Talking About But Not Learning From Finland

Posted by on October 5, 2010

Finland’s education system has become an international celebrity. Their remarkable results are being trumpeted, usually in the “What can we learn from them?” context. Yet a lot of the recent discussion about what we can learn – as far as concrete policies – has been rather shallow. 

Right now, the factoid that is getting the most play is that Finnish teachers come from the “top ten percent” of those entering the labor force, whereas U.S. teachers don’t. But without knowing the reasons behind this difference, this fact is not particularly useful.

Although there has been some interesting research on these issues (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), I still haven’t really seen a simple comparison of Finnish vs. American policies that can help us understand what they’re doing right (and perhaps what we’re doing wrong). I am not an expert in comparative education, but I have assembled a few quick lists of features and policies. Needless to say, I am not suggesting that we do everything Finland does, and cease doing everything they don’t. It’s very difficult to isolate the unique effects of each of these policies. Also, more broadly, Finland is small (less than six million residents), homogeneous, and their welfare state keeps poverty and inequality at one of the lowest levels among all developed nations (the U.S. is among the highest).

But if we are going to learn anything from the Finnish system, it is important to lay out the concrete differences (I inevitably missed things, so please leave a comment if you have additions).

Let’s start with policies that Finland uses that are either absent or somewhat rare in the U.S.  If the Finnish system is a model, these are policies that we might at least consider adopting:

  • A streamlined, national core curriculum, elaborated by locally-developed curricula
  • Small class sizes of 16 – 30 (with a mean of 18 in 2003 and 20 in 2006)
  • State-funded Master’s degrees required for all teachers
  • Relatively high teacher salaries
  • At least one afternoon each week devoted to joint planning and curriculum development among teachers
  • Uniform, highly selective program for entry into the profession
  • Clear and rigorous career and technical education pathways
  • Widely-available, publicly-funded kindergarten and preschools guided by a national early childhood curriculum, with comparatively late entry into mandatory schooling (age 7)
  • Free (publicly funded) access to higher education (including medical/law school)
  • School-based healthcare and free meals
  • Formal, early interventions for struggling students
  • Combined primary/secondary schools

On the flip side, we should also consider the possibility that policies we are using that are not present in Finland deserve a bit of reconsideration as to their efficacy. Here are a few policies that the U.S. uses that Finland doesn’t:

  • Heavy emphasis on standardized test-based accountability (like NAEP, Finnish national tests are administered to random samples of students, and results are only published for the whole nation, not individual schools)
  • Charter schools
  • Alternative teacher certification programs
  • Teacher evaluations (Finland does not formally evaluate teachers after they are placed in schools)
  • A large private school sector (there are private schools in Finland, but they are scarce and difficult to start)

Finally, let’s take a quick look at features that we share in common with Finland. Presumably, these are practices that we should consider either continuing or enhancing (though not necessarily in their present form):

  • Teacher unions (though not universal bargaining rights)
  • Tenure
  • National standards (in the adoption phase in the U.S.)
  • Relatively short school days/years

So, for whatever it’s worth, the three policy measures that are currently receiving virtually all the attention in the U.S. – charter schools, removing tenure protections, and tying teacher pay and evaluation to test scores – all fly directly in the face of the Finnish system.

In contrast, not a single feature of Finland’s education system that we don’t use is currently under serious, widespread consideration in the U.S.

Now, again - we obviously shouldn’t adopt policies just because Finland uses them, nor should we reject policies just because Finland doesn’t. But it seems clear, at least from our national discourse, that we’re not really learning much from Finland (at least not yet). Maybe they’re just bad teachers?

10 Comments posted so far

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ✜ Stephen Ransom, ✜ Stephen Ransom, Sam Chaltain, Katri Kytöpuu, David Britten and others. David Britten said: Nice comparative analysis. RT @DianeRavitch What can we learn from Finland? [...]

    October 5, 2010 at 10:39 AM
  • I am a teacher from Finland. This is a good article.

    In Finland we don’t have each week any meetings for joint planning or curriculum.

    You forgot to mention that our language is easy to learn, 99% of pupils learn to read at grade 1. It helps a lot us teachers in our work.


    Comment by mrahikka
    October 6, 2010 at 3:24 PM

    October 13, 2010 at 11:43 AM
  • On the news, it was mentioned that there are two or three teachers in one classroom. One teacher teaches, one monitors behavior and one grades. Is this correct?

    Comment by Yvonne Landin
    October 13, 2010 at 12:54 PM
  • I’m a bit of a latecomer to this conversation, but the subject matter is of particular interest to me. I’m currently preparing my dissertation research (in comparative ed BTW) on aspects of Finnish educational policy.

    We would all love to learn from the Finns, but I think we have to look beyond the externally observable properties that are so often targeted to find what really separates the Finnish education from others. Sure, we can focus on things like teacher qualifications, curriculum, ethnic population, etc., but none of these are distinct to Finland. There are many countries that share one, some or many of these properties that do nowhere as well as the Finns in terms of education outcomes. Trying to identify a “magic bullet” in this manner is not likely to be very helpful. Instead, we have to focus on the underlying culture and values that shape Finns perception of the role and aims of education.

    The current Finnish educational system is a product of a gradual and deliberate transformation of Finnish society over several decades to, and beyond, an innovation-oriented learning society. Education has had a central position in this transformation. The Finns realized very early on that to meet their goals, they would have to raise the educational profile of the nation and that this would require systematic change, not only in the “delivery” of education, but in general attitudes toward education and learning. For example, I think that one of the very important, but often overlooked, aspects of education reform in Finland is that while transforming their formal education, they also strengthened their adult education, thereby ensuring that the educational values being fostered within the formal system, were also communicated to parents and adults in general.

    That being said, the development of the teaching profession should certainly not be overlooked. But, I think that the lessons to be learned go far beyond high teacher salaries and high levels of teacher education. Teachers in Finland are highly respected and expected to be, and treated as, authorities in their field. The national curriculum mentioned by the author of the original post is better viewed as curricular guidelines because teachers have considerable latitude in how they work within the national curricular framework. They are trusted to do what is needed to promote the learning that is expected and they have obviously met the authorities’ and the general public’s expectations.

    Comment by Tryggvi
    October 26, 2010 at 1:33 AM
  • [...] Instead of trying to fire our way to the high performance of Finland or anywhere else, why not try to emulate the policies that these nations actually employ? It seems very strange to shoot for the achievement levels of these nations by doing the exact opposite of what they do. [...]

    December 18, 2010 at 1:35 PM
  • [...] in the OECD’s most recent PISA assessments – it’s worth noting that Hong Kong, like Finland, has an estimated teacher union density of over 90 percent: significantly higher than in the U.S. [...]

    January 4, 2011 at 5:35 PM
  • Its my conjecture that Finland’s criminal justice system is a red flag of significant cultural difference that directly affects their educational system. Have I even been to Finland? No. I’m planning on it. Everything I’ve read on their approach to crime denotes an approach of compassion, empathy and healing. It’s their top priority to give every resource to those who commit crimes in order to ensure that they receive the healing they need. They don’t criminalize, they empathize. Especially children who commit crimes. Being a child raised in this environment tends to lead to a culture of cooperation rather than coersion- connection versus punishment. Its my personal experience that children learn best when they are in a safe non-coersive environment where they are able to explore and be curious without fear of judgment, punishment or blame. In the exploration of Finlands success I find it perplexing to find no discussion about what are the remarkable cultural differences that underpin all our social services. This one seems hard to miss. I hope to visit for myself and do my own research!!!

    Comment by karin petersen
    January 16, 2011 at 9:30 AM
  • In regards to the question about having two-three teachers in a classroom: we have teaching assistants in classrooms that require personal assistance for students with learning difficulties or physical disabilites. Not all classrooms have a teaching assistant but it is common that teaching assistants are shared throughout the school day with other teachers who need them. Teachers take turns teaching specific subject areas in some schools (some teach a few more physical education classes, some religion, some art, some handcrafts like sewing and knitting and wood/technical arts). So teachers who are spread out teaching other groups may require assistants in those cases. We do however do the grading for the students we teach (I teach two other teachers´ english classes and give them grades for that subject but take care of my own class grades as well). Teaching in Finland is a wonderful experience – if you can, you should give it a try :)

    Comment by Auli
    March 19, 2011 at 1:24 PM
  • As a teacher for 35 years in the U.S, many of my retired colleagues have noted that we have lost the theory-based model of education, which has been replaced by the data driven concept. Theory-based education (Piaget) has provided a model for addressing students from a preoperational range to a Formal level…most students are at a concrete level at the elementary level and 35-40% at the high school level too. The data driven business model has completely destroyed what Finland now embraces..that children are human beings at different developmental stages…Diane Ravitch too has come to realize how the educational business model has misguided many well intentioned aristocratic educators.

    Comment by Jim Malek
    April 26, 2012 at 2:23 PM

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