While it is almost impossible to say a single nation’s schools are the best in the world, one country that consistently performs extremely well on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams for math, reading and science, may come as a surprise to many. Finland, a tiny nation of 5.5 million people, consistently makes the top 5 performers across those categories, making it the top educational performer in Europe and one of the strongest in the world. (Singapore, Japan, and South Korea are also strong performers, and China did not submit consolidated results for the most recent test.) Finland?! What?!
This strong performance led many educators to examine Finland’s schools to try to discern the “secret sauce.” One article highlights the surprise, interest, and, yes, envy many around the world felt toward Finnish students’ strong performance, asking, “Why is a country the size of New Mexico beating the U.S. in academic performance?” Below, we list the top ten reasons why the Finnish school system produces such excellent results.
10. Kids get a Strong Start
One of the reasons why Finnish schools are able to perform so strongly is that kids in Finland come to school with a strong foundation. The Finnish government has numerous supports in place to help families, starting with its famous “baby box” containing clothing, books, and other infant supplies for the first year, which is provided free of charge to every expectant mother in Finland. New parents are given ample opportunity to bond with their babies; mothers receive 4 months of paid maternity leave, and there is an additional 6-month period of leave available to either mothers or fathers, also with full pay.
If parents choose to use day care, the government subsidizes facilities with highly-trained staff (lead day-care teachers have bachelor’s degrees) with income-based assistance for families; the maximum cost per child is $4,000 per year. Full-day preschool is free and high-quality, and utilized by the majority of Finnish parents, meaning that when children begin school at age 7, they are coming in with a consistent foundation. Explains one Finnish education official, “We see it as the right of every child to have daycare and preschool. It’s not a place where you dump your child while you’re working. It’s a place for your child to play and learn and make friends.”
9. Top-Notch Teachers with Extensive Training
In Finland, teaching is seen as a very desirable career; teachers are viewed on par with other professionals, such as lawyers and doctors. A research-based master’s degree (fully paid for by the Finnish government) is a prerequisite for a teaching position, and competition for acceptance into the top teaching programs can be fierce. One professor reports that in 2012, the University of Helsinki received over 2,300 applications for the 120 places in its primary school teacher education program.
The requirement of a master’s degree means that Finnish teachers generally have between 5 and 7.5 years of educational preparation for their roles before they are responsible for leading their own classroom. Because teachers have undertaken extensive training for their roles, they are more likely to view teaching as a lifelong profession, and Finnish society accords teachers a position of respect and prestige, which in turn enables them to do their jobs even more effectively.
8. High Levels of Teacher Autonomy
Having a teaching force comprised of the best and the brightest, extensively educated for their roles, makes it easy for Finnish government (and society) to accord teachers a great deal of autonomy in their classrooms. Teachers are given a great deal of latitude to test innovative approaches to instruction, like developing an “outdoor math” curriculum or to partner with other teachers to employ a team-based teaching structure.
Compared with teachers in other countries, such as the United States, Finnish teachers generally spend less time in the classroom than their foreign counterparts, While a middle school teacher in the US might spend 1,080 hours teaching over the course of a 180-day school year, a Finnish middle school teacher would spend around 600 hours teaching over the same period. This extra time gives Finnish teachers more time to develop new teaching strategies and to individually assess, and respond to, the learning needs of their pupils.
While Finland has a national education framework, it is notably brief: the national math goals for grades 1-9 take up only 10 pages. The majority of curriculum decisions are made locally, by teachers and principals, and teachers and students are evaluated holistically, by their peers and principals. Finnish teachers are generally accorded more latitude in the content of their instruction, and the way they deliver it, than most other teachers around the world.
7. Ample Funds to Help Weak Students Catch Up
Some critics of the broad applicability of Finland’s educational strategies point to Finland’s relatively homogenous population and the lack of other problems students in its schools contend with. In some ways they are right; Finland’s generous safety net means that even Finland’s poorest children are not subject to some of the constraints of poverty—almost all Finnish children have access to adequate food, housing, and health care. However, Finland’s population is increasingly diverse (4% foreign born as of 2011), with some schools comprised of more than 50% immigrant children, and Finland’s schools outperform those of its Nordic neighbors with similar population demographics.
One of the factors that helps Finnish schools perform so well is the nationwide focus on achieving equality—both among schools and among students. When students struggle, the state is quick to provide resources to help them catch up, a goal that teachers embrace. As one Finnish teacher whose school serves predominantly immigrant students puts it, “Children from wealthy families with lots of education can be taught by stupid teachers. We try to catch the weak students. It’s deep in our thinking.”
Almost 30% of Finnish children will get some sort of extra help before high school. Schools that serve high-needs populations (such as many ESL students) are accorded extra “positive discrimination” funds for additional teachers and counselors. The goal is to educate all children, even those with special needs, in the same mainstream classrooms (some ESL students may initially be taught in temporary language immersion classes, and exceptionally disabled students may receive education outside of mainstream classrooms).
Classrooms are not tracked, or sorted by ability level, ensuring that standards and expectations for students are high across all classrooms and that all teachers are prepared to work to help struggling students catch up to their classmates. This emphasis on equality pays off; a recent study found that Finland had the smallest difference between its weakest students and its strongest students of any country in the world.
6. Teachers Don’t Teach to the Test (Because There Isn’t a Test)
Despite the fact that Finnish children routinely achieve top scores on international math and reading tests, standardized testing isn’t part of the Finnish educational system. The only mandated standardized test for Finnish students comes at the end of the senior year of high school. Prior to that, there may be optional district-level tests, but the results aren’t made public and they are not emphasized by teachers, schools, parents or the media.
The lack of emphasis on standardized tests means that Finnish teachers have a great deal of flexibility in how they structure their lessons (i.e. an elementary school teacher can focus primarily on science one week, if the children seem especially engaged in the topics at hand) and the freedom to evaluate the progress of their students using more individualized metrics. When discussing American-style testing regimes and the idea of using standardized test results to evaluate teachers, one Finnish principal describes how this idea is anathema to Finnish educational culture, adding, “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.” An official with the Ministry of Education even downplays Finland’s students’ success on international tests, saying, “We are not much interested [in the test results]. It’s not what we are about.”
5. Kids Start School Late
This one may seem counterintuitive—how can less school produce better educational results? Finland proves it is possible—children in Finland do not start school till age 7 (though near-universal preschool begins at age 6).
Clearly the high-quality subsidized daycare and preschool options mean that even though Finnish kids start school late, they start informally learning and preparing for school much earlier. However, before age 7, the emphasis is on experiential learning, through play and movement. Unless children show interest and willingness, they are not expected to learn to read in kindergarten, an approach backed up with research showing a lack of long-term benefits for kids who are taught to read in kindergarten.
One Finnish principal asserts that this relaxed approach to learning is a better match for the needs and abilities of his youngest students, saying, “We have no hurry. Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?” The kids are happier, and because all Finnish schools share this philosophy, Finnish parents aren’t worried that their children are falling behind their peers in terms of skill acquisition.
4. Joy and Play are Part of the Curriculum
Arja-Sisko Holappa, a counselor for the Finnish National Board of Education, highlights the importance that Finnish schools place on children’s enjoyment of learning, pointing out, “There’s an old Finnish saying. Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.” In keeping with that philosophy, every Finnish school has a welfare team dedicated to advancing child happiness in school. In addition to standard classes in language, math, and science, kids attend a broad array of additional classes in second languages, PE, arts crafts, ethics, and music. In between classes, kids are sent outside for 15 minutes of free-play, as many as four times a day, regardless of weather. Finnish teachers and parents view these unstructured jaunts as a necessary part of the learning process.
The focus on joy extends beyond the classroom. While homework varies by teacher, Finnish children generally complete less homework than their peers in other developed countries, giving them more time for play—and joy—when they get home from school as well.
3. Everyone Attends Public School
One of the most unusual, and some would say, most overlooked, aspects of the Finnish school system is the near-universal attendance of public schools. There are very few independent schools in Finland, and even those are publically financed and barred from charging tuition. Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish Education Ministry offical and author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? points to this factor, as well as the Finnish cultural tendency to value cooperation over competition, as one of the reasons why Finland’s schools are so strong.
In Finland, everyone is invested in the success and quality of the nation’s public schools. Something that works well at one school is quickly shared with others, so that best practices can reach every student, because schools do not see themselves as competing for students or test scores. Practically, there’s no way to truly opt out of the public school system in Finland, so everyone is equally invested in the quality of the schools (unlike in many developed countries, where public schools compete with private schools for students, teachers and funding).
2. Finnish Kids Have Bright Futures, Tailored to Their Strengths and Interests
The Finnish school system is exceptionally good at ensuring students complete high school; 93% of Finnish students graduate from a vocational or academic high school, a rate that is significantly higher than that of many other developed countries. At age 16, Finnish kids, who have been in the same “comprehensive schools” since age 7, are given the option of continuing on to vocational education programs, which prepare them for work in construction, health care, restaurants, and offices as well as entry into a polytechnic institute, or of pursuing an academic program, which will prepare them for university. About 43% of students choose the vocational route.
Finnish students who complete high school know that the state will pay for all of their post-graduate education at one of Finland’s 8 national universities (or a polytechnic institute for vocational graduates). 66% of Finns continue on to higher education, one of the highest rates in the EU.
1. Equality Amongst Schools
As this list has shown, the concept of equality, long important in the Finnish culture, is one of the central reasons its schools are so successful. But the idea of equality within the Finnish school system goes well beyond making sure all kids have a good start in life and working aggressively to help weaker students catch up. It means not only minimizing differences amongst students, but also means minimizing the differences among schools, making sure that all the schools in Finland are equally strong.
Why is it important that Finnish schools offer such similar educational outcomes and resources? It prevents school shopping—when parents, administrators, and teachers to concentrate at high-performing schools, drawing resources to “good” schools, and creating a death spiral for weaker schools, who lose resources, including students, as parents seek better options for their kids and the best teachers flee to better-resourced programs. One expert in Finnish education compares school choice in the US to that in Finland, saying that in the US, schools are, “the same idea of a marketplace…Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland, the parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”
Because of this idea of equality, everyone is incentivized to promote across-the-board improvements in the educational system, rather than seeing school improvement as a zero sum game, where schools compete to be the best. It also means that even in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, where schools in many other countries are weaker, Finland’s schools serve their students just as well as those in the country’s wealthiest areas.