Finland. Everyone knows Finnish students outperform students from every other nation on the globe. Finland is the Holy Grail of education. The top of the top.
And I got to visit two Finnish elementary schools this week and talk to educators, kids, and administrators.
How does EdTech drive Finnish performance?
Finnish success in education has nothing, nada, to do with education technology. There were other common threads, which I'll list below.
These were two very different schools. The first is out in the country. There are 42 students and 2 teachers. The school covers grades K to 6. There are three main classrooms, plus classrooms for special purposes. In the first period, the teacher was addressing 2nd and 4th graders in the same classroom. In the second, the 4th and 6th graders were in the room.
The second school had just under 400 students with about 20 teachers. We got to visit 5 classes, talk to the principal (and teachers and students) and tour some of the special rooms.
In both schools, the classes were very similar to classes in the US. Math is math. Language arts is language arts, although Language arts in Finland is FLA (Finnish Language Arts) not ELA (English Language Arts). The teacher explained, asked the students questions, assigned work in the class, and handled any special needs of the students. During the teacher explanation, the teacher used a projector to share her or his screen on the front of the room. There was no other use of technology. The larger school had 40 tablets which could be used by students. And they had just purchased 4 robots for a robotics lab, and were figuring out how and who should utilize them. But tech wasn't used in any of the classes in either of the schools that I observed, other than the class projector hooked to the teacher's computer.
The content was very professional. Teachers had a teacher version of the student workbook, with notes on how to introduce the subject, what points to make, where students might have problems, options for student assignments, alternative ways to reach students, and extras that the teacher could throw in. Just like most textbooks anywhere else.
The teachers were knowledgeable, professional, and personable. Just like most teachers I’ve met everywhere.
What’s the secret to Finland’s success? Here are some of my observations.
Students get time for active play. School periods last either 45 minutes or 90 minutes. After each 45 minute period, students get 15 minutes of free time, and after each 90 minute period, students get 30 minutes of free time. During the free time, students go outside to run around as long as the weather isn’t too bad.
Teachers get free time. While there is generally a teacher or other adult assigned to watch over the kids during their free time, for most of the teachers, this is their free time as well.
Teachers get time to plan. Teachers are generally expected to “teach” for 24 hours a week, and they get 3 hours a week to collaborate and plan.
Teachers have autonomy. There are curriculum guidelines, but in general, teachers are expected and allowed to decide what and how to teach. Teachers are professionals, they are treated as professionals, and know what works for them in their classes. I asked if teachers could choose their own textbooks, and was told that yes, the textbook and/or workbook was selected by the teacher. I then asked if two teachers of the same grade in the same school might use different textbooks, and was told that while it is preferable if all the teachers for a grade in a school used the same content, it wasn’t a requirement. The teachers have always been able to collaborate and select materials that work for all of them.
Non-academic courses are baked in. Kids don’t spend all their time in school on the academic subjects. They take 2 hours a week of sports, and 2 hours on topics that include art, music, shop, and crafts. Both boys and girls learn to work with wood (including independent use of saws, hammers, and blow torches) and how to sew.
The result seems to be that the kids want to learn and the teachers enjoy teaching. Certainly the achievement levels cannot be refuted. One principal remarked, “As adults, what you remember from your school is not what you learned, it’s how you felt. And that’s what a teacher does, to make you feel good as a student in coming to school and learning. And it’s my job to make the teachers feel good about coming to school and making the kids feel good about learning.”
Here are some other observations from my time in Finland.
Many people say that Finland is a homogeneous society, and that’s the reason for Finland’s success (in schools and quality of life). I observed that something over 10% of the kids were of color. It seemed that color was not a life determinant. The kids seemed to play together, collaborate, learn together, and when I asked the teachers and principal, they supported this observation.
Finland schools have three levels of intervention when students fall behind, which is not dissimilar from many schools in the US. There are specialists who can help out in a class, and breakouts where the reading or math specialist can help struggling students so they can catch up with the rest of the class. There was some concern that this may be changing as some political parties are looking to reduce taxes and school funding and encourage privatization.
Finland does not have the extremes of wealth and poverty that exist in the US. The government acts as a safety net, and I did not see the poverty that I sometimes do in the US. The well-off people I talked to were proud that their country took care of its less well-off, although at the same time, they would love to have some tax relief. They understood that there would always be that tension, and they accepted that Finland had reached a fair balance.
Here are a few photos.
The Finnish school with 42 students:
The Finnish School that has nearly 400 students
The mobile library van visited both schools.
Classrooms had every configuration, from traditional rows to clusters of desks to relaxed, reflecting the teacher's style