Finnish schools guest post

At the beginning of January, I posted this brief discussion of an article from The Atlantic about Finnish schools. A former exchange student from Finland to the US, whose daughter was an exchange student more recently, commented a couple of times, and then continued the discussion with me off-blog. He gave me permission to post his email here, but asked that I not use his name:

I’m not professionally involved; I have been to the US as a foreign exchange student back in 1970’s and my daughter last year, which makes me interested in education in Finland and in the US.

Immigrants and refugees in the Helsinki area are a challenge – definitely harder to teach kids who are just learning the Finnish language. Continuing studies after the basic education is finished at 16 is also a problem, high unemployment among the young without further education. High schools are all pretty average, if you get in any of them you will be ok. Top schools are just more fun for the smart.

PISA just happens to measure things that the Finnish system is good at, educating the average student. However large the gap may be after basic education, American kids seem to catch up soon in college and the Universities in the US are the same or better than the Finnish. What PISA does not measure, are the foreign language skills. Finland is doing fine in math, science and reading, but at the same time, during the short school days most kids manage to learn at least English close to the level that you see me write here. Many learn also Swedish and French, German or Russian. If all that time was spent on PISA subjects Finland would not fit in the same chart with most of the countries. The difference between the US and Finland is huge.

My daughter said an ordinary school day in the US was a total waste of time as nothing useful was done. To make that up, a lot of homework was given Рand the homework really had to be done, which was annoying as she was used to the system in her Finnish high school where you do  homework if you feel you have to practice more. So, at least in high school there is obviously something very different going on in the classroom in Finland and in the US. I remember that my American classmates felt pretty smart, but school was easy and there was very little continuity. The classes were seldom based on something that the students had been doing the previous years, so I was on the same level with them in American history, allthough I had never studied it before. People took language classes and dropped them in the spring, never getting very far in anything. It was a lot of fun, though, and gave me a chance to try different subjects without getting serious with them.

So I think it might be the national curriculum that works well in Finland. You start from point A and after 9 years everybody has reached point B, following the shortest route explained in the curriculum. Of course some kids remember exactly what was taught along the road and some kids have forgotten a lot of it, but everybody has some kind of an education and can continue with it. If you like, you take three more years of the same to reach point C and then you take the only standardized test, the matriculation examination. I think it is a pretty solid system and gives good results.

I was particularly interested in the perception that “nothing gets done” in American schools as opposed to Finnish ones, so I asked for clarification. He said that his daughter’s school in Finland is particularly good, so it might not be a fair comparison. But:

I took a class of pre calc in the US and I think it was the most demanding course of mathematics in that High School – however, it was really easy in two ways: I had already learned most of it before, and all the questions in the tests were short, requiring one line answers at the most. What I was used to, was real mathematical problems where the solution easily filled two full pages and where you had to remember and use things you had learned earlier. I think most Finnish foreign exchange students share these views – there is a lot of homework in the US, but education is superficial and there is no continuity. The US pupils in the class have different backgrounds – and I do not mean ethnic or cultural groups – they have studied different things and every class that I attended sort of strated from the beginning. The only exception was the math, which clearly was based on previous studies, but even in that case the level was about two years behind the Finnish.

Of course there is a significant difference in the school systems in Finland and in the US. In the US everybody goes to High School and therefore compulsory education is over when you are 18; In Finland you start at 7 and after 9 years, at 16, you are free to quit or choose between vocational or High School. Therefore Finnish High Schools select their students, students are there mostly because they want to go to college. There is generally high motivation and the teachers try to prepare every student for college. College is free, so it is an option for everyone. All this makes the comparison between the American and Finnish High Schools a bit unfair. However, the differences in the US and Finnish High Schools are at least partly consequenses of the education before High School level.

Actually, in most states the drop-out age is 16. The difference is that it’s nearly impossible to make a different living in the States without a high school diploma. And, of course, college is financially beyond the reach of many — not to mention that there’s such a range of primary and secondary education here that college is academically beyond the reach of many without a lot of remedial work. So there are a great many students who stick around past 16 without any motivation beyond the diploma.

What I love about the Finnish model, from what I understand from the original article and from my conversation with “Pur,” is that it sounds like everyone gets a fair start. Some schools are better than others, it sounds like, but none are bad. No children are, ahem, left behind because of their socioeconomic status. And if you’re ready for college, it doesn’t matter whether your family can afford it or not. There are some big differences in homogeneity between the US and Finland, yes, but we are the wealthiest country in the world. It should be one of our greatest shames that we aren’t using that wealth to prioritize our children — all of our children.

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6 Responses to Finnish schools guest post

  1. Bernie says:

    Thanks for posting this. I have just finished Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons which provides considerable background on the evolution of the Finnish primary and secondary education system. I have also looked at the OECD’s PISA tests and they certainly are very different from what most US students see on SATs and even AP exams, so I definitely think that there is some testing effect. That said, the effectiveness of the Finnish schools is pretty apparent. The real question is why – especially given the later start in formal education and the dramatically lower number of classroom hours and the apparent lack of emphasis on homework. I would love to hear more from those with first hand experience in Finnish schools as to the actual pedagogic and learning practices. I read somewhere else that the actual school and classroom environment is closer to a “homeschooling” model.

    • Sam says:

      Thanks for commenting! I’m sure there are a lot of factors — obviously there are a great many differences between Finland and the U.S. I’d be curious to hear Finnish education compared to another country that’s similarly homogenous with minimal poverty, but where the schools are less effective (by some measure). That might get more precisely at what works in Finnish schools.

  2. Ivana Curcic says:

    Since US does not have a national curriculum, it is difficult to generalise. My experience as an exchange student (at about the same time as Pur’s) is completely different. I was blown away by what the (private) school I attended had to offer. Alas, private. In the US, public schools are funded by local taxes so the pricier the neighbourhood the better the school is funded. While the funding does not necessarily guarantee quality, it sets the “child left behind” process from an early (st)age.

    Sometimes diversity is offered as an excuse for having such localised curricula. Even if it is challenging to agree on one content for a multicultural country, the skills should not be so disparate.

    In addition to the unfair level playing field, the expectations in US schools are low and by now these low expectations have transferred to higher education. Such low expectations are combined with the “feel good” element (generally for the student). At college/university level it is also combined with business and branding and therefore levels of satisfaction with the “services/product”. Professors are there not only to accommodate learning but also the paying party. Anything a bit out of one’s comfort zone is seen as undesirable. Is learning to cope with challenges a detriment?

    While I am not proposing military academies for students, some expectations of standards and effort is necessary.

    • Sam says:

      Yup, the regional differences in school funding in the U.S. are pretty shocking. I really believe that one of the first things we have to fix is making schools at least state-funded rather than local.

      And I agree with you about expectation of standards and effort, though some of that is cultural. I’m not sure how one changes a country’s culture (other than very slowly!), but it does seem like that aspect of American culture is not serving us well.

  3. Greg says:

    Forget the socioeconomic issues, here’s the real problem: “all the questions in the tests were short, requiring one line answers at the most. What I was used to, was real mathematical problems where the solution easily filled two full pages and where you had to remember and use things you had learned earlier. ” We don’t challenge our students, in our good schools or our bad schools. On a college student survey form last semester (and I teach at a US News Top 100 national university), a student in a junior level course for math majors complained because when going over homework problems I expected the students to remember things they’d learned in previous sections (and the complaint was literally phrased that way). Too many of our schools teach entitlement without thought, which is the real difference between US schools and many in other countries.

    Grr, sorry, bad quiz week (and can you believe I have to give quizzes to college students…you wouldn’t want to see their exam scores if I weren’t giving quizzes along the way…)

    • Sam says:

      That’s similar to what Ivana said, that we don’t expect much as compared to many other countries. I do think there’s an encouragement of entitlement in many areas of American culture (litigiousness, anybody?). But that’s not a thing that can be changed (at least, not quickly) by policy or fiat.

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