I went to Finland in June. Finland, where public restrooms have a soundtrack of birds chirping in the woods. Finland, where death-metal is one of the most popular styles of music. Finland, where more coffee is consumed per capita than anywhere else in the world, but in teensy little cups. Finland, where children have one of the shortest school days and one of the shortest school years, and yet their students perform higher on international tests than almost any other country in the world.
In the early 1970s, the Finns had their "Nation at Risk" moment and realized that, as a small country (currently the population is about 5.4 million, about a million less than Indiana’s), they could not afford to waste one mind. They made a decision to build a system that guaranteed an equitable and quality education for all its children by shutting down 80 percent of their teacher-training schools, many of which were two-year programs, and consolidating the training into a few universities.
Those universities dramatically raised their entrance standards to the teacher-training programs and added the requirement of a master’s degree with a research component. The Finnish government lowered class sizes to around 22 and set up a rigorous inspection process, which it abandoned a few years later when it became apparent the new crop of teachers knew more about teaching than the inspectors or politicians.
This system of trusting educators to make good decisions based on research and professional opinion plugged along until the first PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test of 2000, when the "child-centered" Finns beat the rest of the world.
"At that time we didn’t know we were doing something right," said Jouni Kangasniemi, a senior adviser working for the Ministry of Education and Culture. By the way, much of the research used to build this system came from, and continues to come from, the United States, particularly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Finnish society has made child-raising a priority. In most families, because both parents work, the government provides a robust child-care system in which play and social interaction are the focus. Children are encouraged to participate in unstructured play.
This focus on the developmental stages of children continues into the Finnish school system, which starts at age 7. Typically, Finnish students have a 15-minute break or recess every hour. The vibe in the classroom is calm and stress-free.
Finnish teachers collaborate and share the load, much more than American teachers do, as they follow the Finnish national curriculum. Decisions are made on the basis of what is best for the child. Parents trust the opinions of teachers, who are experts in child development and pedagogy.
Finns believe following childhood development research on unstructured play and the development of independence pays off with children who are ready to problem solve and persevere. They have figured out that setting aside personal and political interests in areas that touch upon children is in the child’s and, by extension, the national interest.
Finnish children do well on international tests without taking standardized tests every year (like our students) or spending their nights being "tutored" (like many children in Asian countries). For this reason, Finland has attracted the attention of educators all over the world, especially from the United States.
Currently, the Finns are revamping their educational system to meet the demands of our technological, information-rich world. This is similar to work EdLeader21 (a professional learning community of which Southwest Allen County Schools is a member) has been working to implement in the United States. Ken Kay, CEO of EdLeader21, approached me about going to Finland because he knew the work SACS is doing parallels the work the Finns are doing. This is why I went to Finland. What was fascinating was whom the Finns involved, whom they didn’t involve and why they are making the changes, in spite of their stellar performance on the PISA exams.
Suomen itsenäisyyden juhlarahasto, or SITRA, is the Finnish Innovation Fund, founded in 1967 and currently an independent public foundation operating directly under the supervision of the Finnish Parliament. For the first half of 2015, SITRA ran a public forum on education in Finland using a deliberative dialog process similar to that of the Kettering Foundation, which IPFW’s Mike Downs Center facilitated for Southwest Allen County Schools last fall.
It turns out the Finns were asking themselves what we in SACS were asking: What is the role of the public schools in the 21st century? I was curious what the results would be in a country where children are so cared for, where teachers are so respected, where, by their own admission, change happens slowly ("Changing Finnish education is like moving a cemetery, you get no help nor hindrance from those inside." – Marjo Kyllonen, professor) and where they don’t have so much high-stakes testing. Mostly I was curious how they are going to implement their findings.
Besides the usual suspects in conversations on education, the Finns invited some interesting folks to the conversation: computer scientists, philosophers and representatives of the gaming industry (Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds, is a Finnish company). Americans might notice a lack of textbook companies and politicians. There was also a Facebook page that allowed the public to comment. The conversation involved the nature of learning, the joy of learning, and how technology can be leveraged to plug into students’ intrinsic motivation and personalize the student’s learning. Most importantly, it involved a wide swath of Finnish society, kept politics out of the discussion, and deferred to the expertise and experience of professional educators. The report is available online at www.sitra.fi/en/julkaisu/2015/land-people-who-love-learn
The Finns view their success on international tests as a narrow sliver of what they consider a child’s education. They view the education of children as much broader than tests and believe they have areas where they can grow. Just like us, they want to learn, and improve, and they are working to establish partnerships to do that.
Philip G. Downs is superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.