Lessons We Can Learn from the Finland School System

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Author: Mariah McCune
Education Thought Leader

If you perform a quick Google search with the words “best education system in the world,” chances are that most of your search results will have something to say about Finland.  For over a decade now, Finland has been lauded as an innovative, cutting-edge country model for education. While it hasn’t always been in the number one spot on a year to year basis, it definitely ranks near the top every time.

Finland has earned its reputation because its students consistently perform well on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test and its schools boast graduation rates higher than the average in the United States and elsewhere.

This begs the question: what are the secrets to the little Nordic nation’s outsized success?

A student-centered approach

One badge of honor for Finland is that its students generally report less school-related stress than their international counterparts.  One explanation for this achievement is that Finnish students receive less than three hours of homework per week.  For comparison’s sake, American high school students average about seven hours of homework per week according to the OECD. In fact, the OECD asserts that Finland schools assign the least amount of homework in the world.

Finnish students also spend less time per day in the classroom, though their instructional calendar stretches to 190 days instead of the USA’s average of 180 days.  This fosters the belief that students need time and space in order to work on hobbies, sports, and activities outside of school.

Additionally, Finland schools have made a commitment to prioritizing the basic needs of school aged children.  School meals are provided daily for all students regardless of age or income level.  Also, schools make health care, mental health, and counseling part of their curriculum.

Curriculum requirements

The Finnish curriculum bears some additional notice.  Finnish state authorities created the National Core Curriculum (NCC), which provides broad guidelines for schools to follow.  The NCC establishes the basic subjects taught, sets the expectation that schools are learning communities that support the whole child, and requires that schools engage in at least one cross-curricular project per school year.

Schools then have the autonomy to create, plan, and implement curriculum that satisfies the NCC guidelines.  As a result, one Finnish school may or may not resemble another just up the street in terms of curriculum.  This is because teachers and administrators have the independence at the building level to determine what their students need and make decisions with that in mind.

College and career readiness preparation

Another interesting aspect of Finnish education is the fact that students complete their compulsory schooling after 9th grade.  Upper secondary school is optional, though 90% of Finnish students elect to start it right away. The remaining 10% can return to their education at any time free of charge.  

Upper secondary is divided into two tracks: general–for those students who are considering college in the future–and vocational–for those students interested in gaining valuable job skills.  Finnish students can change tracks at any time without social stigma, and the philosophy is that students are using school to discover the educational path that best suits their needs and talents.

Teacher qualifications and professional development

Finally, Finland has received a lot of press because every single one of its teachers is required to obtain a master’s degree in education before beginning their careers, and the master’s programs are the most selective in the country.  This means that Finnish teachers are held to rigorous standards even before they obtain their teaching licenses. 

However, Finnish teachers do not stop their professional development once they graduate.  Instead, they are encouraged to seek ongoing professional development opportunities offered for free through local universities.  They are also expected to collaborate, plan, and even co-teach with their colleagues who may have different teaching strengths.

Ideas the United States might borrow

The United States has been busy making its own educational reforms in the last decade too. While I do not advocate for the US to immediately adopt the Finnish school system and philosophy, there are some important lessons that we can implement to improve the education of our own students.

Lessen stress

For instance, one idea we could take from Finland in order to help our students would be to reduce student stress through less assigned homework, shorter school days, or fewer classes.  Any one of these options has the power to minimize the amount of school-related stress our students feel.

Continue to focus on the whole child

Another idea for policy makers might be to look for ways to continue to support the needs of the whole child. The USDA’s announcement in April that it will continue offering free school lunches through June 2022 is an important step.  Other considerations might include implementing more robust health and mental health services or creating partnerships with local health offices to improve students’ ease of access.

Make cross-curricular connections

A third idea borrowed from Finland might include a conscientious effort to emphasize the interdisciplinary connections between subject areas.  This way, students have a better understanding that the material they learn in history class is not a silo, but that it has relevance to what they are learning in ELA, science, and beyond.  

This could have a profound effect on student buy-in to the content matter because they see its relevance in other places in their lives. These partnerships may also serve to build a stronger learning community among teachers, thereby improving the culture and climate of the school itself.

Encourage multiple future pathways

Yet another thought to consider borrowing from Finland might be to destigmatize non-college career and vocational tracks.  Finnish students do not feel any social pressure to attend college nor shame if they decide not to do so.  Many US students could benefit from this same cultural position on vocational tracks, and this in turn may also serve to reduce the stress felt among many American students. 

Continuing professional development

Finally, something that the US and Finland both share is a commitment to encourage teachers to seek out ongoing professional development to continue improving and honing their craft.  One consideration in this respect might be to work more closely in partnership with local schools, districts, and universities to reduce the costs of these trainings so that US teachers do not feel financial strain as they work to better their professional practices. 

Moving forward

Harry Wong, author of The First Days of School, says that “effective teachers beg, borrow, and steal” in order to improve their classroom practices.  I think the same holds true for education reform as a whole.  

America is a great cultural melting pot, consistently borrowing elements from other cultures to make it our own.  As we think about educational reform, we should approach it with the same melting pot mentality, begging, borrowing, and stealing those elements of other countries’ educational systems in order to make one that best serves our students.

Whatever direction American education decides to take next, it should at least acknowledge the lessons learned from Finland’s success.


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