The Finland Phenomenon

Education Reformation Blog

Recently, I saw the film The Finland Phenomenon a documentary by Dr. Tony Wagner. The film is “an inside look at the world’s finest secondary education system. . . . through interviews with students, teachers, parents, administrators, and government officials, Dr. Wagner reveals the surprising factors accounting for Finland’s rank as the #1 education system in the world.”

For this post I want to talk about the facts that struck a chord with me while watching the film and editorialize how strikingly different these things are from our own country. My hope is through these points, we can find common ground and use those commonalities to develop a successful system in our country.

The first point is that in Finland everyone values education: Families, students, and the government value learning—not the grade, not the race to the top, not the hoped for upward mobility of a degree, but the learning that takes place in education. This is a reality for Finland because they intentionally took steps to make it so. When they restructured their country in the 1970s, Finland needed to determine what the goal was for their country. They decided that an emphasis on citizenship, people performing their civic duty, is the key component to a successful country; with this as an end goal, Finland realized that their most important and only resource to that end are their students. Therefore, the minds of their young people became their top priority. During the past 40 years, Finland has been working relentlessly to prepare all students for work and citizenship in the 21st Century.

This is what the documentary highlighted about education in Finland:

First, the educational system is the same for all students: It is free, public education. Students also receive meals, books, and materials free of charge. They do not have private schools or charter schools that cater to the rich or some sort of lottery selection process. They believe that all children deserve the same high-quality education. They know that some students come from families who may not be able to feed their children let alone buy materials for them. No child is ever made to feel inferior or superior in the classroom based on their social or financial standing.

Students start Comprehensive School (equivalent to elementary school for the U.S.) at seven years old, but they don’t segregate students by age. It appears they use the frontier model of the one-room school house. Their schools are small; they have no more than twenty students per teacher; and the teachers in Comprehensive Schools work with the same students for many years, creating a family-like atmosphere where the students learn to trust their teachers, and teachers learn the strengths and weaknesses of their students. They have early interventions in place so that learning problems don’t follow students later in life. There are no tests in Comprehensive School; students are not tested until the secondary level. Finland finds it mind boggling how much money the U.S. puts into testing our students rather than educating them. Also, students don’t move on to secondary schools until they have learned everything they need to know at Comprehensive School.

In their secondary schools they have an integrated curriculum where students learn multiple subjects at one time. They have two tracks for students at the high school level: One is Upper Secondary School, which is academic and preparing students for college or university (about 50% of students enroll in this track). The other option is Vocational School, which is a non-academic technical track (about 45% of students choose this path). What is the most amazing fact about Vocational School is that students are employable right after graduation. Also, students can switch tracks at any time. Another major difference is that students go to school only when they have a class. They do not have to spend all day in school, learning and participating in classes they have no interest in.

Even at the secondary level, there is little testing done in the schools. This provides opportunities for students to develop their own learning styles, instead of having to learn how to pass a standardized test. Service learning and entrepreneurship are the main ways students learn at these schools. They depend on teamwork and have to learn social skills to be successful.

One striking difference I saw between our students and Finland’s students was that student after student interviewed said that they didn’t care how much money they made, as long as they loved their job. It is so different with our high school students. Most of the teenagers who are working hard are stressed over grades and/or colleges, all in hopes of making a lot of money when they graduate, which is understandable since they will have to pay for the outrageous costs of tuition. We do have some students who want to be happy rather than rich, but that is rare. We also have a lot of students who are not doing well in school, yet they still believe they will somehow get lucky and make their millions eventually. When I ask my students what they are passionate about, what they do for fun, or what makes them happy, if they even have an answer, they will say what they like to do is just for fun, but it won’t make them money.

Another difference is how Finland looks at their teachers. First, in order to get into teachers’ college, students have to have high grades in all of their classes and that does not guarantee that they get into the college. Students have to be well educated and motivated to be a teacher candidate. They also have to get their master’s degree before they can teach. A great description of teachers in Finland is that they are “knowledge workers;” they look at their roles as facilitators, helping students “discover” the concept rather than giving them the answers. Their main focus is teaching students how to think. Teachers give students “problems” to solve; students have to figure it out. This is a far cry from where our U.S. students are. We have somehow reconditioned our students into thinking that it is the teacher’s job to give all the answers to the students. In Finland, students have personal responsibility (they are trusted to get their work done without teacher intervention), allowing the teachers to help individual students who have questions. In the U.S., even parents think it’s the teacher’s job to watch students every second and somehow force them to do their work.

In Finland, teachers are also trusted to do their jobs. As a matter of fact, the entire educational system is based on trust. The government trusts the teachers to be professional; the teachers trust the students to care about their education. Because all interested parties are trusted, they want to continue to be worthy of that trust. The U.S. has anything but trust for our education system. The current state tests are the result of that lack of trust.

Finally, the Finland school system prioritizes education by demonstrating that the business of school is learning. It is not sports. It is not extra-curricular activities. They operate on a “less is more” philosophy; class time is longer, but students have fewer classes a day. Students are expected to work collaboratively. The arts are integrated in the curriculum. Students have more choices. The bottom line is that the entire country supports the importance and purpose of education.

What are your thoughts on Finland’s education system? Could we use their model in the U.S.? I think we can. Before watching the film, I wrote about what I’d like to see at the elementary school level, which is similar to Finland’s Comprehensive School. Would this work in the U.S.?

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4 Responses to The Finland Phenomenon

  1. a.j.galovski says:

    Pauline, I hope that somebody at the top of the education system in the USA will read this post (it is something) and realize what needs to be done. I think you are an eductor that feels for the young people of today, but unless somebody at the top of the system is willing to change the education system and parents get involved with their children’s education, all you great teachers can not move a mountain on your own. I hope and pray that a lot of people read your article and demand a change for our youth of today that will be in charge tomorow.

  2. Very interesting. I don’t like to be the person who says or thinks “that won’t work here because …” The entire concept sounds very exciting and potentially a vast improvement from the current state of affairs especially as it related to marginal school districts. I know that you said (to paraphrase) that change needs to be led from the top but something this radical needs grass roots supporters to make it happen. It would fundamentally change the way all of society (especially parents) think about education.

    How could that happen? Perhaps there are already some private or charter schools that are using this approach. If there are, it would be great if some highly accredited education scholars did case studies and published the results. Maybe that has already happened. It would be cool if a philanthropic organization (like the Gates Foundation – just to name one), supported just one town or county to change their education system. A one-off charter school might not mean as much as a whole community getting involved. The kids would need to learn a whole new culture around education and with enough community support, it would have a better chance for success in the US. It would be great too if a prestigious college or university supported the effort too.

    I applaud your commitment to making things better. Have you ever thought of approaching some of the private institutions that might actually get this off the ground? If I were Bill Gates (or a Carnegie or a Zuckerberg etc), I would support you with more than just words.

    • Pauline says:

      Michele,
      Thank you for your confidence in me! I am truly humbled by it. I love your ideas, and will look into it. I also appreciate your passion! Please spread the word. The louder we are and the bigger our group becomes, the more likely it will be that our voices will be heard.

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