Finnish Lessons – What We Can Learn

Skeptics Say We’re Not Like Finland – Nothing to Learn

  • When it comes to size, Finland is about the same size or a lot bigger than 30 states in the US. This defeats the argument that Finland is too small to learn from. While its population is not as diverse as some states, its diversity has increased significantly in the last decade. About 5% are foreign born and must be proficient in a native language to gain citizenship. The poverty level is 3.4% compared to 21.7% in the US. Pasi would argue that the education system helps keep poverty low. Unlike the US where all students study a foreign language but few ever become fluent, Finnish students know that they need to at least master English if they want to be successful. (Doug: You could make the case that much foreign language study in the US is wasted as few students become fluent in a second language.)
  • Perhaps the best argument that the nothing to learn from Finland skeptics have is the narrow nature of the international tests that show Finland to be at or near the top. Pasi uses available international assessments to make his case that Finland has gone from mediocre to a top performer in the last twenty years or so. The bottom line for me is that countries and localities that ignore the Finnish story, presented here for the first time in a book-length treatment, do so at their own risk.

Finnish History

  • In Chapter 1 Pasi gives us a quick look at Finnish history with a focus on what happened on the education front since World War II. You might want to take a quick look at Finnish history in Wikipedia to fill in some gaps. In 1945 the government established a national school committee, which put forth the idea that school should aim at educating students to realize themselves as holistic individuals, possessing intrinsic motivation for further education. They also believed that reform should be grounded in empirical studies so research became a part of education policy making.
  • Reforms of 1970 ushered in a focus on early diagnosis and treatment of special needs students, and a focus on career counseling. It also required all teachers to begin work in a school with students of diverse abilities. They were expected to employ methods the enabled differential learning. Teaching was perceived as a high-status profession.

Current Structure

  • Students start at the age of 7 and attend Unified Comprehensive Basic School until age 16. At that time they take the only national test, the National Matriculation Examination, which is used to help determine if students go on to Upper Secondary School or Upper Vocational School (with 1/6th of the time spent in on-the-job training) for the next three years. The exam is offered twice a year and retakes are allowed.Many teachers and the author feel that even this one exam has the negative impacts of teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, and stress.
  • Students can transfer between these schools and take courses in both if they wish. After that there are trade schools and universities for further education. Students not ready for upper secondary schools (5%) can attend a voluntary 10th grade of basic school or leave school. In 2008, 93% completed one of the upper secondary schools. Secondary schools have replaced semesters with five or six periods per year. The system is not based on fixed grades and allows greater choice. This allows students to finish at their own pace. At all levels, the focus is on a more flexible, open and interaction-rich learning environment, where an active role for students comes first.
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3 Responses to “Finnish Lessons – What We Can Learn”

  1. DgBorn says:

    This is a nice summary.

    However, there’s a minor flaw in the description of the current structure of the Finnish education system. There is no standardized test at age 16; the national matriculation exam is the final test of the upper secondary school (called lukio, somewhat equivalent to the American high school, even though more advanced topics such as differential calculus are taught).

    Also, the test can be taken in three parts and students are free to choice which tests they will take, and will they take them in the spring or in the autumn.

    Those who choose the vocational education never take any standardized tests, and the choice between upper secondary school and vocational school is not entirely, or not even largely nowadays, determined by academic success: many successful students also opt for vocational education.

  2. Leah says:

    An amazing summary and thank you DgBorn for clearing that up. Actually, I also heard that the NME is also taken at 16.

    The overall picture I get is that things are much more customized in Finland- principals and administrators work with teachers to make them better at what they do best and teachers customize the student experience for each student helping them to achieve more in their strengths.

    I wonder if things are also different from an employer perspective. I feel like employers are one of the key driving factors to get all of our students in the US to college and some employers won’t value a vocational or trade school like they will a top University. I wonder if the culture is different in Finland.

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