Finland Schools Rule. But Why?

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Picture of text and images from Finnish classroom
Finnish classroom wall. Photo: Bill Shribman

I’ve spent some time in Finland recently as I’m part of a US/Finnish working group looking at educational games. I keynoted a few weeks ago at their biggest tech/ed conference and brought with me a digital postcard of what it’s like to work in the US where we’re still debating basic science (sigh) and where a classroom may have to contend with a dozen or more languages amongst its students.

In contrast, Finland tops the global charts in measures of how good their schools: they value teachers (though they don’t pay them more); they value play and don’t send their kids to school until they are six; they minimize homework. And they have almost no standardized testing. They also have some unique attributes compared to the US: one time zone; few private schools competing for skilled teachers; and one language in the classroom (because of relatively little immigration).

But is that all there is to it? What is hiding behind these success stats? They have a narrow gap between the worst and best schools, but their best schools can’t compete with those in the States. I got the chance to sit down with one of the powers behind the throne in Finnish education to dig a little deeper.

GeekDad: Tell us who you are.

Kangasniemi: I’m Jouni Kangasniemi, I am a Senior Adviser working for the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland.

Photo of Jouni Kangasniemi
Jouni Kangasniemi. Credit: Finnish Ministry of Education.

GeekDad: What is your main area of interest and focus at the Ministry?

Kangasniemi: My passion is to promote meaningful learning. In my case, I work in policy areas such as promoting continuing professional development of teachers and digitalization of education.

GeekDad: Finland is famous for its successful schools. School starts later than most countries, with kids being encouraged to play. But can they continue to play in school? For example, do you see digital games in Finnish classrooms?

Kangasniemi: One of the secrets in Finnish success in good results in education is that kids are allowed to play and learn informally (a.k.a. grow up), until the age of seven (or six, when pre-school education starts). Kids can be kids much longer, play and learn informally on their own much longer than in many other countries where kids start school earlier – and in a way enter world led by adults. We often tend to forget that learning is “built inside all of us” and it comes naturally, if allowed. Early years are amazing.

To your point on digital games, I should say that digital games have, at least some extent, found their way into the schools. Of course, you don’t see them used every day. Good educational games are still a bit hard to find. I call the Finnish teachers often as “experts in learning.” It means that in Finnish schools, most important decisions concerning the teaching and learning in schools are left to the teachers themselves. Good games recommended by the peers find their way into classrooms, no doubt.

GeekDad: One success factor is Finland’s lack of an enforced curriculum and autonomy given to teachers. You said the safest place to hide money is in the national curriculum — do teachers really not need to follow it?

A teacher uses a web site (equivalent to PBSKids) on her interactive whiteboard.
A teacher uses a web site (equivalent to PBSKids) on her interactive whiteboard. Photo: Bill Shribman

Kangasniemi: Actually, it was one principal who told me that joke. More seriously, re-defining a curriculum means in Finland that we work in two levels, nationally and locally. National curriculum helps to re-new and, we hope, transform local municipal or school level curricula and educational practices, content and themes. Renewing a curriculum in Finland is always very collaborative effort. Normally this effort takes place every 10 years. Currently a new national curriculum is under development and it is due by 2016.

The process itself is very collaborative. Something you don’t see elsewhere. Drafts are already made public by the National Board of Education for the education community to comment, improve and update. By the time it is published everyone has already agreed and internalized it, build their own work upon it and defined the local level curriculum. That is how we work.

GeekDad: Your successes have been built over many years: what do you think Finnish schools (or education policy) need to do to maintain that leadership role in the future?

Kangasniemi: We need to value the teachers, their profession and support their work as much as possible. It has taken a long time to achieve this.The Finnish culture has deep roots in valuing knowledge and learning. Perhaps, it is comparable to how you value entrepreneurship and personal success in the U.S.

GeekDad: Finland helped spark global use of mobile phones — do they have a role to play in classrooms, with so many kids having access to them? Or are teachers cautious or even resistant?

Kangasniemi: Mobile learning means that you are extending your pupils learning beyond the classrooms or taking learning to very personal level. (Mobile phones are considered as personal devices.) Currently mobile learning is more common in vocational education than it is in elementary education. Some teachers have been successful and used mobile phones in their work in a very advanced way. For example, pupils have “collected” plants as pictures, made instant “out of the school reporting,” followed a nature path with near field communication (NFC) tags. They have collaborated in a new way.

We have learned that it takes some extra effort to use mobile phones properly and in a pedagogically meaningful way. Teachers still need agreement from the parents to work with mobile phones, learn together with the pupils the new possibilities phones can offer, prepare collaborative learning environment to where everyone has access and can work together and so on, just to name few prerequisites when going mobile.

GeekDad: You have many unique attributes that help your strength compared to the US. Is your model scalable to the US?

Kangasniemi: Unfortunately, the Finnish way is not something that can be exported and scaled up as such. Certain important elements can be exchanged and compared and then scaled up with small justification. We are always happy to use our education system as a model and offer to work in co-operation. There are some elements that US are doing better than ours. You just need to find them! In the end it helps us too, to improve our system further. When we talk about learning and education as a whole, it should always be based on a win-win development.

GeekDad: You’ve spent time in California. If you could bring three ideas back from the US to implement in Finland, what would they be?

Kangasniemi:

1.       promoting and learning self-expression from early age

2.       community support to schools

3.       entrepreneurial approaches

GeekDad: Thank you.

Photo of ice cream
If you’re ever in Finland, try the pine tar topping on ice cream. It’s the same tar they use to waterproof their boats. Delicious. Photo: Bill Shribman 

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