Finnish Lessons – What We Can Learn

The Bottom Line

  • Finland’s gains have been accomplished with almost exclusive public funding of education, which includes higher and adult education. In 2007 Finland spent 5.6% of its GDP on education. This compares to 7.6% in the US. Norway, another small, homogeneous Nordic nation spends almost as much as the US and performs about as well, which is way below Finland. Clearly, money is rarely the solution to the problems of education systems.

The Cost of Grade Repetition

  • One way to save money is to effectively eliminate grade retention. Being sent back is also demoralizing and rarely produces the expected improvements as it doesn’t focus on those parts of the curriculum in which the student needs targeted help. Personalized learning and differentiation are the basic principles. Diversity of students’ personalities, abilities, and orientations has to be taken into account in crafting learning environments. This has been one of the most demanding challenges for teachers. The special education system discussed early is one reason the Finns don’t need grade retention. Secondary education is also more flexible as selected courses can be completed at different rates. This allows some students to finish in less than three years while others take longer. Lower performing countries still have significant grade retention. In France, for example, 40% of students repeat a grade at some point.

Less Is More

  • Finnish teachers spend less time teaching than their counterparts in other nations. This gives them more time for planning and professional development each day. In other countries, by the time teachers finish the longer hours of teaching, they are too tired to engage in anything professional. There is also less in the way of homework, which most students complete prior to leaving school for the day. After teaching ends the school stays open for other activities and students can choose to stay or leave. Like most countries in Europe, sports are run by sports associations. The schools cooperate but the cost is not part of the education budget like it is the US.

More Tests, Poorer Results

  • Sahlberg presents data showing how countries that rely on test-based accountability policies have shown declining performance in math and similar trends in reading and science. At the same time, Finland has emphasized teacher professionalism, school-based curriculum, trust-based leadership, and school collaboration. It is clear from this that frequent standardized testing is not a necessary condition for improvement. Finns do a lot of diagnostic and formative assessment, which each teacher is responsible for. He also sites evidence that standardized tests causes teachers to redesign their teaching according to the tests, give higher priority to tested subjects, and do more drilling and memorization.
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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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