Dr. Hunter O’Hara and Dr. Merrie Tinkersley visited Finland, and this is what they learned:

“American Educators Find Surprises in Helsinki and at Home in the United States”

On the basis of Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, Finnish public schools have ranked at the top, or very near the top in the world in the areas of mathematics, reading and science. Seven teacher education seniors and three teacher education faculty at The University of Tampa traveled to Finland to determine the nature of Finnish success with public education. We visited three public schools; 1) grades K-8, 2) grades 1-6, and 3) grades 9-12. We also visited Metropolia University and the University of Helsinki. At U.H. we had an extended conversation with a teacher education professor.

Prior to our visit, we understood that Finland prides itself for creating school equality across the nation. During our visit, we felt we were able to develop a realistic perception of Finnish public schools. We also spoke with Finnish students, teachers, administrators and parents. We expected to see extraordinarily dynamic, innovative teachers and pedagogy. We anticipated being dazzled with Finnish approaches to instruction, teaching strategies and techniques……such was not the case.

We observed examples of group inquiry/investigation, interdisciplinary thematic instruction, content-driven flexible conversation as well as the use of film for instructional purposes. Approaches such as these are not novel and are modeled, taught and practiced in multiple teacher education courses and internships at The University of Tampa. In terms of teaching strategies, nothing we viewed seemed visionary, extraordinary or new. Rather we noted that some teachers were using very traditional methods such a lecture/question and answer.

What Is Different About Finnish Schools?

Surprisingly for several of us, we did not see technology used in classrooms at all. We saw no use of standardized testing. In fact, we verified that there is no standardized testing in Finland unless the classroom teacher requests such a test for her or his own diagnostic purposes; but never for accountability. Progress is monitored, but the design and timing of exams are left up to the classroom teacher. We saw an egalitarian curriculum that includes substantial coursework in the fine arts, social sciences, the humanities and physical education in addition to mathematics, science and reading. High quality learner-created artwork adorns classrooms and all hallways. Not unlike the United States just a few decades ago, pianos are found in elementary classrooms.

We found that learning environments are noncompetitive. Instead of competition, the focus is on group learning pursuits and class multilogues. Physical education courses focus on fitness rather than competitive gaming. Finnish students do not even compete in inter-school athletics.

Finnish Culture and The Classroom

We did see significant cultural identifiers that directly impact the functioning of the school community and learning pursuits. Finnish learners are afforded a great deal of autonomy and freedom. Correspondingly, significant levels of maturity are expected of learners. Learners are trusted and expected to complete tasks without policing. Starting in first grade, students are expected to serve themselves at lunch and breakfast (free of charge) and to clear after themselves- regardless of their developmental level. Learners spend a significant amount of time in the out of doors pursuing projects and play regardless of temperatures (for Finns, there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing). They know how to manage their frigid climate well. Learners act autonomously on a frequent basis and are free to take their time during transitions and while they are engaged in various projects. For example, there is no lining up and single -file –silent- walking between locations at the elementary level.

Just as cold temperatures predominate the weather, mutual trust predominates Finnish human interaction. As teachers trust learners, learners trust teachers to have their best interests at heart. School administrators trust teachers and learners, and Finnish communities trust teachers and principals to do their jobs well. Just as teachers trust learners, the Finnish government trusts Finnish teachers to structure facilitate and maintain successful learning environments. One principal shared, “I trust that teachers are going to do their own work in their own way.” Another principal indicated to us, “The focus is on trust, instead of accountability, and there are no high stakes tests. What happens in the classroom is up to the teacher.” Schools are never ranked and teachers track their own students. Finns trust their teacher credentialing process. Unlike many United States charter schools, Finns who have no credentials in education do not meddle in school affairs. Due to the prestige and free teacher preparation at the universities, Finland is able to admit only ten percent of the applicants into the teacher preparation programs. The Finnish government does not police schools in terms of learner performance, and the national standards for the various content areas are a succinct few pages.

All Schools Equal in Finland

There are no charter schools in Finland, no school vouchers, no “grading” of schools and no magnet schools. Unlike the United States, the intent in Finland is to assure that all schools are of equal quality. Again, that quality certainly does not owe it’s success to test driven instruction and curricula, nor does it have to do with “teacher accountability” campaigns as they have been called in the United States. Such approaches would have no place in a trust -centered nation like Finland. As has been made clear by their world ranking, Finnish schools are successful without the above questionable practices. Finnish teachers are highly respected and their prestige ranks with that of doctors and lawyers. Again, Finnish teacher preparation is paid for by the Finnish government. All teachers are prepared traditionally through a five year university preparation program. There is no alternative teacher certification in Finland.

Finnish teachers are fully unionized and they earn decent wages. We learned from faculty and administrators in Finland that there is no place for a scripted curriculum if administrators hire well qualified, traditionally prepared teachers. Moreover to be effective in their profession, teachers must be afforded professional autonomy and academic freedom. Many of these essential, teaching success-inducing components have been eroded in the United States over the past few decades.

Naturally, as educators we found Finnish schools to be very attractive, and yet we never lost our faith in the American public schools that had prepared us- the very schools to which we had also dedicated our professional lives. Quite plainly, the successes we saw in Finland should occur in the United States. Not only that, we were made aware that the entire design and implementation of the Finnish school system was based on American education research! As a matter of fact, the United States generates eighty percent of the research in education worldwide. If American education research is a good enough to base the design of one of the very most successful public education systems in the world, why is it not good enough to use in the United States? Furthermore, if we had the answers in the United States, why were we traveling to Finland to find our own answers?

Return to the United States

Not long after we returned to the United States, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools was published. Diane Ravitch’s carefully researched book contradicts the rabid negative mythology that surrounds American Public Education. Ravitch is a research Professor of Education at New York University and was appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board by President Bill Clinton. In short, she reveals that American Public School high school dropouts are at an all-time low, high school graduation rates are at an all-time high and that test scores are at their highest point ever recorded. In fact, when compared as a nation “the states of Massachusetts, Minnesota and Colorado … ranked among the top-performing nations in the world” (p. 67). Further, “if it were a nation, Florida would have been tied for second in the world with Russia, Finland, and Singapore” on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (p.67). Not only that, “American students in schools with low poverty-the schools where less than ten percent of the students were poor- had scores that were equal to those of Shanghai and significantly better than those of high-scoring Finland, the Republic of Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Australia.” (p. 64) Most significantly, Ravitch confirms that the single biggest source of low academic achievement is poverty. Poverty impacts learning in dramatic ways and for learners to transcend that barrier, they must first overcome the overwhelming and debilitating effects of poor nutrition, poor health care, inadequate clothing and housing. Child poverty in Finland is 5.3 % but child poverty in the United States 23.1 % according to the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Report Card 10; the highest rate of poverty amongst all of the advanced nations in the world. It should also be noted that unlike the United States, many PISA high scoring nations do not school learners in an egalitarian fashion past certain ages; which is to say that, in those nations, by the time students take the PISA, underperforming students have already been “weeded out” or eliminated. Ravitch is justified when she asserts that American public education is an extraordinary success.

In light of Ravitch’s meticulous research, one can only wonder why seemingly sinister forces have conspired to stigmatize American Public Schools. Not to be forgotten, however, is the role that American Public Schools have played in the success of this nation. When we act to stigmatize or to condemn that bulwark, we are actually working to condemn ourselves. If the American people allow their public schools to be undermined by powers that have only their greed and self interest in mind, we do so at our own peril. If the day arrives when public schools are lost, the middle class will surely be lost as well. We must all value, support and protect American Public Education.

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of Error. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.