Great Ideas from Finnish Schools

I enjoy learning how “school” is approached around the world and found this interesting article Schools We Can Envy, about Finnish Schools, in the New York Review of Books. Here’s the link to the article:

Here are a few sections I marked as especially interesting:

  • To an American observer, the most remarkable fact about Finnish education is that students do not take any standardized tests until the end of high school. They do take tests, but the tests are drawn up by their own teachers, not by a multinational testing corporation. The Finnish nine-year comprehensive school is a “standardized testing-free zone,” where children are encouraged “to know, to create, and to sustain natural curiosity.”
  • Finnish teachers are well educated, well prepared, and highly respected. They are paid about the same as teachers in the United States in comparison to other college graduates, but Finnish teachers with fifteen years’ experience in the classroom are paid more than their American counterparts.
  • …bright, cheerful schools where students engaged in music, dramatics, play, and academic studies, with fifteen-minute recesses between classes. I spoke at length with teachers and principals in spacious, comfortable lounges. Free from the testing obsession that now consumes so much of the day in American schools, the staff has time to plan and discuss the students and the program.
  • a nation that cares passionately about the physical environment in which children learn and adults work.
  • To be sure, Finland is an unusual nation. Its schools are carefully designed to address the academic, social, emotional, and physical needs of children, beginning at an early age. Free preschool programs are not compulsory, but they enroll 98 percent of children. Compulsory education begins at the age of seven. Finnish educators take care not to hold students back or label them as “failing,” since such actions would cause student failure, lessen student motivation, and increase social inequality. After nine years of comprehensive schooling, during which there is no tracking by ability, Finnish students choose whether to enroll in an academic or a vocational high school. About 42 percent choose the latter. The graduation rate is 93 percent, compared to about 80 percent in the US.

A Letter to the Editor, which appeared in response to the article, makes additionally interesting observations about schools in Finland.  The author points out two cultural features, seemingly unrelated to education, which can have a big impact on education: sports and transportation.


Schools We Can Envy from the March 8, 2012 issue


To the Editors:

Diane Ravitch’s “Schools We Can Envy” [NYR, March 8] persuasively argues against the last few waves of school reform in the United States by a close examination of the challenging case of Finland. During my time as a Fulbright lecturer in Finland (2006) I was struck by two features of the Finnish education system, neither of which Ms. Ravitch mentions.

The first is that the schools—even at the university level—offer no team sports, which means no “student athlete” hypocrisy, no cheerleaders, no pep rallies, and no architectural shrines devoted to the cult of youthful athletic prowess. If you want to play a competitive sport, you join an after-school club, allowing the schools to concentrate on the arts and sciences.

The second is that Finnish students don’t ride school buses. Students use municipal transportation to convey themselves to school, and bus routes and schedules are carefully designed to accommodate their needs. The schools, rather than being sealed off as special districts, are integrated into the larger social order, which, as Ms. Ravitch indicates, includes comprehensive and affordable health care, among many other things.

I mention these features of the Finnish schools not because I think they are in any way responsible for the remarkable performance of Finnish students on the PISA tests—surely Ms. Ravitch is right that the selectivity and prestige of teacher education programs accounts for most of that—but because I think they are symptomatic of important cultural differences between Finland and the United States, differences that are profound enough that the Finnish model will not easily be replicated here…alas.

by Kenneth Kolson, Director of Washington Academic Internship Program/Federal Relations, John Glenn School of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University, Washington, D.C.

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