Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Finnish Schools: What Do They Have That We Don't Have?

Everyone's a buzz about schools in Finland being awesome, so I read a book and some articles and their curriculum documents to figure out what's so special.

In a nutshell, copying their school system will do little unless we can find a way to copy their entire culture, but let's look at their structure nonetheless because it's pretty interesting.


They start grade 1 a year later, at 7 instead of 6, and their schooling to the end of what we call high-school is the same number of years, so students graduate at 19 instead of 18. That works if you have affordable daycare at the front end, and, of course, they do: "Early childhood care, voluntary free preschool that is attended by some 98% of the age cohort, comprehensive health services, and preventive measure to identify possible learning and development difficulties before children start schooling are accessible to all" (48).

I just focused on their high-school system, or "Upper Secondary."

It starts after grade 9, after their 9-year "basic school," and has three streams to choose from: academic, vocational, or go to work. That's right - as far as I understand it, they can choose to walk away from school at 16. BUT only 2% (29) choose that route, compared to the 16% in Canada. I think drop-out rates have a lot to do with employment opportunities also, which can be seen at that link which shows the highest rate in Alberta where there are currently more unskilled labour jobs due to the tar sands. When our city was full of factories, I knew lots of people who dropped out early to work. I can't find a graph of the unemployment rate compared to the drop-out rate, but one might be telling.

Their day has five 45-minute classes and a free, healthy, school-provided lunch. Teachers have time to meet together regularly after school and at lunch because they don't offer sports or clubs. Those are provided through community centres unaffiliated with the schools. An exchange student who came to our school once said we're really lucky to have sports right at school. He also said teachers would never allow so much talking and looking at cell phones in classrooms back home.

ETA - They also have 15-minute breaks between classes. Can you imagine, at the end of a class, having 15 minutes to answer a student's questions without another class barrelling in and eight people mobbing you with requests to go to the bathroom or get a drink?! It'd be like the kinds of classes they show on movies about high-school.

The academic upper secondary stream typically takes three years to complete, but many stay for a fourth year. The curriculum documents, if I'm reading them correctly, have courses that run 38 hours each (instead of our 110 hours), but some elective courses can be shorter or longer. I gather they have something like five 8-week terms each year (about 40 weeks in total), for a total of 25 courses per year (compared to our 8 courses per year). Essentially, the courses that we offer are broken up into three shorter modules that make up separate courses. That makes sense to me because if a student doesn't understand one component of a subject area, it's just a matter of re-doing the unit rather than the entire subject. Furthermore, this "change enabled schools to rearrange teaching schedules, and, in turn, affected local curriculum planning because schools had more flexibility to allocate lessons into these periods differently" (25).

In total, there are a minimum of 75 courses needed to graduate (we have 22 in grades 10-12), at least 47 of them compulsory. "Normally students exceed this minimum limit and study more, typically between 80 and 90 courses" (25). They call their electives, specialisation courses. They replaced "age-cohort-based grouping of students with a nonclass organizational system...not based on fixed classes or grades (previously called 10th, 11th, or 12th grades). Students thus have greater choice available to them in planning their studies in terms of both the content and the sequencing of their courses" (25).

This table below is in the Appendix of the documents.
What I find interesting is the number of ethics, philosophy, history, and social studies courses that are compulsory. They also demand almost twice as many hours of math, but fewer hours of science and geography, and about half as much literature (English).  The fact that they require a second language makes sense for a mother tongue spoken by so few outside the country, but they require students to learn two foreign languages in addition to two domestic languages. "Finnish students also acquire skills of designing, conducting, and presenting original research on practical or theoretical aspects of education" (83).

Students also have an education and vocational guidance course primarily to help them develop their own individual study plan. I imagine it's a little more complicated to do course selection than it is with our system!


Then I read Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg. Page numbers above and below are from there.

He praises a few places, including Alberta, but speaks specifically about the problems with what Ontario, the U.S., the U.K., and many other places have done recently. He calls it the "Third Way" in which we claim to have an emphasis on the moral purpose of education, but we have the same empty purpose irrespective of cultures within each school: "Raise the bar and narrow the gap to improve test scores." He questions some of the gurus we follow and quotes Manfred Kets de Vries who bemoans the fact that "many so-called turnaround specialists are little more than psychiatrically disturbed narcissists, sociopaths, and control freaks" (xvii). Harsh. The real problem is that many very different countries are blindly following the same goal. They have dramatically different cultures, but,
"the consultants' PowerPoint slides remain pretty much the same. In the Third Way, people aren't defining or developing their own shared visions or moral purposes. They don't own their visions. They rent them from other people" (xvii). 
We also follow the idea of "capacity-building," which is a term I haven't yet heard. But, whatever it is, we don't do it well.  It's meant to help communities help themselves. Capacity-building is,
"a humanistic and empowering concept directed toward assisting people to fulfill their own personally compelling purpose. In Third Way policies, though, capacity-building has often turned into something else - training people in prescribed strategies to deliver accountability goals and targets imposed by others" (xviii).
Apparently we're training for policy delivery instead developing innovation and collective responsibility. Unfortunately I don't actually know what that means or looks like. I'm not quite fluent in edu-speak. I get the sense, however, that we're blindly copying a model that has, at its core, the idea of working together with teachers to develop a model that works for the people using it, but the whole point is the process of working together to create something together. It falls apart if you take one group's results and apply them everywhere. And copying someone else's style is never a good idea.

The "Fourth Way," by contrast, is about trust, professionalism, and shared responsibility" (5). This is purely anecdotal, but I don't know many teachers who feel they are actually trusted as professionals at this point. In fact, I've never seen a time where so many teachers are worried about what parents and admin will say about pretty banal decisions they're making in their classrooms. It doesn't help when parents have a cursory understanding of AER but feel expert enough to challenge teachers. But that could just be an isolated experience.


"Finland is special also because it has been able to create an educational system where students learn well and where equitable education has translated into small variation in student performance between schools in different parts of the country at the same time...using reasonable financial resources and less effort than other nations" (5).

"In Finland, teaching is a prestigious profession, and many students aspire to be teachers....Teachers have a great deal of professional autonomy and access to purposeful professional development throughout their careers....Those who are lucky enough to become teachers normally are teachers for life." See Ontario stats here and here citing up to a 50% attrition rate for new teachers with work load and relationship with admin cited as the top two reasons for leaving the profession.

Internationally, "Finnish 4th-grade students were the best readers in the Reading Literacy Study...and 15-year-olds achieved top rankings in all four PISA cycles" (51). These stats have been criticized because their curriculum is most closely aligned with PISA standards, but  more impressive to me is this: "The national PISA report concludes that only 7% of Finnish students said they feel anxiety when working on mathematics tasks at home, compared to 52% and 53% in Japan and France, respectively" (64).


Here are some pointers that Sahlberg deems vital to the development of an excellent school system:
  • Significant attention must be paid to developing the capacity of leaders and teachers to improve individually and together. One of the ways teachers improve is by learning from other teachers. "Isolation is the enemy of all improvement" (xx). 
  • Teachers must be involved in developing a collective vision of education reform connected to inclusiveness and creativity, and in developing curriculum together rather than following ministry guidelines. "It is the school, not the system, that is the locus of control and capacity" (36). "Teachers at all levels of schooling expect that they are given the full range of professional autonomy to practice what they have been educated to do: to plan, teach, diagnose, execute, and evaluate" (76). "School curricula can look very different depending on the school" (88). Teachers having a key role in course development is more important than board-wide standardized lessons. 
  • "An important - and still voluntary - part of Finnish teachers' work is devoted to school improvement and work with the community" (90).
  • Teachers teach less (600 vs our 900 hours/year), and students spend less time studying both in and out of schools. Most basic school students take home minimal or no homework. Teachers spend two hours each week planning and developing work with colleagues, and teachers don't have to be present at school if they do not have classes (90).
  • Teachers make more for teaching higher grades (about 10% more), and pay is not tied to merit (77). 
  • "There are no formal teacher evaluation measures....it is not possible to compare school performance or teacher effectiveness" (90). "The question of teacher effectiveness...is not relevant...teachers have time to work together during a school day and understand how their colleagues teach....principals, aided by their own experience as teachers, are able to help their teachers to recognize strengths and areas of work that need improvement. The basic assumption in Finnish schools is that teachers, by default, are well-educated professionals" (91). This is a culture of mutual trust and respect (125). 
  • Teachers must be high-quality and well-trained with master's degrees in their area of specialization. Particularly important is high-quality, specialized special ed and guidance teachers. 
  • They offer on-going, useful professional development (50 hours annually) that helps teachers understand the learning process of students. "Teachers cannot create and sustain context for productive learning unless those conditions exist for them" (144). 
  • "The Finnish school principal is always also a teacher. Almost all Finnish principals teach some classes each week....principals should also have a vision of what a good school is and know how leadership can help to achieve that vision" (119).
  • They don't tie classes to age groups, so students feel comfortable taking more time to complete their studies. 
  • They have an inclusive special education strategy where nearly half the student get support before the end of grade 9 to identify learning strategies that students can use rather than labelling them and having teachers continue to accommodate their differences into the higher grades. They provide testing and interventions in daycare centres before they even start school.
  • Career guidance and counselling is an important factor in explaining low grade repetition and drop-out rates and serves as a bridge between education and work. Students spend two weeks in selected workplaces during their basic schooling (before the end of grade 9). During grades 7, 8, and 9, students get two hours a week of educational counselling. "This reduces the risk that students will make ill-informed decisions....It also helps students to put more effort into those areas of their studies most important to their anticipated route in upper-secondary school" (27).
  • Educational reform must be linked to economic competitiveness of the area. We can't have schools work in isolation of employment opportunities. 
  • They maintain a basic philosophy that all students can learn, and that students must be responsible for understanding how they learn best and develop skills to help themselves. 
  • All education after grade 9 is non-compulsory. And they can leave and come back later. "More than 50% of the Finnish adult population participates in adult education programs...without shifting the burden of costs to students" (44).
  • They have increased the attractiveness of vocational education with at least one-sixth of the training on-the-job learning.  More than 40% of upper-secondary school students start their studies in vocational schools (26). They are able to shift to the academic stream later if they decided they made a wrong turn, and there's less stigma around it because their students aren't divided by age/grade after grade 9; there are students ranging from 16-20 in most classes.
  • They have very few standardized tests, test-prep, or private tutoring because "...good teaching was sacrificed in pursuit of raising test scores" (67). He also adds that testing itself isn't a bad thing, so long as they're not high-stakes. "The higher the test-result stakes, the lower the degree of freedom for experimentation in classroom learning" (101).
  • Schools decide criteria for evaluation. Report cards at different schools "are not necessarily fully comparable because they are not based on standardized and objective measures" (66). Having a unified curriculum limits the freedom to follow student curiosity down a different path.
  • They offer free university, colleges, and trade school. 
  • They have university entrance exams (matriculation exams) that are mostly essay-based and open-ended with reading material that must be referred to in the answers (31). "Since there are no standardized high-stakes tests in Finland prior to the matriculation examination at the end of upper-secondary education, the teacher can focus on teaching and learning without the disturbance of frequent tests to be passed" (67).  
  • Students go to schools based on where they live: "Making schools and teachers compete for students and resources and then holding them accountable for the results...has led to the introduction of education standards, indicators, and benchmarks...and prescribed curricula" (100). 
  • "All the factors that are behind the Finnish success seem to be the opposite of what is taking place in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, where competition, test-based accountability, standardization, and privatization seem to dominate." "Finland has remained unconvinced that competition and choice with more standardized testing than students evidently require would be good or schools" (39). 
Beyond educational reform, the culture of the country is different with respect to education. Students are much more independent from their parents at a younger age (especially compared to the helicopter parenting we see here). They "encourage creativity, entrepreneurship, and personal responsibility" (120). "Parents expected their children to study further, and young Finns themselves also hoped to reach higher in their self-development" (23). Some think it's the fact that schools shifted from being based on cooperation instead of competition that has change everything. Many students stay in school until they're 20; they don't feel they same pressure to finish quickly and move on as we do here.

The country has a focus on equity, but it's also got a strong economy to help raise everyone up to a comfortable place. "Finland has a competitive national economy, low levels of corruption, good quality of life, a strong sustainable-development lifestyle, and gender equality" (96).  "Poverty is a difficult factor that affects teaching and learning in schools." 3.4% of children in Finland live in poverty, which is the second smallest number, compared to Canada at 13.6% (69).  "The equitable Finnish education system is a result of systematic attention to social justice and early intervention to help those with special needs, and close interplay between education and other sectors - particularly health and social sectors - in Finnish society" (69).

Although teachers there make about half as much as teachers here - "slightly more than the national average salary" (77), it's a much desired and revered profession. It's "consistently rated as one of the most admired professions, ahead of medical doctors, architects, and lawyers....Teaching is congruent with core social values of Finns, which include social justice, caring for others, and happiness" (72).  "Finnish experience shows that it is more important to ensure that teachers' work in schools is based on professional dignity and social respect so that they can fulfill their intention of selecting teaching as lifetime careers" (70). "The working conditions and moral professional environment are what counts" (77).

They also have a different relationship with students; teachers aren't cautioned about developing ties with students. Teachers are addressed by their first name, and they comfortably invite students for meals at their home. We have much firmer boundaries here, and I don't recall ever discussing love in teacher's college:
"The well-known Finnish educator Matti Koskenniemi used the term "pedagogical love" that is also a corner stone of my own theory-of-action as a teacher. Teaching is perhaps, more than any other job, a profession that you can successfully do only if you put your heart and personality into play. Each teacher has her own style and philosophy of teaching. There may be many motives for becoming a teacher. My own is that I want to do good for other people, care and love them. I do love them and thus I will be a teacher" (74). 

Now the tricky part will be getting from here to there.

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