Every child has special needs: “secrets” of Finnish education

Finland education outlookToday’s post is by Janet English. 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, and teaches in southern California.

In 2013 I moved to Finland on a Fulbright Award to learn the “secrets” of Finnish education. For the next six months I traveled by train, on bus, on bike and on foot to observe classrooms, document Finnish educational practice, and interview teachers, administrators and students. I began this journey to find out what makes Finnish students successful problem solvers in PISA, but along the way I learned much, much more. Finns have been combining high quality educational research with classroom practice for more than twenty-five years and they’ve designed an educational system to optimize learning for every child, regardless of a student’s educational needs. The rest of us need to be paying attention. There are many aspects of Finnish education that can and should be incorporated into schools systems abroad.

The Finnish Way” to Optimize Student Learning is a free e-book that takes readers on this educational journey through Finnish schools. The “secrets” are revealed through in-depth storytelling, video interviews, and compelling images that illustrate the design and practice of the Finnish education system. Finnish teachers talk about the importance of taking time to optimize student learning, how they incorporate problem solving into almost every lesson, how the pace of teaching is determined by the rate of student learning, and how they approach student assessment. An administrator from the Finnish National Board of Education talks about educational design, Pasi Sahlberg from Harvard University discusses equity, and Andreas Schleicher from the OECD reflects on the need for education systems to evolve.

The Finnish Way” to Optimize Student Learning is a valuable resource for anyone wanting to design an education system where all students have a chance to succeed and reach their full potential. The chapters are short, those interviewed are insightful, and the stories are sparking vibrant discussions about the policy and practice of education.

Last year I used these Finnish methods to teach conceptual biology to second language learners, those with significant learning challenges, and many who have struggled or have been unsuccessful in traditional American high schools. (Some of these classes were as large as thirty-eight students.) This year I’m using a blended Finnish/American approach to teach college preparatory biology to high achieving students and low achieving students. The learning results of both groups have been remarkably positive.

Ninety-four percent of the students I polled said this Finnish/American method of teaching is more intellectually stimulating than they’ve experienced in prior science classes. Six percent asked for more structure (by taking traditional vocabulary tests and answering multiple-choice questions) to help them feel like they are achieving in ways that are familiar with what they’ve done in the past.

One student told me, “This teaching style helps both high achieving and low achieving students achieve their best. We actually get to learn much more and we’re not limited by what’s in the textbook. It lets us go as far as we want to go. The teacher is not just a babysitter to make sure we learn what’s in the textbook.”

I hope that The Finnish Way” to Optimize Student Learning (ages 3-18) will be useful for policymakers, teachers, teacher trainers, administrators, parents, and anyone whose goal is to optimize student learning.

Useful links

Finland featured in a video series produced by the Pearson Foundation profiling policies and practices of education systems that demonstrate high or improving performance in the PISA tests. See the video and other material from the OECD here.

Guest author

5 comments to “Every child has special needs: “secrets” of Finnish education”

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  1. RENE - 05/12/2014 Reply

    Agree. This is “active” learning. Children must know both the theory and the practice. (and adults also)

  2. Leonie haimson - 07/12/2014 Reply

    its not clear to me why the author of this blog offers the information that her classes were as large as 38 students, but many experts on Finnish education including the former minister of Education have stated that small class size is a critical reason for the success of their education system.

    • Janet English - 08/12/2014 Reply

      Leonie; I found all classes in Finland to be quite small and I agree that small class size is deal. When I returned to teaching in Southern California, however, I found that Finnish teaching strategies can be successful even with large, multicultural classes. Janet

  3. Phil - abpathfinder.com - 03/11/2015 Reply

    Every child is different. I think personally, we can’t generalize a pedagogy to meet minimum standard and expect them to fulfill it. I think they need specific teachings which should have suit to their strength. It is a lot of work, I agree, but this way they will acquire the best result possible in my opinion.

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