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Learning at its Best

The Finland Phenomenon – a film about schools

On Thursday night I saw the premiere of “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System.” This is the latest film by Robert Compton, who perhaps best known for “Two Million Minutes.”

Let me simply list the key takeaways from the film:
1. Finland does not have high stakes tests
2. Finland worked to develop a national consensus about its public schools
3. Having made a commitment to its public schools, Finland has few private schools.
4. When asked about accountability, Finns point out that they not only do not have tests, they do not have an inspectorate. They find that trusting people leads to them being accountable for themselves.
5. Finland does not have incredibly thick collections of national standards. They have small collections of broadly defined standards, and allow local implementation.
6. Qualifying to become a teacher is difficult.
7. Teachers are well trained, well supported, and given time to reflect about what they are doing, including during the school day.
8. Finns start school later in life than we do
9. Finnish students do little homework.
10. There is meaningful technical education in Finnish Schools

The premiere was introduced by the Ambassador of Finland to the US, and followed by a panel discussion. I will provide some comments about the panel discussion, but I want to focus mainly on the takeaways.

The premiere was by invitation only, held in the auditorium of the National Press Club in Washington DC. After he was introduced by Bob Compton, the Ambassador offered a few remarks about the importance of education in Finland. We then saw the film, which was followed by a panel discussion led by Dr. Tony Wagner of Harvard U, who is the narrator of and featured in the film. Then came the panel discussion, about which more anon.

Some commentary on the takeaways with which I began.

No high stakes tests – Finland does have one test for college admissions. It does not have high stakes tests for high school graduation. Teachers and schools are not evaluated on the basis of student scores on such tests. And yet when nations are compared on the basis of scores on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS, Finland has been consistently at the top. Keep that in mind. Also understand that absent such tests with high stakes, Finland is not taking instructional time way from meaningful learning in order to prepare students for such tests. That leads to a more efficient use of instructional time for real student learning. There are entrance exams for tertiary education, which are used for student selection. There are no exit exams from high school, and no use of student performance on external exams as part of the evaluation of teachers or schools.

National Consensus – The film points out that Finland is not rich in natural resou��rces, other than timber. They understood the need to develop creativity, to develop the minds of students to be creative people for the economy and the society. Much of what occurs in Finland is derived from this national commitment, which was developed over a number of years, and was very much the process of a bottom-up study rather than imposed from above legislatively or administratively. Here I might not that we do NOT have such a consensus. Insofar as there is a conventional wisdom right now in the US, it is that everyone is supposed to be college/career ready upon graduation from high school, which an increasing emphasis on STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I would also note that the Finns seem to understand the importance of educating the whole child, something that our current focus on STEM seems to ignore

Having made a commitment to its public schools, Finland has few private schools. This of course is not possible in the United States – we have private schools with a history older than the US as an independent nation. That Finland went this route indicates how different our cultures are. Still, it is worth noting because of the emphasis on a common educational approach across the entire nation. It is also worth noting that the Council of State must approve the opening of a new private school, and that school is provided funding on the same basis as the local public schools, cannot charge tuition, and must admit students non-selectively. This makes private schools far less attractive than many in our country, which are deliberately established as elite institutions.

When asked about accountability, Finns point out that they not only do not have tests, they do not have an inspectorate. They find that trusting people leads to them being accountable for themselves. – our emphasis on “accountability” for schools and those that work in them (although for some reason we do not seem willing to apply the same metric to those who almost destroyed our economic system) is often destructive real learning. When those of us who are professional educators try to point this out we have thrown back at us an accusation that we don’t want to be accountable. We are accountable, first and foremost to the students before us, in ways that often cannot be measured by the poor quality tests upon which we have been relying. We are accountable to one another, since most of us recognize that we do not teach our students in isolation from the other adults responsible for their education, starting with their families, but including every adult within the school system.

Finland does not have incredibly thick collections of national standards. They have small collections of broadly defined standards, and allow local implementation. – By contrast, our direction in the US has been to cram more and more in, even though it is not possible to meaningfully test all of the mandated content. As a result, in many subjects our approach to education is coverage of material but with superficial understanding. Assessments such as PISA which require a deeper understanding and application of material demonstrate that the emphasis we have been making is not improving real learning, even if the scores on our various state tests may have been going up. Local implementation allows for greater flexibility in meeting the students where they are, rather than being forced to move at an artificial speed to ensure coverage of material that will be assessed by external tests. We use tests to drive instruction to the detriment of real learning, no matter how good the performance on those tests might be.

Qualifying to become a teacher is difficult. We have institutions in the US that take all comers. In Finland, as those paying attention already know, one has to have demonstrated superior academic performance at a post-secondary level in order to be eligible for teacher training. That is the greatest barrier. Then the training is far more extensive, with all teachers expected to earn the equivalent of a masters degree.

Teachers are well trained, well supported, and given time to reflect about what they are doing, including during the school day. – The training and support are part of the preparation and qualification. New teachers do not simply walk into a classroom with responsibility for a full load of teaching. They are inducted gradually, with greater support, more opportunity to learn from experienced teachers. Of equal importance, even after they are experienced, they are expected to cooperate, collaborate, and most of all reflect, and they are given time within the school day. I know as a teacher how valuable it is to have to think about what just happened in a class. That is rare. There are times when I have had 4 classes back to back, covering 3 different preparations. I have 5 minutes between classes, some of which time I have to use for administrative tasks in order to maximize the amount of time available for instruction and learning.

Finns start school later in life than we do. – in Finland schools start at age 7. In the US, 1st grade is normally age 6, but we have near universal Kindergarten at 5, and an increasing emphasis upon preschool even earlier. In someways what we are doing in these earlier programs is contrary to our best understanding of human growth and development, especially as we push elements of academic learning to ever earlier ages. We now obsess on having children reading “on grade level” in third grade, even though many of our young people are not developmentally ready for what we throw at them, and as a result get turned off to reading, a skill that is essential for much of what we later demand of them. I wonder if our approach is not more to provide mass child care to allow parents to earn greater incomes at the same time as providing business and industry with a larger work force that enables them to depress wages. But then, that is my cynical side showing. On this I think we keep children in school for too long – in terms of number of years, even in terms of number of hours. And then we ask even more of them. Which leads to the next immediate takeaway:

Finnish students do little homework. – at the high school level, it might be an average of 30 minutes a night. We insist on so much more, to the point where some of our students are in theory supposedly doing 4-6 hours of homework. Of course they don’t do it all, and what they do they often rush through. I want to come back to this point, and not just because I pay attention to what Alfie Kohn offers, and he has been critical of our insistence upon homework for many years.

Finally, There is meaningful technical education in Finnish Schools – that is, it involves real world task with real world people. The Finns do not have our obsession with trying to prepare everyone to be college ready – or as we now phrase it, college or career ready – upon graduation from high school. Too much of our technical education is becoming focused on STEM, and does not recognize the real world skills that can enable one to earn a good living with other skills. I have written about this in the past, which is perhaps why this part of the film caught my attention.

What also caught my attention was seeing students work in groups to solve real world problems. It was finding out that they have much more freedom in choosing the projects they do to demonstrate competence. I will also return to this point.

Homework – Let me focus on my Advanced Placement class. It is supposed to be a college level class in American Government and politics. It meets 45 minutes a day for the entire year. While we have in theory 180 instructional days, the AP test is in early May, which cuts the time for instruction before that to around 150, although it is less with mandated testing, assemblies, shortened periods due to weather or administrative functions. If it met for 45 minutes for 5 periods a week, that would be 225 minutes. A college class that meets 3 times a week does so for 150 minutes. We are already devoting more instructional time than students would have in college. Of course, in college I would expect students to do 2 hours of work for each hour of class. That would be a total of 450 minutes between instruction and independent work. To equal that, students would be doing 45 minutes a night for my class outside of school, right? Except consider this: in college a full load of classes is usually 4, occasionally only 3. In our school students take 7 courses, occasionally 8. A similar commitment of outside time is simply not possible.

Of course, related to this is our increasing emphasis on AP courses. We have students who as high school juniors are taking 6 such courses. That is 1.5 times the class load of a college student, when they are not yet in college. That concerns me. It concerns me that they do not have time to reflect about what they are learning.

In the film we discover that older high school students in Finland often take only 3 or 4 courses at a time. That seems so much more sensible. We could do that with course that met for two periods for half a year, except what we do with AP makes that impossible – if you do it in 1st semester, the students are not in the course at the time of the AP exam, and if you do it in 2nd semester, the amount of time before the AP exam – or for non-AP courses any external state exams – means you have less instructional time than you would in first semester.

Let me turn briefly to the panel discussion. It was led by led by Dr. Tony Wagner of Harvard U, who is the narrator of and featured in the film. It included Annmarie Neal, Chief Talent Officer from Cisco Systems; Gene Wilhoit, Executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers; John Wilson, Executive Director of the National Education Association; and Tom Friedman, author and columnist for the New York Times. I am going to ignore most of what Friedman said, other than to note that he seemed to want to prove that he was cleverer than anyone else and that he could coin the most memorable phrases. I got little of value from his remarks. Wilhoit and Wilson spoke at times bluntly, both representing the point of view of the organizations they direct. There was actually a fair amount of agreement.

It was the remarks of MS Neal that caught my attention. She was very impressed by what she saw of students staying 26 hours in a school working together on a common project within broad outlines to come up with a real world solution. She related that to how Cisco puts groups of people together to brainstorm future business endeavors. And she related it to one of her real passions, which is Montessori education – she is a mom as well as a high-ranking business executive. In the Montessori approach one key emphasis is on the interest of the student. The role of the teacher is far less “sage on the stage” than it is of facilitator and to some degree of co-learner with the students. The kinds of people she is seeking for Cisco are far better prepared by that kind of approach that by the kinds of instruction far too common in our schools.

Further, even though she works for a technology company, and needs engineers, she values the learning how to think that is a product of a liberal arts education. She expressed some concern that our focus on STEM is too narrow.

I had a chance to chat with MS Neal briefly afterward, and she repeated those points. Remember her title – “Chief Talent Officer.” She goes all over the world seeking out the best people for one of the more productive high tech companies in the US. I told her that her approach reminded me of something I had encountered when I worked in a data processing placement company many years ago. The old Philadelphia Railroad did not want mathematicians to train as computer programmers, it wanted musicians. I also noted that the 2nd best orchestra in the Boston area has traditionally not been found at Harvard or the New England Conservatory, but at MIT.

There are things we can learn from Finland, as the film makes clear. It is not that we can simply transfer their approach to the US. If nothing else, we by now should have learned that taking a model out of its context and imposing it in a different situation often leads to failure, as many of our attempts at whole school reform demonstrated in the past couple of decades.

What we can learn is that the direction we are going with our national policy on education is diametrically opposed to what Finland did to totally reform their educational system over a period of several decades. The Finns began in the 1970s. Our current round of reforms can arguably be dated to A Nation at Risk in 1983. While the Finns have made major improvements in their public education, we have perhaps not even tread water for too many of our students.

We do have some superb public schools. We also have inequitable distribution of resources, and not just within schools. We lack a consistency of approach on how we are going to address our problems. We attempt to do much of what we do from the top down, whereas much of what happened successfully in Finland was because of a deliberate decision to do as much as possible from the bottom up.

There are other things I could note. All students in primary and secondary schools get free meals. Students grow up learning Swedish and English as well as Finnish. There is health care in the schools. Oh yes, Finland’s teaching force is 100% unionized. Administrators function in support of teachers, not in opposition.

Some of this I knew before seeing the film. Not all of it is addressed in the film, nor was it addressed in the panel discussion.

Can we learn from Finland? I believe we can. Too often Americans seem to want to ignore what we can take from other nations. Yet there is much we have already taken from other nations in education. After all, the original concept of kindergarten was German, as the name itself demonstrates (too bad that it is decreasingly a garden and much more of a regimen). We have in some places learned what Maria Montessori developed. It might be helpful for those wanting to understand what is possible in educating young children to also examine Reggio Emelia – I note that when I have asked some major politicians who are often considered committed to education what they know about the last, I have yet to find anyone who has any knowledge beyond perhaps having heard the name. Of course, the same is unfortunately true of most in the media who write about education and schools. Few politicians or education journalists are familiar either with Simpson’s paradox or Campbell’s Law, both of which are basic to truly understand much of the data upon which we are now basing major policy decisions.

If I could offer one overall sense of what I derived from seeing the film, it was this – education in Finland is much more conducive to producing the citizenry necessary for the sustaining of a democratic government than what we are currently doing in the United States.

That does not mean we should copy the Finns. In many ways we cannot. it is not merely that they have less than 6 million people, have far less poverty or economic disparity than we do. There are major cultural differences that can require differences in approach.

But surely we can learn from them.

Surely we can learn the importance of giving students the opportunity to explore their own interests.

Perhaps we can learn from them that excellence in education can be achieved without mandating sameness from the top down, with no need for a punitive approach based on a test-based accountability system.

We should learn from them the importance of properly selecting and preparing teachers. Yet for all our verbiage on the importance of teachers, somehow the policies we implement seem to work contrary to that stated goal.

Is what Finland has accomplished really all that surprising? It shouldn’t be. That the word “surprising” is part of the title of the film speaks more to what is wrong in our approach to education than it does to what is outstanding in Finland.

Thursday night I saw the film, I talked with some people from the panel both before and after seeing it. I talked with the producer both before and after viewing it.

I pondered until Saturday morning, when i began drafting this piece, to which i returned several times, finally finishing it in mid-evening.

Were I to see the film again, I might have different takeaways.

I offer this as a starting point, to let you know about it, and about my experience on Thursday.

If you are interested in education and have a chance to see the film, I suggest you do. I found it worth the time spent viewing it.



39 thoughts on “The Finland Phenomenon – a film about schools

  1. There is a lot of information here so I will just address a couple that are close to my heart. I am so against the young ages our children start school. Here in Ontario some start barely after their fourth birthday and I think you make a good point that it is just providing child care. Secondly homework: our students now start homework in kindergarten. Businesses all carry on about work life balance but we are drowning our children and denying them that very thing from the get go. Thanks for an excellent post.

    Posted by bridgesburning | March 27, 2011, 9:37 am
  2. Everything they do in Finland seems similar to what I have dreamed of for America. I will admit to at times crying while I dream it, so horrible do I find our education system to be right now. As an online teacher of children who are failing to read in our schools, often for reasons expressed above, I wish the President could talk with some of these kids, and learn the depths of their despair.

    In fact, getting this film in front of him strikes me as one of the most meaningful things we could possibly do toward making change possible.

    I will blog about it too, and I hope you encourage others to do the same. If only it were to become a movement! Maybe with the Twitter hashtag #finnishschoolswork or something similar.

    Posted by Paula Lee Bright | March 27, 2011, 10:54 am
  3. Ken, did anyone address the question of homogenous population? To what extent do the Lapps affect results?

    Posted by Bob Calder | March 27, 2011, 4:16 pm
    • Thank you for addressing this. Based on my experience teaching for over 22 years (2 of those in Japan), this is a very important factor.

      Posted by Julie Anderson | June 25, 2011, 10:10 am
      • Lappish people get a very small portion of their training in Sami, their own language. The lapps amount only few thousands in total in the whole country so they are not in the focus.
        The diversity now comes from increased immigration mostly from Africa, Middle East and Balkan. Now in some schools there is about 30 % of non-finnish speaking pupils. The response of the authorities has been positive in-discrimination i.e. these schools receive more funds so that they have more teachers and thus smaller classes. These schools can also have more activities after schools due to increased funding.
        Finns in these schools are happy about the situation, but those finns who do not have kids in these schools fear of white flight.
        My boy just went to the local school. The school has all pupils from the area, whether
        their’e from the rental apartment blocks or those trendy 50s one-family houses with big grades 2 km from the heart of the city. And btw he went to french language immersion class. In a normal state school 🙂

        Posted by Janne Lilleberg | September 7, 2011, 9:13 am
  4. I agree with Paula, this should be a movement, thru blogs and other social networking.
    We will support.


    Posted by Sam Reynol | March 28, 2011, 12:57 am
  5. Movement will be key. We have research and examples of what works here and abroad, but we have trouble organizing for pedagogical change and resistance to harmful practice at every level, from teachers to school boards to the USDOE.

    The individual choices teachers make have unsung power to combat the standardization of public schools. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to subvert standardization. It would be easier to do with tacit and explicit support from local, state, and national leaders – from supervisors and policy-makers, celebrity and otherwise.

    We should see as many films and read as many blogs as possible to see what we’re doing right in our classes, states, country, and world, and we should try in our own small ways to enact what we know is right as often as possible.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 28, 2011, 5:47 am
  6. Hi! Greetings from Finland! Interesting to read your thoughts about our school system based on a film that I also hope to see one day. While a lot of what you write seems to reflect our circumstances here, there is also some misinformation that I have read in other blogs, too.
    You write that there are no exit exams in Finnish high schools. If, by high school, you refer to the years before college/university (i.e. 16-19-year-olds in Finland), these students do have to take very challenging – 6-hour! – national, final exams in 4 compulsory subjects, and possibly 2-3 optional ones. These exams have been an integral part of high school graduation in Finland for well over 100 years, and are a real national institution. They are prepared by a special examination board, and sent to all the high schools in the country, to be taken by students on the same days. Unfortunately, in the last few years, the media has started to rank Finnish high school solely on the basis of the results of these final exams, without taking into account the students’ entry levels in any way. This has created a very unfair ranking list of the same elite schools, with the best intake of students, coming on top year after year. But here we are talking about the Finnish ‘lukio’, which is our 3-year senior high school. At 15-16 our students choose either a more practical vocational school or the more academic ‘lukio’. The PISA assessments apply to 15-year-olds, i.e. before this choice, and it is true that for them, there are no standardized tests.

    I couldn’t agree with you more that you can’t simply transfer a whole school system to another country and culture. I had the marvellous opportunity to do a Fulbright teacher exchange year in the US, and I know that there is a lot we could learn from you, too. No school system is perfect and ready. But I do feel sorry for you American teachers for having to do so many more contact hours in a week! You assume that, with fewer contact hours, we here have more time to reflect on our teaching, and maybe plan and innovate. In theory, yes, but there are enough teachers here who just consider it their ‘free time’, and just leave the school building.

    Posted by sinikka | March 28, 2011, 1:25 pm
    • THank you so much! This is probably objection #1 in most lay discussions on education here. The second is variance in population. Many people here point to Finland as having uniform demographics and little diversity.

      Does Finland have a populations with sufficiently different income and culture to constitute a comparison to diversity found in Canada or US? What about the Sami? How do they affect results?

      Posted by Bob Calder | March 29, 2011, 6:37 am
      • Finland’s population is still very homogenous. Only less than 1% of our small population speak Sami as their mother tongue, so they don’t really affect the results. Also the immigrant population is only between 3-4 % although it has been steadily increasing in the last few years. As for standard of living, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is not very big even though, unfortunately, it has been widening in the last decade. I would say that, as far as diversity is concerned, you really can’t compare Finland to Canada or the US!

        Posted by sinikka | March 29, 2011, 9:23 am
    • It’s always nice to hear more information on any given subject. It would be more profitable for human relations as a whole if we would take time to fully digest all the information that is out there before making rash judgements, or commendations on things that ignite passion such as education.

      My niece recently sent me a youtube video on the Finnish education system. Very impressive, but as your letter shows – there is often much more information that is needed to make judgements and comparisons with other education methods. That is why I immediately started searching the internet to see what role the unions play in their school system. It seems they play a huge role and are quite powerful, according to one article I read. The teachers are in weekly meetings with union officials according to the same article. After reading and watching the dynamics of unions in America all these years, it makes me wonder how they can be so involved, yet politics seem to be a very small part of the equation in the success of Finnish schools, at least according to the director of the school in the video I watched. I would like to know about the improvements and benefits that result from union involvement in their system.

      I love the class time philosophy of these schools and the availability of 2-3 teachers in the classroom. Is it also true that a teacher can call, or write to textbook companies and suggest/receive textbook changes? This is outstanding, if true!

      I would take issue with the opinion expressed by Ken, that private schools ‘are deliberately established as elite institutions’. This remark smacks of elitism and a lack of forethought, mainly because I doubt that the author has spent much time researching the many reasons why private schools are initiated in the US. I would say that one of the reasons many parents pull their children out of the public school system in America is because of the benefits of following their own ‘Finnish’ educational system at home. I have had plenty of exposure to private schools during the years that I raised five children and the notion that they were established to be ‘elite’ is laughable. My general impression is that these schools are formed to attain a quieter atmosphere, escape political brainwashing, help parents achieve their religious goals, and help create atmospheres that are consistent with the classrooms of Finland, as seen in most of the videos that I have viewed on youtube. I don’t wish to deride the author, but one of the reasons their system seems to be so nice is that they seem to be working as a team towards one goal – the student. Stating that private schools have been deliberately established for elitism is an affront to people that are genuinely interested in providing the best care – emotionally and academically – for children. The refusal to change the use of standard curriculum in America has resulted in the formation of many private schools. It is a colossal undertaking to form a school of any size and to suggest that it is a result of ‘elitist’ desires is incorrect, in my opinion.

      Posted by Becky Campbell | February 28, 2012, 11:18 am
      • Ms Campbell, the responses you see are from people that have knowledge in the history of education – both private and public. Stating that private schools are not elite institutions is to misunderstand the history of education in the US. As to unions, there is absolutely no evidence (Research was done after silly statements were made by conservative think tanks without thinking first – as usual.) that unions have an effect on education although there is plenty of far right union criticism. That’s the reason you won’t find anything about it. Unions are a non-issue. In addition, Scandinavian social relationships with unions are quite different from ours. For instance the evolution of Norwegian governance is positively scary for the wealthy. Three quarters of the population belongs to a labor union in Finland.
        This article by Linda Darling Hammond at the NEA website fully explains some of the questions:
        Don’t try to make it more complicated than it is. The US has a management fetish and Finland has trust. Hiring smart and well-trained people, then endowing them with trust worked wonders in Finland. It won’t happen in the US because we are fearful. We have indeed been brainwashed, but it was into fearing our own government and fellow men.

        Posted by Bob Calder | February 28, 2012, 9:27 pm
        • The article states that private schools are deliberately intended to be elite institutions. The author is not talking about 100 yr old institutions in the last sentence of this paragraph. The history of education in America is something in which I’ve always had an interest and I’m pretty sure that the history that I’ve been looking at is just as available to me as it is to the experts that you are mentioning in your reply. Something I noticed in a book by John Taylor Gatto, is that education in America has been manipulated by politicians, businessmen, and educators to fulfill the manufacturing needs of the day. Look into this history and then tell me – do you think that there might have been a few intelligent people out there that realized a need to get away from this type of herd mentality? Do you think it’s possible that there were concerned educators that felt the need to establish institutions that helped students escape life in a factory? I attended the first meeting that established the Indiana Association of Home Educators in 1981. There were 40 people in attendance. Today they take up an entire weekend in a huge convention center with thousands of people attending. These thousands do not reflect the entire home school population. Almost every one of the parents that I have spoken to over the years have all voiced the same reason for teaching their children in their own little private school at home – freedom from standard curriculum, freedom to enjoy learning. Try not to be close minded about the origins of private schools. If you have data that shows they are developed for that reason, I would be interested in seeing your source.

          I regularly read both opinions on how unions work in America and in our state. My opinion is that unions are more beneficial to the people that run them than the teachers they represent. You may have seen “Waiting for Superman”, which touches on the substandard teaching that unions in America seem to uphold. When I read that the Finnish teacher unions were very powerful, yet the teachers had such professionalism, flexibility, and success in the classroom, I was very interested in what might go on behind closed doors in union/teacher meetings. The video I watched said that the the unions meet every week with teacher representatives. It seemed like there was a very pleasant relationship between the teachers, parents and unions, which was somewhat comforting. I didn’t feel that the tone of my statement was to trash unions. I am sincerely curious about the relationship between teachers and unions in Finland. By the way, if there was an announcement in Wisconsin today that all teachers would be required to have a master’s degree, I think you could expect a major protest resulting in the trashing of the statehouse – again! Hopefully, union member behavior in Finland is much different than in America. Your statement about silly, right-wing, think tanks was ill-informed, as one of President Obama’s biggest admirers, Steve Jobs told him that unions are the death of the American education system.

          I wouldn’t expect to force you to make your child attend a private school, any more than you should expect my child to attend your public school. If there was a public school that met the criteria that I desire for my child, they would be attending that school. It bothers me that you, and many educators don’t respect the academic freedom of others. I personally find it offensive that educators feel that they should have a corner on the education market. So often, it looks and feels like a power grab, which is insulting because I help pay their salary. Perhaps that is the biggest reason that the video had such a huge effect on me. There didn’t seem to be a big power struggle going on in the classroom, or in the school system. There seemed to be a focus on the individual success of each student. If I could count on the Finns to keep their views on sexuality, the state religion of humanism, and the promotion of their personal politics out of the classroom, I would be happy to send my children to one of their schools. (Please note that I have no idea if they include these things presently in their school agenda.)

          Posted by Becky Campbell | February 29, 2012, 3:30 am
  7. While these are all wonderful ideas and seem to have worked in Finland, as others have pointed out it doesn’t mean they would or should work here in the U.S. context is critical. If we did decide that this is what the U.S. needs then it must happen in incremental steps otherwise the school change movement will collapse from overload. We also must be ready to replace what exists with something else for example if we abolish all testing we remove what some communities use to bring attention to educational and financial inequities. This doesn’t mean standardized tests should always be a part of our education system it does mean when we move away from it, it may not be best practice to simply go from A to Z. Part of my dilemma is that we are using how U.S. students compare to other countries on test scores as a way to showcase what we think our system should be. Those tests are still tests , we don’t need those to tell us how the Chinese, Finns or Japanese are doing we respect them and know we can learn from them anyway no matter what their test scores are. We can learn a lot from studying education all over the world, especially from indigenous populations who have a symbiotic relationship with their surroundings.

    This is the time to take a realistic and honest look at where we are as a nation and also where the communities we work and live in are. While Finland has invested a lot into its public schools so have we , we just have not come out with the same results for a variety of reasons. Perhaps we need to work on making different options more viable, charter (still public), independent, private so that the public sector will have to change or collapse. I work in a public school, went to public schools and believe strongly in them from K all the way through life. How does the U.S do what the U.S. needs do we really want out emphasis to be on some international test comparisons , lets instead look at “Gross National Happiness” and look holistically at the health of a nations citizens and their ecology.

    Lets not ignore our own cultural context to focus on another, lets learn from everyone but not copy anyone, lets reinvent the wheel and not just pound into shape a different kind of wheel.

    Posted by Peter Berg | March 29, 2011, 2:57 pm
    • There are things we can learn from testing. Unfortunately, the things we *think* we learn from testing are often not what we *think* we are learning. Politicians are particularly susceptible to “playing scientist” by marking up a stick as a ruler and measuring other politicians along with dissimilar things like (for instance) rocks. It’s not a useful exercise but it entertains them.

      We can learn much from the Finns by looking first at what they do. They hire people with specialist degrees in what is taught. Singapore and Hong Kong both do that. Expensive prep schools do that. Doing it will not leave us adrift in a sea of negative feelings. What we don’t know is the strength of the effect. This is strange because you would THINK it was an obvious thing to study. The Finns support new teachers. Singapore and Hong Kong support new teachers. Effect strength?

      We can learn from what they don’t do. They don’t create massive ontological structures that micro-manage delivery of specific knowledge in the classroom. I have seen a Singapore math curriculum guide that guides the teacher by listing the math concepts. There are fewer than in the US. Minnesota currently uses the Singapore method and is among the top ten countries in the world in math. Fewer curriculum items taught deeper. I haven’t heard Minnesotans worrying about the loss to the richness of their knowledge about how their students stand in relations to the rest of the US. In fact, the opposite is true. They are happy to tell you about it. We just don’t want to listen. We don’t listen to Finland, we don’t listen to Massachusetts, we don’t listen to Singapore (or we misunderstand them), we pay no attention to Puerto Rico, and forget Minnesota!

      When a bad thing happens, or when we THINK a bad thing happens (but doesn’t), our social machine creates rules to keep it from happening again. Those rules don’t die. They pile up and solidify, making change difficult. Probably the only thing radical conservative ed reform wants to do that is good is to blast that sedimentary formation of rules. The do in principle at any rate. Probably not in practice since we have evidence from New York.

      We have experts that sell “what works” in “effective schools” taught by “effective teachers”. (Back to the first paragraph.) We are playing scientist and we are losing because we don’t want to *be* scientists. Finland has testing, regulations, structure, and community working together. None of these things are alien to the US in a way that could cause disruption. They also have trust in their teachers. We don’t. We trust experts that are paid on the basis of promise, not performance. Their charter school analysis, their student performance, and their budget analysis are never subject to peer review in other than self-publishing genre like global warming deniers.

      Posted by Bob Calder | March 29, 2011, 4:42 pm
  8. A friend of mine asked me about my opinion on the questions raised in this post, so I thought to share them here as I am interested in the opinion of the readers of this post!

    First, I agree there is valuable learning from the efforts in Finland, but as sinikka indicated, there is lots of gray in between the black and white pictures that seem to have been presented in the film (which I admit I haven’t seen!) Even so, reducing the dependence on standardized testing in measuring and rating teacher’s effectiveness or student knowledge is to be commended!!

    What strikes me as surprising is the lack of mention of parents’ and students’ involvement in shaping the curriculum and the way the education is practiced!! I don’t know if Finland is making efforts in this area, but I am always stunned when people focus a lot on the problem of standardized testing — often seeing all testing as bad — and forget about the fact that a valuable education is an inclusive education where the ones being educated participate as much as those educating in a democratic and open process!

    A democratic and open process would not only invite the feedback of the students, it would get rid of some of the other limiting factors with the traditional schooling built for producing factory workers — from age grouping, to bell schedules, to requiring kids to sit still during class, to mention few. I would like to know if there is any system in the world where these are dropped out at a national level, or they’re still confined to few alternative programs like Montessori or Waldorf? I would be surprised if the answer is yes — and might consider moving there asap! 😉

    The democratic and open process I am referring to above doesn’t necessarily have to shun testing — I would be first to admit that measuring can be useful and inform efforts for improvements if done with care. For example, I had a chance to run many software projects with anywhere between 3 and 3,000 people being involved and my experience tells me that the most successful ones used measurements not to look at the effectiveness of the individuals, but those that focused on trends instead.

    To give you an idea what I mean, assume you as a teacher administer a test every month, but instead of publishing the results of each test, you only communicate the improvements between two! Instead of providing a stick against which the students are all lined up and ranked, you’re offering a compass that tells each individual student how they’re doing over time. This opens room for personalized testing, but even a standardized test could offer a value if done this way, since it doesn’t matter how bad or good a student does on any given test, but if they’re learning enough between tests and if their learning shows.

    In such a setting, the role of the teacher would be to nurture the learning that leads to upward trends and jump in and help those that are barely moving or going back. Of course, sticking to standardized testing in the long run can undermine the value even of such a system, as students can still be taught to improve on the material needed for the test only, so efforts to ban them at national level are really needed and in that regard I hope many countries will look at examples like that of Finland!


    Posted by kima | March 30, 2011, 2:15 pm
  9. Having served on education advisory boards and now a college board of trustees for 10 years, I have often fought,without success, to get others in education to simply open their minds and study other countries systems where things are working. No, we cannot simply pick up their exact model and place in here in America, but we can learn valuable insight and adapt our system based on successes in other countries.

    Posted by Diane | April 17, 2011, 12:18 pm
    • I have found that upper division education in the research sector is very open to looking at other countries. Come to the AAAS annual meeting and go to the education track symposia. There is plenty of good research and a long history of it. You can meet the people responsible and get them to talk to your more resistent board members.

      Don’t fall for the “We can’t just adopt their model.” argument. It is a way to avoid grappling with the issues and direct your attention away from essential questions. Finland and Minnesota and Singapore have something in common. It is a loose system of controls that places trust in professional educators that have been recruited and trained and supported appropriately.

      Patrick Gonzales at NCES is a wonderful and willing speaker. Patsy Wang-Iverson is another person with a great sense of proportion. She is the go-to person for Singapore math research.

      Our problems are related to the savior complex we have in the US. The idea that there is one simple thing we can do that will make everything better prevents us from seeing the hands extended to us and the offers of help.

      Posted by Bob Calder | April 17, 2011, 2:47 pm
  10. Finland’s education system was copied in the 70’s from a communist regime, the German Democratic Republic or better know as East Germany. That’s why it’s socially equal system. It doesn’t matter are you from a low-income worker’s family or from a wealthy family. Everybody get the same chance to educate themselves and succeed in their lives.

    Posted by Finlander | April 20, 2011, 9:09 am
    • Well, this is partially true. We must remember, that we have had very similar type educational system from late 1800’s.

      There has been all time possibility for everybody to get a good basic education and also there has always been possibility to go further.

      In USA one major problem is, that every State has it´s own legislation. We have now this Spring been working with one University. Our son is trying to go there to study as a student-athlete.

      It has been really surprising to see how much Universities differ in applying process from state to state.

      Here in Finland you do application in a national web-page. All your high-school credentials are in same national data base. So the first stage is easy and filling the application in web takes max 10 mins.

      Of course it´s easier to create these kind of student nation wide databases in a country with 5,3 million people. But the point is that in USA things have became so complicated because of this independence of every State.

      Posted by Harri | April 21, 2011, 2:02 am
  11. “Finland does have one test for college admissions. It does not have high stakes tests for high school graduation.”

    there are at least 20 different exams for each university and degree. Apart from that there are high school exams from at least 4 subjects. In US I guess there is only one exam which defines where you get.

    Posted by kirsi | April 23, 2011, 11:57 am
  12. Your somewhat disparaging remarks about STEM belie your lack of understanding of science and apparently a failure to recognize the difference between science and technology. Doing, and learning, science, which is incredibly poorly presented in today’s public schools, if the wholesale scientific ignorance of the public is a measure, involves every bit as much creativity as a “liberal arts” education, which science is actually a part of. IF our schools were actuallly to give science the attention it deserves, they would be better critical thinkers and more capable of addressing problems in all fields than if they ignored science and focused solely on arts and social studies.

    Posted by J | May 18, 2011, 10:03 pm
    • J – STEM in the US is poor in a very broad sense if you look at 8th grade science classrooms where it is used…badly. The problem is twofold. Frist, the US has a little less than half the number of science degreed teaching staff compared to high performing countries. Second, those that use project-based lessons often fail to do KWL, instead using project sheets for classroom control, jumping from one to the next without taking time to reflect and discuss. There are other issues, but these were pointed out by researchers that visited the classrooms and conducted a fairly rigorous study.

      Posted by Bob Calder | May 19, 2011, 3:12 pm
    • I agree. Science is about learning how to perceive reality accurately and apply good thinking skills- useful in any realm.

      Posted by Julie Anderson | June 25, 2011, 10:22 am
  13. The key factor may be Finland’s lack of poverty. Finland’s 2009 PISA results were actually not as good as those of US public schools that had less than 10% students eligible for Free and Reduced Price Lunch. Students at poverty-free US schools do better than the Finns. To improve our educational results, we should eliminate poverty. “Diversity” may have little to do with it, except perhaps as a reason people are willing to put up with shameful levels of poverty.

    Posted by eric | May 22, 2011, 11:46 am
  14. Where can the DVD be purchased, and are there screening fees?

    Posted by Dwight Rousu | July 13, 2011, 7:03 pm
  15. Where can I purchase the DVD of this film? Thank you.

    Posted by Clenece Hills | September 20, 2011, 2:48 pm
  16. This a sampling of how Finnish educators see the success of their educ. system. We can try to emulate some of their more successful practices, but we can’t substitute their cultural practices and socio economic standing and ethnic makeup for ours. Let’s just look at best practices from all over the world and try to incorporate adapt them to our unique, diverse, sometimes transient student population. Again, note the reference to homework. They have found, apparently, the key to rigorous instruction/expectation, including homework: teach deeper, not wider.
    L. Diaz

    Posted by Lou Diaz | November 13, 2011, 3:38 pm
  17. This is a great thread of discussion. I’ve viewed the film and would recommend it to any and all who are interested in improving their educational system. We will be using this as the focus of a professional learning session… we will be doing a video study. If anyone has done this, I would be interested in hearing from you.

    On a different note, I recently came across another blog posting entitled “Why does Finnish give better PISA results?” found at The author argues that morphology of the Finnish language (e.g. regular spelling, predictability, correspondence between letters and phonemes, etc) results in a higher literacy ability… the argument is that you have to be able to read and interpret the question if you are going to be able to demonstrate what you have learned/what you know. Nothing new there!

    Like you, I was certainly skeptical until the author mentioned that there are two official languages in Finland: Finnish and Swedish. The Swedish make up a very small percentage of the population but do have Swedish language schools and take their PISA tests in Swedish. Also, for consideration… according to the author, the Swedish population tend to be better off on the socio-economic scale than the rest of the population. And we know that higher socio-economic status generally equates to higher test scores. Well, that is not what happens in Finland… in the 2003 PISA Finnish speaking students outperformed the Swedish speaking students in scientific literacy with an average difference of 26 points. This would put the Swedish students on pare with those of the Netherlands.

    So perhaps the solution we’ve all been looking for (or at least part of it) is to improve the literacy levels of our students.

    I haven’t been able to find any corroborating reports on this so I’m tossing it out to see if anyone here has. I cursory web search shows that others are quoting this article (e.g., neither suggest Nuoret’s reasoning is flawed. Perhaps one of our Finnish friends could comment?

    Posted by CraiginNL | December 21, 2011, 3:37 pm
    • I wouldn’t want to untangle the cultural relationship between the Finns and the Swedes without a good guide – to negotiate an historically acrimonious relationship.

      Linguistics is another matter entirely. There should be plenty of people qualified to clear that up easily. But the opinions of regular educators, particularly those in political positions, should be discounted heavily.

      The Finns have a huge body of evidence that supports their improvements. Mostly it’s professionalization of educators and gradual generalization of curriculum combined with local control. Very decentralized. Looking at their language or culture smacks of simplification.

      Posted by Bob Calder | December 21, 2011, 9:14 pm


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