Unless you’re really interested in education, you might not be aware of what’s going on in Finland’s schools. If you are, you may have read a few click bait articles about more recess, delayed kindergarten, and play based learning, but the whole story is much more interesting…and complex.
In this article, I hope to shed some light on why Finland has become such a buzzword for educational experts, how they got to be where they are, and all of the parts that make up the whole of their successful educational system. Throughout this article, I will compare what is working in Finland to what is currently being done in the United States to help paint a complete picture.
Let’s begin with the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that put Finland on the map (as an educational buzzword that is) in the first place. PISA in an international test given every three years to 15 year olds in the areas of reading, math, and science with the 65 countries that have chosen to participate.
Below, I have listed the most recent scores (from 2012) from Finland and the United States in the three categories that the test covers. Below that, you will find their overall ranks listed with all of the other countries who participated. *Also note that Finland was ranked 1st in reading, 4th in math, and 3rd in science in 2000, 1st in reading and science and 2nd in math in 2003, 1st in reading and 2nd in math and science in 2006, and 1st in reading, 6th in math, and 2nd in science in 2009.
- Reading – 6th
- Science – 5th
- Math – 12th
- Reading – 24th
- Science – 28th
- Math – 36th
2012 PISA Results
- Hong Kong-China
- Finland – 12th
- New Zealand
- Czech Republic
- US – 36th
- Costa Rica
Since PISA began in 2000, Finland has held 1st place for reading year after year after year (which is why it initially gained such notoriety). The 2012 testing year saw Finland fall in rank from it’s usual top spots; read the theories about why that happened here. One of the theories is that countries like China, who are now showing up in the highest positions, emphasize rigorously preparing for tests via rote memorization which leaves children lacking in social and practical skills, self-discipline and imagination, and curiosity and passion for learning (source). Another theory is that Finland has been so preoccupied with being in a fishbowl while everyone analyzed what made them so great instead of focusing on their continuous progression. Always room for improvement, right?
1. Finland’s Reform
It is important to note that the educational system in Finland hasn’t always produced such pleasing results. In his article in the New Republic, “The Children Must Play“, Samuel E. Abrams, a visiting scholar at Teachers College, explains how Finland turned it’s educational system around in the 1970s.
“Finland’s schools weren’t always so successful. In the 1960s, they were middling at best. In 1971, a government commission concluded that, poor as the nation was in natural resources, it had to modernize its economy and could only do so by first improving its schools. To that end, the government agreed to reduce class size, boost teacher pay, and require that, by 1979, all teachers complete a rigorous master’s program.”
By recognizing the need for change and taking radical steps to do so, Finland is now performing near the top of the list. They faced a lot of scrutiny about their methods until the PISA test results came out in 2000, and now everyone is trying to figure out what makes Finland’s schools so successful.
In the rest of this article, I’ll focus on the hallmarks that have contributed to Finland’s successful educational system with a brief comparison to the educational system in the United States. Please keep in mind that it is all of these components working together that contribute to Finland’s success.
2. Being a Welfare State
As one of the world’s best functioning welfare states, Finland takes care of all of its citizens equally. With a poverty rate of just 5.3%, you won’t find huge disparities between the rich and the poor. Even if you grew up in poverty here, however, you would still get the same resources including high quality education as someone who grew up with more privileges.
Some people say that Finnish people are paid like doctors, but it’s not because teachers get paid more, it’s that doctors get paid less. In Finland, the amount of money you pay for a speeding ticket is all relative to your income. One millionaire was fined the equivalent of $103,000 for going 40 mph in a 35 mph. In Finland, the playing field is made as level as can be.
United States: In the United States, there is not the same sort of equality. The poverty rate in the U.S is 15%, but it’s even higher for children at 21%. That means that there are 15.5 million children, or roughly 1 in 5, that live in poverty. (Check out this poverty map to see the huge variance of poverty statistics from state to state.) In the United States, there is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, and if you grow up in poverty, you will NOT be afforded the same opportunities as those who grow up with more privileges. In fact, the United States is the ONLY nation in the world where the quality of public education is based on local wealth.
So, in the end, Finland’s economy promotes social harmony, but the competitive nature of America’s economy has fueled many innovations…but at what price?
3. A Culture of Literacy and Learning
Finland is a country that prides itself on their love of learning and literacy. Check out this great PowerPoint created by the Finnish National Board of Education that explains what they do as a society (not just as an educational system) to create successful students.
One way that Finnish society supports literacy is by having one of the world’s best library systems. They are constantly getting new books and there is a high check out rate. Most homes subscribe to at least one newspaper, and the typical Finnish family starts the day at breakfast reading the morning paper and commenting on the day’s news.
About half of all Finnish TV is broadcast in a foreign language (mostly English) using Finnish subtitles (rather than dubbing). So when children are watching foreign TV, they need to read everything in Finnish! Bedtime stories are also a very important ritual.
United States: What are the priorities of the United States as a whole? This was kind of a hard one to sum up because the United States is so much bigger than Finland, but I think that this guide to living in America for foreigners gives a very revealing portrayal of what foreigners should expect when trying to fit into “American culture”. First of all, it explains that Americans are individualistic and time oriented as well as friendly and direct. It goes on to say that Americans love their sports, love their hobbies, and are fastidious about their appearance. It also warns of the prejudices and racism found mainly in small towns and in the south often expressed in off color humor where the presenter maybe doesn’t realize that they are sounding racist.
In my opinion, I feel that there is this pervasive (yet erroneous) notion of the “American Dream” fostered by stories such as Abraham Lincoln living in a log cabin and rising to become president just because he worked hard enough when the reality is best expressed in the story of “The Death of a Salesman” which gives a much more realistic (and grim) portrayal of this ideal. The majority of American culture that I have encountered (throughout my brief exposure to the entirety of the United States) can be summed up by our stereotype of nerds. They are often portrayed in sitcoms, movies, and life as being very smart yet socially awkward, not into fashion, not invited to parties, and thus a less desirable position to be in. Then you have those who slough of school, who don’t need to work hard, and who have all the friends and popularity portrayed as the ultimate achievement leading to true happiness. The fact that the notion of “nerds being unpopular” even exists reveals that our true opinions are of learning and literacy are that it is more important to look cool than to be smart and that the two don’t typically mix.
4. Teacher Training
I think that one of the most important things that Finland did to reform education was to create highly qualified teachers. They did this by not just requiring all teachers to get a Master’s degree, but by paying for it as well. Not only is college in Finland free, but when teachers are enrolled in the graduate level teacher’s program for three years, they get a stipend for living expenses so that they don’t go into debt while they’re going to school.
Getting into this graduate level program is tough with only 10-15% of applicants being accepted, so the teacher education program is truly getting the top of the pool. Being a teacher in Finland is considered a highly prestigious position because the entire Finnish culture supports learning.
United States: In the United States, most states require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate, but because of teacher shortages, there are many alternative routes to becoming a teacher and private schools do not often require teaching certificates at all. Also, there is no free college here. You may get some financial aid for a bachelor’s degree, but the average debt of a Master’s level degree in education is $50,000.
5. Taken Care of From Birth
One of the hallmark’s of Finland’s success is how they take care of their mothers and children. All working mothers are provided a 4 month paid maternity leave in addition to a free Finnish baby box (or cash value) that includes everything needed for a newborn. Then, either the mother or father can take a paid parental leave until the baby is 9 months old. This benefit is extended to adoptive parents as well.
If a parent chooses to stay home with their child until he/she is 3, they will get a Child Care Allowance in the equivalence of $385/mo. Approximately 50% of all mothers take full advantage of this. *This is in addition to the $107/mo. Child Benefit package that is given until the child reaches 17.
United States: The United States is pretty much the only country that doesn’t provide maternity leave for mothers…or fathers, except for assuring twelve weeks of unpaid paternity leave without losing their job. The Child Tax Credit does take approximately $1,000 off your tax bill per child, a recent increase which is actually pretty cool.
6. Early Childhood Education (Day Care)
When parents in Finland choose work and send their children to day care, it is not at all considered to be a babysitting service. There are National Curriculum Guidelines that discuss such things as the child’s well-being as the target, the role of the educator, the joy of learning, the role of language, how young children learn through play, parental engagement, and content orientations in the areas of mathematics, nature, science, history, aesthetics, religion, ethics, religion, and philosophy. This is because day cares fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. In addition, most teaching and guidance staff in day cares hold a bachelor’s degree.
About 80% of mothers with their youngest child between the ages of 3-6 are working and most take advantage of the municipal day care system which is heavily subsidized based on family size and income. There is also a private day care allowance if that is the route parents choose.
United States: In the United States, it is a completely different story. First of all, there is no unifying system for day cares, no guiding curriculum that focuses on the “whole child” or any sort of educational or enrichment standards whatsoever, and the Department of Education is not involved in any way shape, or form. Instead, day cares are overseen by the Licensing and Regulatory Affairs that merely provides a massive checklist of possible health and safety violations. (Check out this example from Michigan.) Even though every state is slightly different, most day cares require only a high school diploma for employment.
A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Child Health Development found that the majority of day care facilities were either “fair” or “poor”, and only 10% were found to provide high quality care. The recommendation is that there is one caregiver for every three infants between the ages of 6-18 months, but only one-third of settings meet that standard. Horror stories like these are way too common in day cares across the United States.
The overall statistic says that 61% of all children ages 3-6 are in some sort of center-based care. The reality is that for poor families, this looks more like 45%, and for wealthier families, it looks more like 72%. And even though the government subsidizes up to $3,000 per family for daycare (regardless of income), this only covers a fraction of the costs which can be upwards of $15,000/year.
7. Pre-Primary Education (Pre-School and Kindergarten)
While kindergarten may not start until children are 7, mandatory preschool starts when children are 6. Before this became mandatory in 2015, 97% of children were already attending preschool.
Just like with the day cares, the preschools are governed by the Ministry of Education and use a very holistic pre-primary curriculum (used for preschool and kindergarten) that focuses on the development of the whole child. This document discusses the purpose of pre-primary education, general objectives of education and learning, the concept of learning, what constitutes a good learning environment, and more. And while yes, they do include paragraphs detailing the big ideas for language and interaction as well as mathematics, they also have sections explaining the instruction of ethics and religion, environmental and natural studies, health, physical and motor development, arts and culture, and more. It is a very well rounded curriculum guideline.
United States: In the United States, preschool starts at the age of 3 or 4, and it is not mandatory. A 2015 report by the Department of Education called A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America, explains how only 41% of 4 year olds attend preschool and that there are racial and socioeconomic disparities that prevent access to high quality preschool programs for all children. It also explains how we know that the preschool education provided is abysmal and that steps are being taken to correct that…but are they the right steps?
Grants were recently given to 20 states to design better plans for teaching young children, and states like Missouri did a nice job of creating Early Learning Standards, but the problem is that the focus is just too narrow and too specific. Instead of presenting a narrative that gives the big idea while still allowing for teacher and student autonomy and flexibility, everything is broken up into core subjects and then extremely specific descriptors are given for every possible skill that anyone could ever imagine covering. The document is so large and overbearing that there is no way someone could teach all of this without carrying around a little guidebook telling them what to say and do every step of the way.
8. A Curriculum That Focuses on the Whole Child
Here are the Finnish standards for the basic education, which covers grades 1st – 9th. Like with pre-primary education, they focus on the whole child and cover a wide variety of topics that extend far beyond just what is measured on standardized tests. While art, music, and PE are being cut for budgetary reasons in the U.S., Finland still finds time to teach crafts, home economics, foreign languages, health, religion, ethics, music, visual arts, physical education, and more. This focus on the whole child is one of the hallmarks that makes their educational system not just work, but thrive.
The Center on International Education Benchmarking, an organization dedicated to learning from the world’s high performing education systems explains how,
“Finnish classrooms emphasize the importance of learning through doing, and place particular emphasis on group work, creativity and problem-solving skills. From primary school onward, students are expected to work collaboratively on interdisciplinary projects. In many cases, students are expected to contribute to the design of these projects as well. In upper secondary school, students are expected to contribute to the design of their course of study.”
They also describe how,
“In the early years of school, Finnish students often stay together in a class with the same teacher for several years. That way, the teacher can follow their development over several grade levels, and they are able to learn in what many consider to be a family-like environment.”
United States: In the United States, we have federally created Common Core Standards that most states have adopted and then adapted for their own personal use. Since I live in Michigan, here are Michigan’s standards. I encourage you to at least browse through their categories. You’ll notice an emphasis on core subjects with standards that give very specific examples for how each grade level should progress through each standard. Check out these English Language Arts Standards for K and 1st grade to see exactly what I mean.
There is this sense in the United States that we have to teach skills to mastery and that it is facts and skills that will lead to knowledge and success, but Finland has touched on something that I have found to be highly successful in my own teaching experience both in the classroom and with my own children, and in my opinion, it is this:
Children are not empty vessels to be filled. They are curious, inquisitive, and imaginative beings that only need to be given the tools to reach their given potential. Our role as teacher should be to guide them towards their interests, to provide them with the skills and resources necessary to take their learning to the next level, and to be an audience as they share their discoveries.
If we can do this, our children will reach greater heights than anything we could ever design for them.
9. How Finnish Children Learn to Read
There is a misconception that because Finnish children don’t start going to compulsory school (kindergarten) until they are 7, they don’t start learning how to read until then, but that is simply not true.
Because the National Ministry in Finland is in charge of the day cares and preschools, it designs a curriculum that supports the literacy growth through all developmental phases. In day care, children are engaged in play based learning that prepares them for preschool. In preschool, they teach phonological awareness and vocabulary through a variety of genres and types of literature.
And this is why the Finnish National Board of Education states that,
“half of the pre-school pupils learn to read as if by chance.”
There is also a lot of support for struggling students. 37% of first-graders get some kind of additional support, but the students who struggle rarely do so because of a lack of basic skills. (i.e. Students enter school with a strong foundation in basic skills.) Early intervention is strongly emphasized, and all teachers have knowledge and expertise on learning difficulties. The cooperation between parents, teachers, and other experts is intense and is a HUGE part of student achievement.
Finally, Finnish is actually one of the easiest languages to learn how to read. The Finnish alphabet is similar to the English alphabet but with only 21 letters (that are used anyways) and no weird exceptions (like the hard and soft g and c and diagraphs). In addition, every Finnish word is pronounced exactly as it’s written, and there are simple rules for everything with very few exceptions. This makes it very easy for children how to read “as if by chance” and explains why the vast majority of Finnish students enter school with strong reading skills.
United States: Children in the United States are taught to read according to the five components of reading.
- Phonemic Awareness: Letter sounds
- Phonics: The relationship between letter names, sounds, and how they work together
- Fluency: Reading with accuracy, speed, and expression
- Vocabulary: The meaning of words
- Comprehension: Understanding what is being read
The instruction is systemic (meaning that it is carried out by the entire system), and systematic (meaning that it is carried out in a step by step process).
When it come to reading, the U.S. Department of Education supports the notion that,
“Becoming a reader is not a natural process, but requires direct and explicit instruction.”
Remember how in Finland kids were learning to read “as if by chance”? Well, not so in the U.S. Here, students must patiently wait until their empty little brains are filled with all of the facts and skills that teachers can cram in there.
And how well is this working? Not so well. According to the most recent 2015 national reading test as reported by the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) otherwise known as the “Nation’s Report Card”, only 36% of 4th graders and 38% of 8th graders were proficient in reading. Yikes!
10. No Standardized Testing
One of the biggest hallmarks of Finland’s educational system is that they have no standardized testing whatsoever. The only test they are required to take is when they graduate high school if they wish to go on to a university. Samuel E. Abrams explains how,
“While nations around the world introduced heavy standardized testing regimes in the 1990s, the Finnish National Board of Education concluded that such tests would consume too much instructional time, cost too much to construct, proctor, and grade, and generate undue stress.”
United States: In the United States, we spend $1.7 billion on standardized testing every year. In her article in Education Week, “Why Bipartisanism Isn’t Working for Educational Reform“, Ann Stuart Wells, a professor at Teachers College points out that since NCLB, we now spend five to six times more funds on testing with 90% of this going to private testing companies. In this environment, teachers can’t help but feel inundated with testing that seems to drive every aspect of their teaching day. Even Obama says that he regrets “taking the joy out of teaching and learning with too much testing”.
11. Teacher (and Student) Freedom and Autonomy
Not only are all teachers in Finland highly qualified, they are trusted to do what is best for their students. Samuel E. Abrams explains how,
“Teachers in Finland design their own courses, using a national curriculum as a guide, not a blueprint, and spend about 80 percent as much time leading classes as their U.S. counterparts do, so that they have sufficient opportunity to plan lessons and collaborate with colleagues.”
In his article, “Inside of a Finnish Classroom“, Tim Walker, an American teacher teaching in Finland shares his observations of what Finnish classrooms look like.
“In Finland, it’s common to find classrooms that are very different from each other. This makes sense given that a teacher’s individuality is deeply respected.”
He goes on to explain the slow pace of the classroom where the teacher is calm instead of, “anxiously pacing around the classroom, checking in on everyone”, which is so often the mood in the U.S. schools, especially during testing time. Teachers also dress casually, are called by their first names, and students don’t even have to wear shoes.
Check out this video of a teacher in a Finnish school where you’ll notice her calm demeanor, the freedom and autonomy that the children have, the lack of discipline problems, the way that the students are engaged and on task, and the way that each child is given time and attention. At no time does it feel like a script is being followed.
United States: Check out this video of a teacher in the United States teaching literacy. This is pretty much the exact same thing you will see in just about every primary literacy lesson because teachers in the United States must follow a very scripted method of teaching which leaves little room for freedom and autonomy for teachers or students. The teacher is typically either addressing the entire class as a group or working with small ability groups.
12. Less Time in School
In Finland, school starts between 8 and 9 am and ends between 1 and 2 pm. During this 5 hour school day (7-8 year olds attend half days), there is lunch (hot lunches are provided free for every student) with a 75 minute long recess and 15 minute breaks every hour where kids must go outside to play. Their playgrounds are also elaborately designed (sometimes with the help of the children) in ways that encourage lots of movement as well as creative and imaginative play.
In his article published in Education Week, “Classroom Shock: What I Am Learning as a Teacher in Finland“, Tim Walker explains how not only are the kids getting a break every hour, but the teachers are as well. During their 15 minute breaks, teachers are encouraged to catch up with their colleagues while drinking coffee in the teacher’s lounge rather than frantically trying to prepare for the next lesson.
United States: Students in the U.S. spend about 7 hours a day at school with a 30 minute lunch recess and maybe a 15 minute morning recess for the younger grades.
13. Smaller Class Sizes
In 1985, when authorities in Finland postponed tracking from 7th to 10th grade (meaning the separation of students based on ability), they knew that they would need to make class sizes smaller to accommodate these heterogeneous groups. Now, the average class size in 1st and 2nd grade is 19 students and in grades 3 through 9, it is 21 students.
United States: It’s very hard to find reliable data about class sizes in the United States because we are governed by a 16:1 student to teacher ratio, meaning that specialist teachers from speech therapists to music teachers who might not be in the room every day count towards this ratio leaving some classrooms to balloon to 30+ students. We saw this in our daughter’s kindergarten class before we switched schools.
14. Play Based Learning
Finland encourages play based learning as the foundation of day care, preschool, and kindergarten.
In an article published in the Atlantic by Finland education blogger Tim Walker, he explains how kindergarten students only engage in desk work, like handwriting, once a week. He goes on to explain what he noticed while observing classrooms:
“Instead of a daily itinerary, two of them [teachers] showed me a weekly schedule with no more than several major activities per day: Mondays, for example, are dedicated to field trips, ballgames, and running, while Fridays—the day I visited—are for songs and stations.”
During his observations, he noticed kids singing songs and chants, attending stations such as fort-making with bed sheets, arts and crafts, and running a pretend ice cream shop.
United States: In select preschools in the U.S. there is a remarkable programs being used Tools of the Mind that uses play based Vygotsky-inspired learning that encourages creative and imaginative play, but this is the exception, not the rule.
15. Cooperation not Competition
In his article, “The Finnish Miracle“, published in Great Kids!, Hand Pellissier, a freelance writer on education and brain development, explains how,
“Americans give lip service to the notion that ‘all men are created equal’, but our appetite for competition creates an intense focus on ranking low and high performers — whether they’re schools or students.”
Without standardized testing in Finland, schools aren’t ranked against each other, teachers aren’t evaluated primarily by the test scores of their students, and the curriculum isn’t organized around these tests. This creates an environment without the pressure to “perform” on one single measure of assessment, but to allow for more open ended model of learning.
Students aren’t ability grouped, and the advanced students work alongside the struggling ones. There isn’t a sense of one group looking down on another, they realize that they all have different strengths and weaknesses, and they work together to help each other out.
There are also no private schools, no schools of choice, and no sense that the best students are being skimmed off the top. Also, most schools don’t even provide organized sports.
Since their reform in the 1970s, Finland has turned around a stagnant economy by focusing on the improvement of their educational system. As a result, they have a thriving economy and one of the world’s most respected educational systems. They didn’t do this by just having children start kindergarten at a later age or providing more recess time (which are the two big buzz topics that always get all of the attention), they did it by focusing on the entire infrastructure of education from the ground up…from funding, to training, to best practices, to seeing results.
In the end, what makes Finland work is a mindset. They love learning, they enjoy it, they see each child as an individual, not a test score, and they provide an open ended method of instruction that leaves the sky as the limit. By adopting this mindset within our families, within our homes, and within our communities, maybe that can be the first step in a long journey of educational improvement in the United States…and around the world.
*Check out my free resources, tips, and tricks for teaching children how to read here.
To Learn More:
In my article, I have provided links where appropriate to all of my sources. These links below are either resources that I didn’t link to in the article or that I thought provided a very thorough and complete look at this topic.
- The Secret to Finland’s Success With Schools, Moms, Kids—and Everything – This is a very comprehensive article about Finland that might just make you want to move there!
- 11 Ways Finland’s Education System Shows Us that “Less is More” – A great article that sums up everything that is great not just about Finnish schools, but about the Finnish way of life.
- What We Can’t Learn from Finland’s Schools: Apples, Oranges, and Denial – This article does a nice job of explaining the folly of comparing schools in the US to Finland and why we can’t just adopt one part of their policy and expect the same results.
- Finland: Slow and Steady Reform for Consistently High Results – This is a very thorough and informative article that covers the main points of what makes schools in Finland successful.
- A Research Synthesis / Unequal School Funding in the United States – If you’ve ever wondered how education in the United States is funded, this is a great resource.
- Finland – World’s Best Readers by Stuff4Educators.com – Check out some great documentaries along with a list of the hallmarks that make Finland’s educational system great.
- NBC Nightly News “Why Finland Has the Best Education System in the World“
- Finland Comes to England – Primary – A great video of a teacher exchange program with the UK.
- Literacy Primary Reading – A looked at mixed ability grouping in a book making literacy project.