Written by Janet English

21. Lessons Learned and the Journey Home

A Summary of Lessons Learned

Chapter 21

Finland is changing into the land of the “midnight sun;” the days are long, leaves are bursting from their branches and sea gulls have migrated back from the south. This morning I saw a brown hare the size of a dog.

High school seniors took their matriculation exam last week – the only mandated test of their educational career. Young men and women dressed in formal wear and danced in a series of traditional dances that signified their entrance to adulthood. Joensuu’s primary school children celebrated the summer (and the end of school) by singing in an outdoor concert together.

In a few days I’ll be returning home to the United States. My Finnish chapter is coming to an end.

In the past six months I’ve experienced my own “Walden Pond” and grown to understand the value of solitude and reflection. I’ve traveled thousands of kilometers on a train, visited dozens of schools and interviewed many Finnish students, teachers, and administrators. I’ve eaten reindeer sausage, savored poison mushroom soup, and eaten many meals of fresh and smoked salmon. I learned what it’s like to live in a culture that is rarely competitive. I got lost twice – once when traveling on a bus when I almost lost all my studio equipment (later recovered), and another time when cross-country skiing in the Finnish forest – only to be “rescued” by a Finnish couple who invited me into their home for conversation, coffee and home-baked pastries.

I went to a music teacher training camp where I uncovered my own creativity and experienced the deep soul of the Finnish people through music, through dance, and connectedness. I injured my back sledding down a hill and I learned how to start a fire from birch bark on an island in the frozen Baltic Sea. I learned the value of quiet in a conversation, the softness of swimming in a freshwater Finnish lake, and how to take a traditional sauna. I learned to drive a Russian Lada and I pet a reindeer’s nose. I met a boy who decided to not go into reindeer herding like the rest of his family but to learn about computers instead.

I never found one cup of decaffeinated coffee in all of Finland.

Now I sit on a wooden bench on the edge of a lake at my dear friend’s summer cottage. Butter flowers – named for their ability to turn butter yellow – sprout between rocks where snow used to lay, ants walk up a birch tree and an intermittent breeze blows, causing the birch leaves above to cast moving shadows across my page below.

I began this journey wanting to find out why Finnish students are such proficient problem solvers. I wanted to learn if their success is due largely to small class sizes and a predominantly homogenous population. From school to school and town to town, these questions were answered consistently – that the Finnish education system is designed for every child to succeed and for every child’s learning to be optimized. I learned that the small class sizes and homogenous population might be contributing factors to their success but they are only that – contributing factors.

The Finn’s have designed an education system to be structurally and purposely compassionate and humane toward addressing the learning needs of each child. In Finland, the children are considered national assets and they are treated as such. I do not mean to imply that the Finnish education system is perfect or that all students achieve their optimal abilities. What is true is that the system is designed to optimize learning and the adults in the system have the freedom, the ability, and the focus to continually refine the structure and function of the system to address the needs of every child.

1) What makes Finnish students proficient problem solvers?

  • Problem solving is incorporated into almost every Finnish lesson and teachers purposely “leave something out” so students have to solve problems to learn the lesson.
  • The Core Curriculum is written as objectives, not standards, and  teachers set learning “targets” so all students can achieve. If the target is to learn about ecosystems, for example, there are many ways to learn about them. (This is a very different approach from having all students read the same chapter, answer the same questions at the end of the chapter, and taking a test to see how many questions they can answer correctly.)
  • Instruction proceeds at the pace of the learning not at the speed of a predetermined pacing guide. Students are not expected to leave class with the same experiences as every other child because Finns understand that each child enters the class with their own abilities, experiences, and motivations and will exit the class with their unique lessons about the content.
  • Students are provided an environment with a minimum of stress so that their minds can be open to learning and taking intellectual “risks.” Teachers understand the value of time to process new information. Student learning is not rushed.
  • Teachers aim to connect students emotionally and intellectually with the content. It is common for teachers to give students a choice in what they want to learn within the Core Curriculum.
  • Homework is kept to a minimum (3-6 problems/night per class, if any).
  • Play and relaxation are a normal part of the learning process. In primary school students are given fifteen minutes of play for every forty-five minutes of work.
  • Multiple-choice and true/false tests are generally not usually used because they don’t effectively show how well students have learned the material compared to other types of assessments. Finnish students have to produce something to show what they’ve learned and this oftentimes means that they have to solve problems to prove it.
  • Student work is rarely graded but student work is continually assessed. (I did not find one online grading program in all of Finland.)

2) Are Finnish teachers better than American teachers?

I observed good teachers, not-so-good teachers, and excellent teachers in Finland – about the same as in the United States. What is remarkably different is how the education systems are structured and what teachers are asked to achieve. The Finnish education system is designed to optimize learning for each child and to teach problem solving skills; this includes all levels of education – basic compulsory education, high school, vocational school and university education. Approximately 40% of Finnish students choose vocational school at the age of 15/16 and will earn a professional certificate by the age of 18. Finnish teachers are exceptional at knowing how to incorporate problem-solving skills into student lessons. Teachers are calm and supportive and they are given time to allow students to process the material and to solve problems using the content.

In America since 2001 the educational agenda has been for students to be exposed to large amounts of information (with very little depth) and for all students to be prepared for college by the age of 18. Vocational classes are greatly diminished or absent from most junior high and high school campuses.

3) What is the Finnish system doing successfully that the American system is not?

Pace of the Learning in Finland:

Finnish education proceeds at the pace of the learning not at the pace of a predetermined pacing guide. Teachers are given the freedom to adapt the curriculum and their teaching to best serve their students’ learning needs. Teacher professionalism means knowing how children learn and then shaping the educational environment for their optimal success.

Pace of the Learning in the United States:

It is typical for American teachers to be asked to follow a pacing guide to ensure all content is covered by the end of the year. For students who struggle to learn it’s common for them to get further and further behind and possibly fail.

Curriculum in Finland:

The Finnish Core Curriculum is written to give teachers the freedom to optimize learning for each child. The objectives do not limit teachers in their creativity and this allows maximum effectiveness by allowing teachers to adjust to individual learning needs.

Curriculum in the United States:

The newly released Common Core Standards Mathematics and the Next Generation Science Standards appear to be more aligned with international standards.

Assessments in Finland:

Tests are few in Finland but assessment is continuous. Students may have to evaluate discrepant events in science, evaluate convergent patterns in history, or compose a musical composition. Project-based assessments are common and essay tests are given approximately every 6-7 weeks for academic courses. Multiple-choice tests are rare (I never saw one) because having students pick an answer from a list is not considered to be an effective way to assess learning. National, sample-based assessments are used to ensure the education system is performing as required and one compulsory national exam is given to students who graduate secondary school at approximately 18 years old.

Assessments in the United States:

American students are tested all the time – literally. Many teachers give weekly quizzes or tests and in one California primary school district, students had mandatory tests (state and national) that took more than twenty-five school days per year. (This number doesn’t include the days that were used for test prep.) Tests seem to be the primary form of assessment in American schools and multiple-choice tests may be the most common format.

School Funding in Finland:

Schools across Finland are funded in an equitable manner. The goal is for every Finnish student to receive a good education at a good school no matter where they live or their family background.

School Funding in the United States:

There is no standard for funding schools in the United States. It is common for schools to compete with one another to get additional funding from the national government.

Teacher Training in Finland:

Teacher training is standardized in Finland and is based upon current research and learning theory. Training to become a teacher occurs over approximately three years.

Teacher Training in the United States:

Teacher training programs in America are not standardized. Some university teacher training programs can last one or two years, private schools can fill teaching positions with people who have had little or no teaching experience or learning theory, and Teach for America gives candidates five weeks of training before they enter the classroom.

Educational Pathways in Finland:

Compulsory education ends at age 15 or 16 and students have the choice to attend upper secondary school (high school), vocational school, or nothing at all (this last option is not advised).  Approximately 40% of students choose vocational school and earn a professional certificate after three years of study. Students who attend high school prepare for studies at the university. Finnish citizens have the right to be re-educated and/or change their course of study at any point in their lives for free.

Educational Pathways in the United States:

Students are encouraged to graduate high school and attend college at the age of 18. Most vocational training is at the community college or technical school level. Remedial courses are common at the community college level because many students struggle with basic skills.

Learning Support in Finland:

The child and his or her learning needs are the center of the educational process – everything else is considered support. Finland recently implemented a 3-tier support system for student learning. Level 1 is the traditional classroom, Level 2 is Flexible Learning where struggling students receive intensive additional support, and Level 3 is for students who can’t succeed in Level 1 or 2. If a student has trouble learning – even if the  child can’t focus or if they are distracted due to family issues – that student is considered to have “special needs.”  (It is expected that most students will require additional support at some time in their educational career.)

Learning Support in the United States:

Students are generally expected to learn at the rate of instruction. Teachers give additional support to students and oftentimes tutor after school but pacing guides usually determine the rate of instruction. Students must keep up or they are at risk failing the class. (Struggling students often get further and further behind until many simply give up.) For students with documented learning disabilities, there can be special classes, teacher aides, and special accommodations for their studies. Special accommodations might include allowing them additional time to take tests, taking tests in a quiet location, seating them in the front of the class, or assigning fewer problems for homework.

4) What do Finnish schools lack?

Students embrace problem-solving challenges but I did not observe many of them going beyond these challenges to be energetic, inspired young people. Many told me that Finnish students aren’t particularly fond of school. Is it because there is very little “community” built into school settings? Is it the lack of elective classes? Is it because they have few or no clubs, sports, or extracurricular activities? In my opinion it didn’t seem that Finnish students look particularly happy to be in school.

By contrast, I see many inspired, creative young people in America’s successful schools.

When I first learned the Fulbright Program was placing me at the University of Eastern Finland my friend and I looked at the Joensuu webcam to see where I would be living. What we found was a grainy image of the city marketplace under an overcast winter sky.  (It was terribly dreary.) On the side of the marketplace sat a mysterious little hut with an illuminated star on top. Someone had taken the time to place a sparkling snowflake on top of this little hut and by doing so had transformed the dark and wintry landscape.

What began as a subtle and almost colorless introduction to Joensuu through a webcam image became a colorful and beautiful transformation for me, too. I’ve been touched by the Finnish people, their work, their humor, their intellect and their warmth. I am grateful, simply grateful, for the friendships, experiences, and support afforded to me to live in Finland and to complete this project. I thank you all, named and unnamed, from the depths of my heart.

I hope these stories have been valuable and enjoyable to you, too. 

Kiitos, Finland. 

Note: I began teaching in 1992 and in 2003 I won the Presidential Awards for Math and Science Teaching. From 2005-2009 I worked as the Senior Director of Education and New Media at the PBS station KOCE-TV in southern California, returning to the classroom in 2009.  In 2013 I moved to Finland to study how Finnish students learn problem solving skills. I’m now back in the classroom, using a blended Finnish/American approach to teach high school science in Lake Forest, CA. 

To contact Janet English, send an email to janet.lee.english@gmail.com