We have returned from Finland and are excited to share what we have learned with you! It was such an interesting and powerful experience for all of us. We left with many ideas, but we also left with a feeling of great pride. TCS is without a doubt, an amazing place. I could not ask for a more devoted, talented staff. As a staff, we could not ask for more delightful, curious, and engaged students. As a community, we could not ask for more supportive, trusting, dedicated parents and families. We are lucky indeed.
Below you will find some of our key takeaways from our experience. I do want to offer this note. Finland is a small, homogenous country with very little immigration historically. Their social service structure means their society is far more egalitarian than ours. I think it is important to connect educational achievement to the context of culture and society. Recently, Finland has taken in 30,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. This is the very first time Finnish schools have had such an influx of students that speak a different language, and have different cultural norms, including religious beliefs. It will be interesting to watch how their educational system addresses some of these challenges in the coming years.
1. IndependenceThe national goals for education steer the preparation of the curriculum. These goals are: 1.Growth as a human being and membership in society2.Requisite knowledge and skills3.Promotion of knowledge and ability, equality and lifelong learning Finnish students are expected to be completely independent in all the ways that are developmentally appropriate. Once a child shows he can do something, the expectation is he does do that something. Six and seven-year-old children walk themselves to and from school alone each day, take public transportation by themselves, and stay home alone for 5-6 hours after school (due to their shortened school day and parents working). Parents don’t typically worry and fuss over their children- that was seen to be a more American phenomenon. Students are expected to struggle over challenging work, to scrape their knees on the playground, to have conflict with friends – this is considered the way children will grow into competent and capable adults. In the context of schooling, this means that teachers have high expectations for independence in the classroom, on the playground, and in work. There is scaffolding, but the assumption is that scaffolding will be removed as quickly as possible to allow students to do things on their own. The teacher’s role is not to save students from struggle and hardship, but to help guide them as they practice their way through this struggle to the other side.
2. Relationship“The Finnish education system has been based in equity for a long time. Every pupil is unique, and Finnish teachers apply differentiated instruction in their teaching every day. This is seen as a basic for taking into account the needs and diversity of pupils.” This is something I mention even though I think TCS is already doing this well, because I think it is absolutely key. Finnish teachers clearly value deep relationships with their students and families, and these relationships inform their instruction. Teachers are expected to individualize instruction as much as possible, and in as many ways as possible, and this is the direct result of knowing students deeply and investing in them daily. This also informs the Finnish practice of looping. Teachers often stay with their pupils for at least 2 years, and sometimes up to 6 years. This common practice is in place so that teachers feel they have enough time to truly get to know their students, and work towards the ways in which each student learns best. There was a lot of talk of “trust.” Finnish parents trust their schools and teachers, teachers trust their students, and students trust each other. The education of the whole child is very important, and the overarching thinking is that everyone is working towards the same goal –well-being and a love of learning.
3. Focus on Process not Product “Teaching and learning in Finnish schools isn’t just sitting quietly in the classroom anymore. The core curriculum encourages and even insists teachers teach in various ways, actively and in collaborations with colleagues.” In many ways, Finn’s are following a progressive model of education, even though they aren’t referring to it as such! To them, it is simply, “normal”. The goal of elementary education is to develop in students the traits of curiosity, creativity, and a lifelong love of learning. There is an emphasis on learning by doing, with hands-on materials and long term (sometimes year-long!) projects (which they refer to as “phenomenon-based learning”). Students are encouraged to work where and how they feel they work best – in groups, alone, in the classroom, in the hall, etc… There is a general feeling in society that school is about the joy of learning, and developing well rounded citizens, not just strong readers and mathematicians. This societal norm, reflected in the compulsory national curriculum, is what informs the shorter school day (20 hours of lessons, vs. America’s 35 hours per week) and no standardized testing. They assess similarly to how we do at TCS – daily and purposefully, with skill based– assessments and reports to parents. Assessment is seen as a continuous process, and there is always time to redo, or relearn. In other words, if a student performs poorly on an assessment, the student continues with that work (with support) until they improve to an adequate standard. Students are also involved in self-assessment, and it is expected students take ownership over their own learning (sound familiar?). There is one formal standardized test given at the end of Grade 9, which is the end of compulsory schooling in Finland (although the vast majority of students continue to University and/or Vocational school).
4. Time Outside“Finland has a long tradition of an outdoor lifestyle and utilizing nature as a learning environment.”Finns live by the motto, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.” Students are expected to spend time outside no matter the weather. Direct experience in the natural world is highly valued, and time and space is made during the school day for children to play outside – even in the rain and snow. Outdoor education aims to create a connection with nature, but also aims to achieve objectives of the core curriculum. Finns are quite concerned about the impact technology is having on student’s desire to be outside and unplugged. This is something they are working on as a society to correct. As an aside, our Finnish hosts were delighted to hear we eat lunch outside every day!
5. Balance of Academics and Arts“Executing crafts is an exploratory, inventive and experimental activity, during which different visual, material and technical decisions as well as production methods are used creatively. The meaning of crafts lies in the constant creative working process and the positive experience that verifies self-esteem and leads to joy.”Art, music, drama, physical education and “handiwork” (both with textiles and woodworking) are considered just as important as academic work, and blocks of time are devoted to such. Elementary school teachers are required to teach all of these subjects – they do not have specialists that come in to do so. In this way, schools strive to create a balance of time between academic and art areas.
We are so grateful for the opportunity to learn from our Finnish colleagues, and can’t wait to think deeply about how to integrate some of these ideas into our practice. I would be happy to talk more with you about our experience, if you are interested.
* All quotes are from our handout, “The Sucess Story of Finnish Basic Education”.