What America Can Learn From Finland’s Education System: We Should Respect Teachers and Take Only the Best

I am spending my sabbatical in Finland at Aalto University on a Fulbright Fellowship. Finland’s schools have an excellent reputation in academia and in international rankings (often #1), so I enrolled my two oldest children in Finnish school to give them the full experience. I would like to share some insights that could be helpful back home. (Part 2 here) — J. Pearce

There are some immediate obvious differences between Finnish and American schools.

First, no one is wearing shoes. Finnish students take off their shoes before entering the classroom in socks, which they do for the first time at age 7, two years later than Americans (“play groups” or daycare before that). The rooms are thus cleaner, warm and inviting — often sporting amenities like beanbag chairs. Finnish schooling starts relaxed and it stays that way.

My pre-schooler spontaneously running into a Finnish high school room.

In Finland, the teacher often moves with the class through each grade level and the class stays together creating a nurturing family-like atmosphere where the teachers really know the students well. While home in America children spend 7 hours/day in school, in Finland my children attend school for only 3–4 or 4–6 hours/day, respectively. There is also hardly any homework by American standards. These factors make a big difference in children’s day-to-day life. In Finland, my kids have a lot more free time to go outside, play, read, and focus on their own interests. There are many places to play. All the Finnish communities I have visited prioritize playgrounds that seem to be on nearly every block.

Children hard at play in one of many playgrounds in Espoo, Finland.

There is also a lot of outside play in school. For example, they were taught ice-skating and Nordic skiing in ‘movement class’ (aka gym class). In addition, useful skills often purged from American schools like woodworking, knitting, crocheting, metalworking, and sewing are common across Finnish grade levels I have seen. Most remarkably, Finland mandates that students get 15 minutes of physical activity every hour. This is a good idea, as the empirical research on physical activity shows it has beneficial effects on children’s social competence and academic performance. Finland also sports many field trips and outdoor activities that would never be tolerated back home, such as mushroom identification and eating in the woods (can you imagine the liability?!). American schools are missing a lot of the fun of Finland’s public schools, which make children want to go to them. Some American middle schools, for instance feature a relatively sadistic 0 minutes of recess in over 7 hours of lectures and screen time.

Despite starting late, short hours, generous recesses, no annual testing and a bunch of fun “non-academic” classes, the Finnish educational system easily surpasses the American system in every subject. How is that possible?

First, there is no lack of rigor in Finland, but it is often hidden. For example, my second grader’s math book sneaks algebra problems into his work using cartoons of animals. Second, at home in America, we use huge amounts of school time on standardized administrative functions that are meant to idiot-proof teaching, but handcuff the best teachers to a strict curriculum that wastes time. Finnish colleagues looked at me with a combination of pity and horror as I explained how our children are assessed on reading nonsense words for DIBELS testing in Michigan (this type of testing is well-established in international educational circles as a train wreck).

Are you as smart as a Finnish 2nd grader? What is the value of the gerbil?

The largest difference between American and Finnish schools, however, are the teachers. Although following a national curriculum, Finnish teachers have the freedom and independence to apply it any way they wish — developing their own lesson plans and adding in a rich set of skills. Speaking with a Finnish teacher for even a few minutes, you can immediately tell they are intellectually solid. It reminds me of interviewing prospective Ph.D. students. There is a reason for this — I only accept the top students and this is the same exemplary performance demanded of Finland’s teachers. For example, the University of Helsinki only accepts the top 7% of their applicants after an extremely competitive examination process including personality tests and practice teaching for their masters-level teaching education program. In the U.S., there are certainly some excellent teachers, and my family has been particularly lucky in that respect, but they are unfortunately not the norm. Here all of the teachers are smart, educated with research-based masters degrees, and trilingual at a minimum (Finnish students are taught many languages in school most from their own teachers; my eldest is learning Spanish and English and the younger, German). To give you a feel for how wonderful the teachers are here, consider my eldest’s Finnish teacher leverages the link between music and math by playing the piano for the students during math class. They are smart and everyone knows it — so they are trusted and left alone to do their best without constant testing.

Finland also has a sense of equality that goes far beyond what we are accustomed to in America. After a Finnish teacher told me the class had lost a pair of scissors, I offered to donate a pair. I was shocked when she not only refused, but also informed me it is illegal in Finland as neither teachers nor parents can donate supplies because they want to ensure that everyone is on a level playing field. At home, wealthy parents ensure their children are covered, but in general, America schools suffer from lack of funding.

To match Finland, America would need to raise the bar for all teachers. We allow people to be a substitute teacher in America with only a high school diploma. To put that in perspective, Finland’s high school dropouts are smarter than Americans with high school degrees and they don’t let dropouts anywhere near their kids. With only bachelors degrees and a little substitute teaching Americans can be desperately needed full time teachers — earning a low salary, being overworked and given only a modest amount of respect. Meanwhile in Finland, teachers with masters degrees are highly respected and treated with honor rather than as mere babysitters.

Finnish teachers have smaller class sizes. You would never know it talking to my Finnish parent friends who are outraged about the increases in class sizes to 18 — puny by American standards. The smaller classes give Finnish teachers more time to help children work through difficulties while American teachers spend a lot of their time struggling in overflowing classrooms. Although Finnish teachers earn only a little more than American teachers, they work half the hours. However, even that is not directly comparable as teachers in Finland carry no debt from school because it is all free (average American student debt is over $37,000) and everyone in Finland has free medical care (superior to American medical care in both quality and cost). Teachers have it pretty good here, which is why so many want it as a career, driving up competition and quality.

Socks after a year of Finnish school.

Finland, obviously has a lot going for it, but Finnish schools are by no means perfect. For one thing, it chews through socks faster than a pack of puppies. Finland has also slipped from #1 in the PISA rankings (still way ahead of the U.S. in every measure) and they are treating it like a national emergency akin to a hurricane. The recession hit Finland hard and they had major cutbacks to education (hence the larger class sizes) and the several percent drop in test scores. They now have a national effort to ‘recover’ and improve Finnish schools that are looking at many innovative programs. For one, they are bringing in more technology (after completing knitting, my children built robots in class similar to the robot competitions offered in the U.S. as an extracurricular). Education is an investment in the future of the nation and Finland is making that investment to benefit everyone in their society. We could learn a lot from that.