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US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 1

September 23, 2013
by Guest author

FlagsToday we publish the first of a two-part article by Janet English on her experience as a teacher in the US and Finnish education systems. Janet was awarded the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. She holds a masters degree in education, teaches in southern California, and is the author of a blog called Finland from a teacher’s perspective.

Finland and the United States strive to provide meaningful and appropriate education for students but their methods for achieving this goal are quite different. I live and work in the United States but a Fulbright Program allowed me to visit Finnish schools for six months to learn how Finnish teachers teach problem solving skills; this newfound perspective gives me insight into how the educational systems of these two nations are structured and what helps children succeed (or not) within their boundaries.

America loves professional sports teams and Friday night football games, we compete at family picnics and our children play in afterschool sports. We love competing and we love winning.  Education in the United States has come to mirror these competitive values – students are pushed to work until they’re exhausted, they struggle through hours of homework, and they compete for top academic honors. School curriculum proceeds rapidly because teachers follow pacing guides to ensure they’re on track for mandatory state tests. Students read a lot, write a lot, fill out worksheets, memorize vocabulary words, conduct labs, and oftentimes take weekly tests. Young children feel the pressure to perform and they can spend hours every night doing homework — even to the point of exhaustion and tears.  Americans tend to believe that pushing students harder, making them do more work, and persevering for longer hours will somehow make them more successful in school, in business, and in life.

The American education system has become a form of, “survival of the fittest,” and this system does not serve all children well. Students who read well, learn quickly, and reproduce information without notes can be successful, but for every child who is successful, there may be five or more who struggle. A student who is two weeks behind in mastering math concepts, for example, will continue to fall behind as the teacher “keeps the pace” to cover new concepts, and there is little time for teachers to re-teach the material. Schools have tutoring sessions to assist struggling students but as students strive to catch up, their classes move forward to cover new concepts.  How can struggling students learn old math concepts and master new concepts at the same time and at such a rapid pace?

“When you turn education into a race, which is essentially what we do [in the United States], you have to have many more losers than winners.” (John Holt, author of How Children Fail)

I recall a conversation with a Finnish teacher who asked me, “Do you find it interesting that America prides itself on the value of the individual but educates its children to be the same?” She found it strange that the educational system of a country that so values individuality would treat its children as interchangeable parts.

For illustration purposes, imagine a math class as a group of students learning how to clear a high jump – and the bar is moved upward at intervals predetermined by someone not working with these particular students. American teachers have very little flexibility for adapting the lessons for student progress because they have a predetermined schedule to ensure the curriculum is completed by the end of the year. Day after day, more and more students are unable to “clear the bar” but the bar keeps getting higher. If students can’t keep to this predetermined pace, should they be considered failures? (How can any child be considered a failure?)

Teachers know that children’s learning needs and academic potential are unique, and Finnish educational objectives are written to accommodate these differences. If the Finns had an objective for students to learn how to high jump (which they do not have), their objective would not specify that all students clear 1.8 meters, but would say something to the effect of, “Have students participate in track and field by learning to clear the high jump.” Teachers would then help students develop their full abilities for that objective.  Finns have high expectations – but their expectations are based upon helping each child become their “best.”

The Finnish education system moves slowly because teachers know that developing young minds takes time and rushing that development is counter-productive.  I asked teacher after teacher in Finland how they know when to proceed to the next topic and I was looked at with curiosity and told, “When the students have learned what they need to learn,” as if to say, “How can it be any other way?  That wouldn’t make any sense.”

Tiina Tähkä from the Finnish National Board of Education told me, “I like [how] the core curriculum gives structure to the teachers [for] what things are expected but it doesn’t actually hinder the teachers to use their own ideas. Teachers have a lot of good ideas and when they process those ideas and share those with others they can create an even better school than we can here at the Board of Education.”

The Finnish education system is exemplary; it is gentle, forgiving, and nurturing for children, but it also holds high expectations for academic achievement. Students are continually monitored and lessons are optimized for student learning. Students are taught that it is their responsibility to learn in school. I asked a high school student how she knew when she was successful in class because student work is infrequently “graded,” and she looked at me as if I were asking a ridiculous question.  “I know I’m learning when I’ve learned the material,” she said. “If I don’t learn it, it’s my own shame.” Finnish students are taught from a very early age to be responsible for their own learning and to ask questions when they need help.

Children in the American system have to learn quickly, but Finnish children progress slowly.  Where American teachers frequently administer multiple-choice tests for assessment, Finnish teachers require students to produce something that reflects their learning. Where American students and parents want (and expect) frequent grade updates, Finns are patient for students to learn and families receive grade updates about every seven weeks.  (I didn’t find any online grading programs in Finland.) Where American schools are not equitable, Finnish schools are designed and supported so that each child has a good school, can develop to the best of their abilities, and can be employable when they reach adulthood.

Useful links

Finland from a teacher’s perspective Janet English’s blog

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators

OECD educationtodayblog

2 Responses
  1. September 25, 2013

    I think that is a true reflection of academic schooling throughout Scandinavia as I have witnessed similar events in Sweden, where I visit regularly.
    Class sizes are also much lower than UK, with it’s accompanying emphasis on individual learning. However their higher education, in the vocational sector, could do with an update.

    Years ago in UK, children were streamed to prevent them falling behind. These days the American model of delivering a curriculum to all has been adopted, with the resulting fallout of non achievement and disillusionment of many.
    The system is also losing many excellent teachers who are becoming increasingly unhappy with it’s total lack of flexibility.
    Government statistics show that a very high proportion of children failing to achieve grades of C and above in GCSE, do not enter further education of training, post 16.

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