedia.orgHis 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.

Optoelectronics Research Center, TampereIn 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.

Three Possibilities

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.

31 comments

1 Theo Polk { 03.31.08 at 4:03 pm }

I would like to receive more info. regarding homework for our children and how to make it more appealing to them once they enter higher education.

2 GreySwan { 05.15.08 at 11:18 pm }

I wanted to save you the trouble: Finnish students do well because the students are genetically smarter than the students in America. Thats it. There school system is so-so, but the students are great. To make it simpler, here is an estimated average IQ by Race.

Blacks – 85
Hispanics – 92
Caucasians – 100 (Up to 107 in certain countries)
East Asians – 100-110
Jews – 115
Brahmins – 115

Thats it. The US has more blacks and hispanics so we do worse. Asia does well because there are more Asians (who are smarter).

Ahh, to think how much money and misery I have just saved you.

GreySwan

3 WhiteSwan { 06.04.08 at 11:45 pm }

RE: GreySwan

There is a problem with your premise of Race. If you are to examine a person’s genetic lineage through DNA testing, you would find that most people (except for extremely isolated communities) especially in the USA have a very mixed background. The concept of Race simply if a farce in the genetic sense. However if you examine different cultures, you will find that learning is not treated the same way. “Jews” and Asians both have strong learning ethos. While in my estimation, the “Blacks” and “Hispanics” in the US as a whole do not.

The problem is then cultural, which is a hard fix.

4 dstorre { 06.05.08 at 8:47 pm }

Tests of intelligence are as often as not tests of what communities do to the minds of their people. We know that IQ’s can be improved by better surroundings. A generally low test score, therefore, in any part of the country and among large numbers of its inhabitants, may merely reveal that in that region society is an enemy of its people.

H.A. Overstreet

maybe the problem is not race or culture, but a racist society that propagates a white power structure. In the article they mention that class, not iq, predicts college entry. Thus, does iq matter?

5 BlueMoon { 06.06.08 at 1:01 am }

So sick of these Europe vs USA comparisons… when Europe has the levels of diversity that the USA experiences, they too will experience dropping test scores. Step into the average American school and you will find disparity in achievement based on race. Attribute it to whatever you wish, it’s there, and it’s real.

6 amandaaa { 06.06.08 at 10:58 am }

to further what bluemoon said, these european countries don’t have the land mass or the population that the us has, either. it’s much like compparing the state of say, massachusetts with the us as a whole- only if they had been left completely to their own devices. not to say the article isn’t interesting or worthwhile- it is worth looking at what works.

7 mandinchka { 06.08.08 at 11:51 am }

There is a sizable Swedish minority in Finland that the original article does not address.

8 Petul { 06.11.08 at 4:20 am }

mandinchka, yes you’re right there is a Swedish minority with arounf 200 000 people in Finland. However they attend their own school where teaching is in swedish. I know this because I’m a part of this minority and have just finished ninth grade. It’s really fun reading this kind of articles. thx :)

I’ll gladly answer questions about the school system from a students perspecitve, just contact me at me email leander.peter@gmail.com

9 Jonesin { 06.13.08 at 2:17 pm }

The US also has a larger per capita number of guns in schools I’m sure. That is not strictly an ethnic concern. Any country that idolizes 50 cent for gettin’ shot 9 times has cultural problems.

10 anon { 06.19.08 at 3:29 pm }

It is not a matter of ‘race’ or genetic differences that determine the overall lower IQ’s of many minorities in the USA, GreySwan. These lower IQ’s are a by-product of the very socio-economic differences that the current American education system tends to exacerbate. Furthermore, the role of organizing education is largely relegated to the individual states, so the geographic/population differences between the US and European countries is somewhat less relevant. One of the many larger problems that we have is a cultural disdain of “elitism” and “academia” in general. Look at your school boards America! They are full of people WITHOUT a college degree, let alone a degree in the field of education. In fact Margaret Spellings, the current Secretary of Education for the US Department of Education and one of the principle authors of ‘No Child Left Behind’, NEVER even worked as an educator or any other area associated with child development! Her main qualification was simply being another administration crony.

11 Martin { 06.23.08 at 9:40 am }

I would guess its very hard to learn in a school that isn’t socialy integrated. Learning is a communication of ideas, hence if the students have are exposed to prejeduce’s learning is going to be retarded because there won’t be a free exchange of ideas

12 Cornel { 06.24.08 at 7:59 am }

There is another issue with IQ tests. Most of them are favoring a certain group of individuals. The first IQ tests that were created showed a high unbalance between males and females, and they have been recalibrated (initial test subjects were Caucasians). But after noticing that there are differences between races, the test creators only assumed that such an event is normal and did not recalibrate the tests.
All in all, I am not very confident that above presented IQ statistics really show the true distribution of intelligence. Furthermore, there are several types of IQ tests. The main types are the ones that require some prerequisite knowledge and tests that don’t requires such knowledge. This can also influence the results.

13 Donald Kaspersen { 06.24.08 at 8:42 pm }

Part of the problem of dividing students before high school into two different tracks is that it requires one to believe that middle school grades reflect the potential of all students. It also requires the dividing of students by educators be without bias and that parents believe them to be so.

Finland has two major cultural groups – Finns and Swedes, peopel that have been living with close association for centuries in societies that, for the most part, have cultural norms that include inter-cultural respect.

I have worked with a man who was raised in another European country known for the quality of people they turn out and which also have a tracking system, but the cultural norms were different. His father was killed in Normany, and, his mother having no personal skills, was forced to take in other people’s wash to survive. Despite his brilliance, the people in charge of tracking students determine that it would never do to send a washer-woman’s son on to a university. He has the equivilent of a community college education and has outshone doctors of chemistry I have known.

It is simplistic to think that you can adapt the European system to America. Do you really think that minorities, if they are found in greater numbers in the non-academic track are going to stand for it. The politics is completely unworkable here. When we are not measuring by money earned, we are measuring meritocratically.

And it will not only be minorities that will complain. The American dream for those who have come to this country from Europe is that one generation, or perhaps two, will work in service and blue collar jobs so that another can enter the American university system. If a tracking system tends to extend the generations that it takes for families to get their college graduates, their doctors, their lawyers, their teachers, their business people, they will yell loud and long. State legislatures and Congress will buckle. If you think that the cry against elitism is bad now, just wait.

New York City had more students in a vocational track when I was a student decades ago. While the structures survive, it seems to me, having worked six years in the ’90s in a vocational highschool, the number of students that were involved in skills that would improve the economics of their generation from the previous one was lower.

If educators behind ivy-covered walls pine for the Finnish system, that is harmful, because our society will have to come up with another model to work for our far more ethnically complex society.

14 Ryan { 07.04.08 at 2:49 am }

Okay, so who, in particular, is the author of this article? The lack of ownership is no accident. Whoever wrote this knows very little about education and even less about forming a valid argument around a decent thesis.

You (the author) make some good points along the way, but your three “suggestions” lack any real justification based on any significant findings in [the Swedish study]. Just about every fallacy in forming a good argument is included in this post. This is sad, because your motivation seems pure. I just wish more intelligent people would receive attention over tripe such as this.

15 lucklucky { 07.25.08 at 10:09 pm }

Well i would expect from someone that talks about education to not have a sloppy discurse: “Free Higher Education”

Education is not free, there are many resources being diverted to it that could be in other places. “Tax Based Education” would be much more correct.

16 GreySwan { 08.18.08 at 3:23 pm }

It is true that there is much racial admixture in the US. E.G. Half Blacks/Half Whites have an IQ ~94 — Just what you might expect. The reason blacks in the US are so much smarter than in africa is because they are ~20% white. This has nothing to do with ‘socioeconomic status’, its the other way around. That is why Chinese are successful in EVERY country in the world they go to.

17 cmagalhy rivera { 10.28.08 at 8:41 pm }

This information is so true and so wonderful. I ‘m a retired teacher in Puerto Rico and will take this information to my school. It is important to start making changes that really do work! Thank you.

18 sadsas { 01.13.09 at 9:18 pm }

America is stupid even though i am an American i can still admit it is true

19 Spanish teacher { 05.01.09 at 11:41 am }

Lets take all the accountability out of the hands of students, blame it on race, money, culture and IQ, and then test them on how “they learn” and see the results… Does anyone else see the problem here?!?!?! Americans just don’t want to be accountable!!!

20 joe { 05.23.09 at 1:17 am }

This is why I homeschool.

21 jeanine { 06.28.09 at 12:11 am }

“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.”

This sounds like the reason they have free university education…there may be a lack of grants/scholarships to be had is academic achievement is not celebrated by organizations there. Standardized tests, unfortunately, influence a student’s access to those scholarships. Without financial aid, it would seem impossible for many students to afford university.

22 Doug { 07.20.09 at 12:53 pm }

First of all there are some “read between the lines” racists commenting here. I would argue that our IQ tests and our standardized tests are deliberately designed to make the WASP culture look more intelligent. They are biased and that’s that. I think the only people who will argue this point are the WASPs.

NCLB is not at all about the students. It is there to intentionally try to break up the largest union in the country. The NEA. Look at the facts. What happens to a school that does not meet or exceed on state standardized tests(which supposedly by 2012 must be 100% of all students)? After a couple of year of “failure” the Feds can come in and fire everyone and start over. Anyone that understands tenure knows that even the administrators in a school have a difficult time letting go of a tenured teacher who slipped through the system even if they are horrible at the job. Why? The Union will support them no matter what.

Responsibility is also a great factor here. Americans have become a nation of people who cannot take responsibility for their own actions. We are all “sue happy”. If someone falls down on the sidewalk in front of my house I somehow become responsible. I didn’t push them down. They were not paying attention. Take responsibility. Having worked in the public school system for the last 12 years, I have seen this lack of personal responsibility over and over again. It is never the student or parents fault something happens. It is always someone else s fault. This is also why we are depriving our students of using technology in the classrooms. We are afraid that a student might cyber bully another student and the school will be held accountable. Why isn’t the student who did the bullying held accountable? I do not believe that European schools face this problem because they teach personal responsibility early on.

I think it is brilliant that they don’t start academics until kids are 7. I think that a child’s dislike of school comes from the fact that at 5 we are insisting that they become fluent readers. Kindergarten is the new 1st grade in this country. It is a researched fact that some kids will read very early while some will not fully get it until the end of second grade or early third. In American schools by that time they are tagged and labeled as slow or learning disabled and thus “left behind”. And finally, as someone above commented no education is free. However, giving people a chance to educate themselves without going into massive debt will also increase the number of people that are actually contributing to society and paying taxes. People are always complaining about where there tax money is going. This is an example of how that money would be useful and in turn create more money that would help the country.

23 Leslie { 06.23.10 at 8:55 pm }

I believe it is useful to understand how the country is different but also how we are operating in a global market; therefore, comparing international education standards is important. First Finland has worked for 35 years on improving their education, second there teachers are repsected and treated with dignity, the teacher preparation program is free and is highly competitive with only 15% of candidates accepted into the 3-year program. They also have not watered down their curriculum and fuzzied to focus with high-stakes standardized tests. In addtion, schools are funded equally – and in the US that does not happen. Diversity is in all countries – check the facts people. And for Joe — Homeschooling in many countries is outlawed – and probably for good reason.

24 Leslie { 06.23.10 at 9:01 pm }

Doug – check the ED Code Principals can remove teachers and can do this quiet easily if they follow the steps – teachers not doing their jobs should be fired and Principals need to do their jobs. The system might have flaws but random firing because of a Principal’s personal agenda would hurt everyone. Careful what you wish for.
I agree with the idea of starting school later, students who start later will do better for a myriad of reasons – emotional, physical, and intellectual.

25 ferridder { 07.25.10 at 6:37 am }

jeanine: You have the cart before the horse in two ways in a single paragraph:
With free education, there is no need for scholarships (Finland has universal state-funded grants).
Standardized tests are supposedly intended to measure and improve the learning of students, but lead to “teaching to the test”. Better to have an inherent focus on learning, instead.

Donald: The US has by far the lowest social mobility of western countries. Enough said.

26 Brandy { 08.14.10 at 11:07 pm }

Leslie – It’s clear that the extent of your knowledge of the Finnish state school system comes from a single article (I know, because I’ve read the same article several times, and you are quoting almost verbatim).

You’ve stated that teachers who don’t do their job effectively should be fired – well, I completely agree. But as a parent whose children have, collectively, attended 16 years of public school in the U.S., I can tell you that it is rare for this to happen. I have literally dozens of examples, but in one instance, my child had a teacher that would HIT students on top of the head with her pointer! This was in a public school in Ojai, CA. She also did things like leave the kids unattended for long periods of times (these were 6 year olds), which is also illegal in CA. Many, many complaints later, she still had her job. And like I said, this is just one example where a teacher we dealt with should have been fired – it simply doesn’t happen when it should.

We eventually resorted to homeschooling our children. I’ve studied the Finnish core curriculum and common practices and can say from personal experience that their model is similar to what we feel makes our own homeschool so successful. Clearly, you know very little about homeschooling, or you would not promote the idea that it is illegal in many countries “for good reason”. Actually, the main reason homeschooling is illegal in some countries is very much about governmental control, and not education at all.

Know what you are talking about before insulting others.

27 opiskelija { 08.20.10 at 3:38 am }

Studies and degrees
At universities students can study for lower (Bachelor’s) and higher (Master’s) degrees and scientific or artistic postgraduate degrees, which are the licentiate and the doctorate. It is also possible to study specialist postgraduate degrees in the medical fields.

In the two-cycle degree system students first complete the Bachelor’s degree, after which they may go for the higher, Master’s degree. As a rule, students are admitted to study for the higher degree. Universities also arrange separate Master’s programmes with separate student selection, to which the entry requirement is a Bachelor’s level degree or corresponding studies.

Studies are quantified as credits (ECTS). One year of full-time study corresponds to 60 credits. The extent of the Bachelor’s level degree is 180 credits and takes three years. The Master’s degree is 120 credits, which means two years of full-time study on top of the lower degree. In some fields, such as Medicine, the degrees are more extensive and take longer to complete.

The system of personal study plans will facilitate the planning of studies and the monitoring of progress in studies and support student guidance and counselling.

University postgraduate education aims at a doctoral degree. In addition to the required studies, doctoral students prepare a dissertation, which they defend in public. The requirement for postgraduate studies is a Master’s or corresponding degree.

Universities select their students independently and entrance examinations are an important part of the selection process.

An admitted student may only accept one student place in degree education in a given academic year. The aim is to simplify student selection procedures by means of a joint universities application system to be introduced in the 2008/2009 academic year.

Universities also offer fee-charging continuing education and open university instruction, which do not lead to qualifications but can be included in a undergraduate or postgraduate degree.

28 Kennie { 09.30.10 at 9:34 pm }

I was enjoying this article! It shows the differences between our schools well and shows that there are changes that need to b made. However, the person who wrote this…needs to get a reality check. I’m sixteen years old. And I HATE the way you look upon teenagers so stereotypicaly. We’re not ALL the same! We dont all spend countless hour listening to rap music or heavy metal. Some of us try to carry our weight in society. And with all due respect…you must spent a lot of time on the interent having written this article and probably more. You are a loser and one of the lowest forms of a human being in the world and you need to change your attitude towards people! Because some of us make due with the life we are given. But people like you spend there time acting like they know EVERYONE in the world. Get A LIFE!

29 Tony Tavares { 12.02.10 at 4:34 pm }

Part of the success of the Finnish education system is related to a emphasis on equality and the provision of equitable supports, as well as a strong child care and early childhood education system.
In addition, as some of the other comments suggest, the Finnish system offers support for the three official languages of Finland and other minority languages, as this quote from a 2004 Finnish government document on early childhood and early child care (ECEC) demonstrates. See http://pre20090115.stm.fi/cd1106216815326/passthru.pdf

“ECEC-system consists of municipal and private services.
Municipalities must offer day care in the official
languages of Finland: Finnish, Swedish and Sàmi. Day
care should also support the language and culture of
speakers of Romany and children of immigrant background.”

30 Teacher { 12.08.10 at 6:36 pm }

All of you are talking using very little facts and haven’t researched either side of the argument extensively and that will include myself. What I do know is that this is what is working in Finland and since our country wants to be NUMBER ONE why aren’t we looking that the countries that are ahead of us and how their education is ran. If you look at the following article you will see that in Singapore they are very successful as well and use the complete opposite approach.

http://zaidlearn.blogspot.com/2009/09/finnish-education-system-rocks-why.html

The key is that they VALUE education whereas the US values only one thing and that is MONEY. Now as an educator in the US I know what we are doing is not working and the philosophy of every child should be college bound is not realistic. I have 18 year old students who are still in the 9th grade not doing anything but disrupting the learning of those who want to learn. I believe kids should start school at age 7. I also think in the US, because of our diversities, students should be given choice to at the age of 16 (which is the age of the students who are in grade 9 in Finland) if they want to continue on a college bound track or start learning a trade to be productive citizens in our society. This would better prepare our students for college who want to be college bound and those who want to learn a trade and start working. Plenty more research needs to be done on what is working and why.

31 Mike { 12.26.10 at 10:05 am }

I think it would be a great idea to follow numerous school systems over seas, but it coud never work in our countrydue to the seperation of academic and vocational students at the ninth grade level based on grades, I think the organizations like the ACLU wuld have a field day wtih that,and stop it dead in its track, no matter how great the benefit.

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