Forbes magazine recently reviewed a documentary film by producer Bob Compton that chronicles Tony Wagner’s exploration into the Finnish school system. Finland is ranked among the highest achieving countries based on PISA data. The United States is ranked below the average. Having established this, it does not make sense to compare these two countries which are vastly different in terms of culture, land size, and the fact that the U.S. is much more heterogenous in its population. However, after viewing the film, four areas seem to emerge that could impact positively educational reform in the United States and should be considered in reform efforts which will hopefully provide students with effective 21st century learning experiences:
- Student Autonomy
- Teacher Training and Professional Prestige
Regardless of socio-economic background or where you live, in Finland, every child is assured the same type of education with a similar curriculum. The Ministry of Education promotes equality in education and insures a basic education for everyone. This is an initiative that has been in place since 973. A core curriculum has been established by the Finnish National Board of Education, and this education is free for Finnish citizens, including course materials and school lunches. Moving in this direction, The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers have developed U.S. Common Core State Standards Initiative for schools in the U.S., which “are the first step in providing young people with a high quality education.” To date, forty-five states and three territories have adopted these standards. Hopefully this initiative will help to bring about greater equality in the educational opportunities for American students.
Another cornerstone of the Finnish educational system is student autonomy. Schools in Finland are not bound by external assessments such as end-of-grade and standardized tests. As a result, more class time is available for students to complete projects at their own pace, and identify and develop their own style of learning. Students assume high levels of personal responsibility in the classroom which frees teachers to help individual students. The model, then, is based on student-need and learning style, with an emphasis on students finding solutions on their own. “Less is more” in Finland’s educational system. Students can go into greater depth with projects due to brevity of the national core curriculum and still have time to engaged in activities which interest them…”passion and play.” Students work collaboratively with more choice and the arts are well-integrated into each class. Another important alternative for students exists in secondary school. At this stage in their education, students have the choice of prestigious vocational track, which 45% choose each year. These students are well prepared for satisfying careers when they complete high school. Projects and challenged based learning is gaining momentum in U.S. and international schools, including my own. These approaches contain elements of the autonomy discussed here and provide student choice in terms of problem solving and the creation of solutions.
Trust is also an essential element in Finnish education. Teachers and students are left to their own without inspection. In this small country, a system of trust works. Individuals seem to work better when they are not told what to do. Trust prevails at all levels. The ministry trusts administrators to ensure that local systems carry out the core curriculum. Administrators trust teachers to do the same. Classroom teachers trust students and the parents trust their children and their schools. On the other hand, a compliance-based system is the norm in U.S. Teachers comply to administrative directives and students comply to guidelines for achieving a certain grade. Trust is incorporated into Finnish society; not so much in U.S. Would this type of approach work in the U.S.? The compliance system doesn’t seem to be working. The development of a consensus of what education is and must offer children was key in developing this trust in Finland. The Common Core initiative is evidence that U.S. policy makers, states, and local systems are working to define what comprises the best education for students in the 21st century…an important step forward.
The final area is teacher training and professional prestige. In Finland, all teachers are required to have an advanced degree. Teachers think of themselves as “knowledge workers” and, over the past 25 years, standards have been raised, and teacher education training is offered to only the most qualified. Admission requirements for students who wish to be admitted to university teacher-training programs are stringent, so the bar is raised even before potential teachers enter university. Programs for teachers in training are rigorous and hands-on. Student teachers observe master teachers and have their own teaching practices critically evaluated. Teaching as a profession is considered prestigious and only about 5% of teachers who enter the profession in Finland change careers as opposed to approximately 50% in the United States.
These are not the only reasons for Finland’s success in education. Notably, academics take center stage in this country while sports and other extra curricular activities are secondary. The time engaged in learning experiences is not interrupted. In most countries, technology is something that teachers use to deliver education, while in Finland, technology is a tool that is utilized by students to find answers to their own questions, create products, and solve problems.
All of these strategies are moving students closer to the goal of achieving skills that they will need to work effectively and contribute positively in the future. Wagner notes that many good schools in the U.S. and around the world are incorporating some of these elements. This is a thought provoking film highlighting an educational success story. There are lessons to be learned here.
Again, these are ideas to be explored. Can a model like this work in other countries? This blog post, “How Finnish Schools Shine”, from The Guardian, offers a great summary and objective look at “the world’s most surprising school system”.