My double-prop plane landed in Joensuu, Finland, on the 4th of January, 2013; I arrived from southern California, the temperature was well below zero and the landscape, white and gray. Within days the environment became a “playground” of light revealing whites, pastel blues, and pinks and I started to fall in love with the beauty of Finland – not just the landscape, but its people, its culture, and the efforts of its education system.
Over the next six months I traveled throughout Finland on a Distinguished Fulbright Award in Teaching with the purpose of visiting schools to learn how 15-year old students consistently achieve some of the world’s highest scores in scientific problem solving. I visited all levels of classrooms, from pre-school through the university, from Helsinki to Utsjoki, ending up with forty-nine video interviews of students, teachers, researchers, and administrators, as well as Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation, and Andreas Schleicher, Director of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). These videos will be shared publicly in the autumn.
Here are a few things I learned about the Finnish education system and how it compares with ours in the United States:
Teacher quality is similar in both countries – I’ve observed good teaching and not-so-good teaching in both Finland and the United States. A pronounced difference, however, is how the Finnish education system supports teachers to individually teach and assess students’ intellectual growth in person rather than through annual standardized tests; this personalization supports each student to become his or her own personal best, rather than become one of the many similar “products” in an assembly line – like the current model in the United States.
I observed problem solving in almost every class, every day in Finland, whereas in the United States there is very little time to go into depth on any specific topic. A Finnish teacher, Mikko Korhonen, offered an analogy for his teaching methods: “Teaching is like sailing – I know where I want to take the students but there are many ways to get there; how we get there depends upon the questions students ask and what interests them.” This approach used to occur more frequently in American classrooms until No Child Left Behind was implemented and preparations for standardized tests took precedence for classroom instruction. American teachers strive to make lessons interesting and compelling but the “intent” of the system takes away much of their freedom and time to do so.
In Finland it's the pace of the learner, not the pace of the teaching, which determines the progression of curriculum in a classroom. Finnish teachers are told, in essence, “Here's an objective; take your students on an [intellectual] journey.” Finnish teachers are given the time and freedom to work with topics that interest the students, and teachers are able to challenge their students to solve problems in an unhurried, relaxed environment.
In the United States, teachers have been given so much content to teach that the rapid pace often leaves important work unfinished. As an imperfect analogy for what it’s like to be an American teacher in 2013, pretend your job is to bake cakes in an assembly line (for our purposes the cakes represent content you're supposed to teach). You mix the batter, you pour the batter in the pans, and you put the pans in the oven. In the middle of baking your cakes you are told to take the cakes out of the oven so you can start baking different cakes (for this example it would be more curriculum you need to teach). You exclaim, “The cakes aren't done. This isn't going to work!” But the decisions have been handed down to you and you must hurry to put more cakes through (and more and more curriculum). At the end of the day you are evaluated on how well you baked your cakes (they're not fully baked) and you are criticized for doing a poor job.
The Finns have shared with me a culture that celebrates equity and respect for all children in public education - Finnish children are given the freedom and the support to become their own personal best.
I was asked by Leena Semi, Finnish Fulbright Scholar, “Is it possible America is trying so hard to be the ‘greatest’ they’re forgetting to be their ‘best’?” If “great” means grooming our youth to be “proficient” at answering questions on a multiple-choice test and “best” means supporting creative, innovative thinkers, which system would you choose?
Janet English is an American teacher from California who spent six months travelling all around Finland and learning about the Finnish education system.
Read Janet's own blog at www.eltorofulbright.blogspot.com