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In Finland’s Schools, Less is More

Despite fewer class hours, almost no standardized testing and teachers with free rein, the Finnish school system has risen to the top internationally.

A fourth-grade student in York, Pennsylvania, sharpens her pencil, pulls out her state-issued math book and waits for her teacher to begin the lesson. Approximately 4,000 miles east, a similar fourth grader in Helsinki, Finland, prepares for math class by venturing into the snow and collecting sticks, berries and stones that she will use to create shapes for a geometry lesson.

Sound like the difference between night and day, right? Yet these resourceful teaching methods have helped earn Finnish students the highest rankings on international tests, including a coveted second place on their 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores in science literacy, third in reading and sixth in mathematics. Going outside of the classroom and using natural materials are just a few of the unconventional teaching methods employed at Finnish schools.

In recent years, Finland’s education model has emerged as a leader in flexible, noncompetitive learning. In this relaxed environment—where students literally kick their shoes off at the door—teachers are allowed to teach whatever and however they wish as long as they meet very general learning objectives set by Finland’s National Board of Education. Additionally, Finnish students spend the fewest number of hours in the classroom among developing countries. In fact, compulsory schooling in Finland does not begin until age 7 (although most children participate in a voluntary year of pre-primary education at age 6). Finnish education officials believe that children younger than age 7 learn best through play and exploration.

The Finnish approach to education was not put in place just to make school more enjoyable; it promotes efficiency and effective learning. In some categories, Finland falls only slightly behind South Korea and China, countries that institute highly formal teaching methods. The strict and competitive nature of many Asian education systems produce positive results for many students, but Finnish educators say that a competitive atmosphere does not work for their students. “Finland is a society based on equality,” says Reijo Laukkanen, Counsellor of Education at the Finnish National Board of Education, in a Time magazine article. “In Finland, outperforming your neighbor isn’t very important. Everybody is average, but you want that average to be very high.”

So how does Finland keep its education average high? Finnish officials credit their teachers. The teaching profession in Finland is very desirable, and the training and hiring process is extremely selective. In 2008, only 9.8 percent of applicants were accepted into Finland’s five-year teaching program. At the end of this program, participants earn a master’s degree—a requirement. Finnish teachers believe it is their job to nurture and emotionally support their students, much like a parent. Interestingly, the Finnish word kasvatus describes both the process of raising a child and the skill and knowledge of the adult contributing to their upbringing.

Classrooms in Finland often have more than one teacher, and students usually stay with the same teacher throughout elementary school. Finnish philosophy dictates that every student has something to contribute. Students of varying achievement levels stay in the same classroom, and those who struggle receive specialized help. High-achieving students help low-achieving students. Finnish educators believe this approach helps bring even its lowest-performing students to performance levels equal to those of average-performing students worldwide.

The Finnish “bottom-up” approach has its critics. Many wonder whether the Finnish model of equality in education brings the best out of its brightest, or if it prevents would-be high achievers from rising to the top. Former Minister of Education Henna Virkkunen has said, however, that the country’s next goal is to target its brightest students.

Still, Finland’s consistent ability to place at the top of world rankings for academic performance is impressive. In 2009, more than 100 foreign government officials visited Helsinki with the goal of learning the secrets of their school systems’ success.

Whether the Finnish model can successfully translate to the United States or other countries is yet to be determined. Finnish educators do not encounter some of the obstacles that other nations’ educators face. Finland is a largely homogenous country, in which only 4 percent of residents are foreign born and nearly all students speak Finnish. In the United States, for example, about 13 percent of residents are foreign born, and 21 percent of school-age children speak a language other than English at home (with 24 percent of those children speaking English with difficulty). Additionally, there are few disparities in education and income among Finnish citizens. Wealth is distributed more evenly than in the United States, meaning fewer students live in poverty, and fewer school districts are disproportionally funded.

There is also a matter of culture. Thailand recently experimented with the Finnish model but found that when students seem to fall behind, their parents sent them to tutors. To fully embrace the Finnish model, other systems and their cultures must resist the desire to routinely overwork, test and rank students—and, perhaps, encourage students to put down the pencils and pick up sticks.

Learn More on LearnNow:

“Why Play Equals Learning,” an interview with Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

Related Reading:

“Why Do Finland’s Schools Get the Best Results?” by Tom Burridge, BBC World News America

“From Finland, and Intriguing School-Reform Model,” by Jenny Anderson, New York Times 

PISA 2009 Results, OECD Programme for International Assessment