US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 2

FlagsToday we publish the second 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.

I observed good teachers, some not so good teachers, and some great teachers in Finland – about the same quality I’ve observed in US schools; teacher quality is comparable.  What is dramatically different is how our education systems are structured and what they are designed to achieve. We know that Finland consistently scores at or near the top of PISA results and we know that it’s partly because of their small class sizes and homogenous society, but their success can largely be attributed to the design of their educational system and how they implement their ideas to ensure each child’s success.

To help children realize their full potential, the Finnish education system employs the following strategies:

  1. The pace of student learning determines the pace of the curriculum.
  2. The child and his or her learning needs are the center of the educational process – everything else is considered support. If a student has trouble learning – even if it’s because the child can’t focus or if they are distracted because of family issues – that student is now considered to have “special needs.”  Any Finnish child who is not successfully learning in school is considered to have “special needs” and that child will be given additional support. (It is expected that most students will require additional support at some time in their educational career.)
  3. Young children are provided an environment with a minimum of stress so their minds can be open to learning and taking intellectual “risks.”
  4. Play is a natural way for children to learn. For every 45 minutes of work in elementary school, children are given 15 minutes of play.
  5. Expectations are high and individual progress is nurtured.
  6. Schools across Finland are funded in an equitable manner and the system is funded so that every Finnish student will receive a good education at a good school, no matter where he or she lives.
  7. Teachers monitor student learning on a continuous basis so that assessment adds to student progress rather than detracting from it; students may have to evaluate discrepant events in science, evaluate convergent patterns in history, or compose a musical composition. Tests are not the main method of assessment so students do not spend substantial time taking tests or reviewing for them. Multiple-choice tests are generally not given because having students pick an answer from a list is not considered the best way to assess learning.
  8. National, sample-based assessments are used to ensure the education system is performing as needed, whereas teachers are responsible for assessing individual student progress in the classroom. The only compulsory national exam is given at the end of secondary school when students are approximately 18 years old.
  9. Most classroom lessons include problem-solving components and teachers purposely “leave something out” of lessons so students will have to solve the problem. (For example, one Finnish teacher asked her third grade students to make a painting of a Finnish forest in the moonlight.  What did the teacher leave out? Brown paint.  She provided the students with primary colors but her students had to figure out how to mix the paints to make brown.)
  10. Teachers strive to connect students emotionally and intellectually with the content so that students will be engaged in their lessons.
  11. Teachers are given the freedom to teach students in ways that best serve their students.  Teacher professionalism includes knowing how children learn and then shaping that educational environment for optimal success.  National education goals are determined by the needs of the society but the work of teaching and learning – and the pace and design of that process – is the work of the teachers.
  12. Students are given very little homework. (Three to six problems per night, on average.) Quality is more important than quantity.
  13. Compulsory education ends at age 15 and students have the choice to attend upper secondary school (high school), vocational school, or nothing at all (this last option is not advised).  Vocational students can earn a professional certificate and be employable at the age of 18. Finnish citizens have the right to be re-educated and/or change their course of study at any point in their lives.

Finnish classrooms are typically quiet and, at a glance, remarkable only due to their small class sizes and well-behaved students. One has to spend many hours in Finnish classrooms to understand the teachers’ methods for helping students on their long road of intellectual progress. The beauty of the Finnish system lies hidden; their success has to be heard in the room’s silence and in the voice of the lessons as the teachers and students work together in their intellectual “dance.”  By contrast, my American school seems to generate creative energy, excitement for learning, and optimism for the future; our classrooms are generally loud and full of discussion, activity, and commotion. American culture inspires creative thought and innovation and I see this being encouraged by many American teachers – especially the science and technology teachers.

Every child is unique – they don’t look the same, act the same, nor do they come to school with identical backgrounds or abilities; it’s not reasonable to believe they will process information at identical speeds or have identical learning needs.  An education system is not about holding a competition where few students succeed, it’s about ensuring that all children are nurtured and inspired during their basic education and are prepared for further training and/or higher education. There are many paths to success but with more than 500,000 American students dropping out of high school per year, we clearly have to rethink our educational design for students who struggle and don’t fit into this poorly shaped mold we’ve created.

I’m now back in the U.S. and teaching in my high school classroom; once again, I’ve fallen in love with teaching.  The students in my conceptual biology class are intelligent, compassionate, and they want to learn and be successful.  But learning is difficult for them – it always has been – they’re the ones who typically don’t do well in this competitive American environment and I worry about their future. Will they graduate high school?  Will they reach adulthood with the skills they need to be employable? Many of these students would be more productive if given a vocational school option at the age of 15 or 16 because technical schools are more aligned with their natural abilities; unfortunately, this full-time option is not available for them.

I’ve also noticed something remarkable; the students in my broadcast journalism class exhibit creativity beyond what I was able to see in any of the Finnish students I observed. Is this creative expression a mirror of American society? These students are, by any measure in the American system, highly successful students, but imagine what all students could achieve if America slowed down the pace of instruction and adopted the Finnish methods for optimizing students’ potential (as listed above), minimized memorization, and allowed students a broader field for their minds to create, “play,” and solve problems?

This is my dream – that every child is valued and needed for their ability to contribute to society and that our learning environments are constructed to help each child reach their full potential.

Americans have some important work to do – and to make a “play” on the competitive American spirit – the Finns already know how to do it and they are well on their way.

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

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2 comments to “US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 2”

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  1. dave - 16/10/2013 Reply

    Thanks, Janet! How would you say their system is the same/differs outside the classroom? Parental support, non-native language speakers and so on. I’d like to understand the big picture, including some of the things that affect us so much in the US.

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