The Finnish Model: Part 1

Like most Scandinavian nations,* Finland is seen as a model of efficiency and good governance. It tops most indexes measuring quality of life, freedom of the press, government transparency, and economic competitiveness.

But its biggest claim to fame is in the area of education, where it has been among the top achievers for the last decade.  While many other countries are similarly successful, if not more so, Finland gets the most attention for two important reasons

One, its education system was once quite dysfunctional – in fact, it resembled our own in a lot of ways. How the Finns managed to turn it around in just thirty years can provide a crucial case study to follow.

Second, and perhaps most important, its pedagogy is very unique, which could underline the importance of being creative and experimental in our approach to education. Consider the following articles:

The New York Times offers a brief but insightful look into the way Finland approaches teaching.

Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author, had a simple question for the high school seniors he was speaking to one morning last week in Manhattan: “Who here wants to be a teacher?”

Out of a class of 15, two hands went up — one a little reluctantly.

“In my country, that would be 25 percent of people,” Dr. Sahlberg said. “And,” he added, thrusting his hand in the air with enthusiasm, “it would be more like this.”

In his country, Dr. Sahlberg said later in an interview, teachers typically spend about four hours a day in the classroom, and are paid to spend two hours a week on professional development. At the University of Helsinki, where he teaches, 2,400 people competed last year for 120 slots in the (fully subsidized) master’s program for schoolteachers. “It’s more difficult getting into teacher education than law or medicine,” he said.

Dr. Sahlberg puts high-quality teachers at the heart of Finland’s education success story — which, as it happens, has become a personal success story of sorts, part of an American obsession with all things Finnish when it comes to schools.

It’s sad that the teaching profession receives so little respect in our society. I can recall numerous anecdotes in which aspiring teachers faced opposition from parents who wanted them to be successful – educating the next generation, of all careers, is seen as a dead-end.

In fact, this lack of prestige is largely why so many otherwise talented and excellent potential educators eschew the job. Good luck attracting the best and the brightest when they’re made to feel like failures.

But there’s more to Finland’s success than just the quality of teachers. As Americans have been learning through their own reforming efforts, education is a complex system that encompasses many dynamics.

“Thirty years ago, Finland’s education system was a mess. It was quite mediocre, very inequitable. It had a lot of features our system has: very top-down testing, extensive tracking, highly variable teachers, and they managed to reboot the whole system.”

Both Dr. Darling-Hammond and Dr. Sahlberg said a turning point was a government decision in the 1970s to require all teachers to have master’s degrees — and to pay for their acquisition. The starting salary for school teachers in Finland, 96 percent of whom are unionized, was about $29,000 in 2008, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, compared with about $36,000 in the United States.

More bear than tiger, Finland scorns almost all standardized testing before age 16 and discourages homework, and it is seen as a violation of children’s right to be children for them to start school any sooner than 7, Dr. Sahlberg said during his day at Dwight. He spoke to seniors taking a “Theory of Knowledge” class, then met with administrators and faculty members.

“The first six years of education are not about academic success,” he said. “We don’t measure children at all. It’s about being ready to learn and finding your passion.”

Finnish teachers start off with relatively mediocre pay, and are overwhelmingly unionized – two factors that are frequently cited as detriments to our own public school system. Yet they also receive a subsidized education, are made to follow the same professional and academic standards, and are well-regarded by their society.

Even more surprising is Finland’s seemingly relaxed attitude towards students. How many parents could imagine their kids succeeding when they don’t start formal learning until seven? How many Americans can take education seriously without many tests or homework assignments?

Note that most of the other countries that score high on international rankings in education are in East Asia, which emphasizes rote memorization, regular cramming, and long-hours of homework. It’s an efficient but exhausting model, and it may contribute to those countries’ high incidence of stress, suicide, and depression. Yet as the article notes, “Finland is going against the tide of the ‘global education reform movement,’ which is based on core subjects, competition, standardization, test-based accountability, control.” The Finns essentially do the opposite of most countries and yet manage to be just as successful if not more.

But can we really compare our country to Finland? Is their seemingly flawless model really applicable here? Even Dr. Sahlberg, who’s been an emissary of his country’s education system, warns that it may not be replicable everywhere.

Critics say that Finland is an irrelevant laboratory for the United States. It has a tiny economy, a low poverty rate, a homogenous population — 5 percent are foreign-born — and socialist underpinnings (speeding tickets are calculated according to income).

Its school system has roughly the same number of teachers as New York City’s but far fewer students, 600,000 compared with New York’s 1.1 million. Finnish students speak Finnish and Swedish and usually English. (Patrick F. Bassett, head of the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools, a fan of what Finland has been doing, said one of the things he learned on his own pilgrimage to Finland was that the average resident checks out 17 books a year from the library.)

“There are things they do right,” said Mark S. Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, “but I’m not sure how many lessons we get are portable.” Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Finlandophilia was “totally deified” and “blown out of proportion.”

That’s usually the argument made during most international comparisons: each country has its unique demographics, culture, society, and politics, among other factors. What works in one place doesn’t necessarily work in the other, even within nations – could Wyoming’s approach to education apply to California?

But Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford, said Finland could be an excellent model for individual states, noting that it is about the size of Kentucky.

“The fact that we have more race, ethnicity and economic heterogeneity, and we have this huge problem of poverty, should not mean we don’t want qualified teachers — the strategies become even more important,” Dr. Darling-Hammond said.

Indeed, many US states and school districts are as homogenous as Finland yet still suffer academic dysfunction. Finland’s approach to teachers isn’t altered by the diversity of the students. At the very least it should be considered.

*Note that although Finland is Scandinavian as far as geography, some history, and culture, it’s ethnically and linguistic distinct – it is not necessarily a Nordic country like the others, although that distinction varies on semantics.

6 comments on “The Finnish Model: Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Finnish Model: Part II « Sarvodaya

  2. Romney, I’d like to share this with my fb friend David Huisjen, an American who has taught in Finland for many years. He may well like to comment. Sorry if I am being dumb here. I cant work out how to share it with him..

  3. Pingback: Finnish Students Don’t Do Homework Or Take Tests | Sarvodaya

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