Finnish Education in America: What Can We Learn from Finland?

Finnish Education System

Photo by Brande Jackson

Although everyone seems to agree that the U.S. education system is in drastic need of help, there are few proven solutions for education reform being put forward.

An exception is the example of the education system of Finland. The small Nordic country with a population of about 5 million has an education system that is gaining worldwide attention, and many American educators are wondering which aspects of Finnish education can be adopted to improve the performance of our own schools in the United States.

The focus on Finnish education is due in large part to the performance of the country’s schools on the Pisa Survey, an international school study that evaluates different countries by testing the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old students in reading, math and science. Since 2000, Finland has placed with South Korea near the top of the Pisa Survey ranking. In contrast, the United States consistently has an average ranking among the more than 70 participating countries. This is despite the fact that the United States spends more on education per capita than almost any other nation.

The Atlantic Monthly recently published a detailed analysis of Finland’s educational success. Unlike the model in many East Asian school systems, Finnish teachers don’t employ cramming and memorization. Instead, children are assigned less homework and encouraged to learn through creative play and exploration of their environment. Finnish elementary school children receive an average of 75 minutes of recess a day compared to only 27 minutes in the United States. Classes are smaller, and subjects like art, music, cooking and carpentry are part of the curricula for grades one through nine.

According to Pasi Sahlberg, a director with the Finnish Ministry for Education and author ofFinnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, equality is one of the key differences between the Finnish and American educational systems. From kindergarten to college, there are no private schools in Finland. There is also less emphasis on standardized testing and on holding schools accountable for student test scores. Instead, Finnish teachers and administrators are given a great deal of responsibility for what goes on in the classroom. They also receive compensation, prestige and respect in line with the rigorous teacher certification standards. That brings to mind a report from the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation, which claims the United States could improve its ranking in the worldwide educational arena by raising the status of teachers.

Although proven Finnish methodologies have yet to be adopted by American school districts, there are individual teachers applying such methods in their classrooms. Many of these teachers are in Minnesota, a state that has long been a destination for Scandinavian immigrants. The Minneapolis StarTribune recently reported on third-grade teacher Anne Shadrick of Farmington, Minnesota. Inspired by her Finnish heritage (she was born, raised and educated in Finland), Shadrick incorporates movement in her lessons, schedules extra recesses and outdoor time, and uses arts and crafts projects to provide hand-on learning experiences. She also assigns more problem-solving projects to help her third-grade students develop critical thinking skills.

Ulla Tervo-Desnick, another native of Finland who now teaches in St. Paul, Minnesota, spent a year teaching abroad in Finland and enrolled her children in Finnish schools. She extols the Finnish practice of using one project or problem to teach multiple subjects. For example, taking a walk and collecting leaves can incorporate outside activity, botany, environmental science and art. This is in contrast to many American schools that have narrowed their curricula in response to the emphasis on standardized test results.

The freedom that Finnish teachers are given to do their job effectively has made teaching a highly desirable profession. Only 10 percent of students who apply are accepted into the required master’s programs in education. In contrast, many American states will certify teachers with only a bachelor’s degree. With 15 years experience, a high school teacher in Finland’s salary is 102 percent of what other master’s graduates in other fields make. In the United States, the same teacher would receive only 65 percent of the salary of other graduates. By making teaching a desirable profession, Finland attracts the best and brightest teachers. Undoubtedly, America has much to learn.

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