Lessons From Finland

Question: Based on the most recent PISA data why do I think Finland out-performed so many developed countries with such equitable and non-consequential guiding notions? Are there any ideas or rationale behind that that speak to me? As an educational leader, what elements could and should our society adopt from Finland to improve our educational programs?

Response: The first thing to do here is to examine the data. The most recent PISA results to examine are from 2018. The data from that year shows Finland outperforming the United States in all measured subjects – Reading Literacy, Mathematics Literacy, and Science Literacy. In fact, Finland is one of the overall top producing countries for each content area. What makes these even more remarkable is Finland has a much different approach to education than most other developed countries. While there are significant differences between the U.S. and Finland preventing a complete copying of their educational methodology, I believe there are elements from the Finnish approach that can be replicated in America. And I believe these pedagogical elements can be replicated with the potential for significant success.

The first element is that Finland is committed to developing the whole child, not just their mind. To this end, nutritional and wrap-around services are a standard part of the educational experience. While great strides have been made in the area of school lunches being free of charge during the enduring pandemic, there is still work to be done with this issue in America. No student should have to learn while hungry and further, no student should be forced to pay for that food. Just as students should be cared for physically and nutritionally, they should be cared for emotionally. Mental health and other social services should be readily accessible for all students, and teachers too. If the goal of education is to see continual societal progress from one generation to the next then every barrier or potential barrier to this progress must be removed. This necessitates focusing on the whole child and not just their mental capacity and means we have to address the non-academic barriers. There are currently some great efforts in this realm, but there is still much more to be done.

Another common occurrence in Finnish schools that needs to be more commonplace in America is the prevalence of career guidance. Students are led to know the why behind the what of their learning through this career-focused approach. As the students know this why better, they are much more bought in to the educational process. In Oklahoma we have the ICAP (Individual Career Academic Plan) and this has the potential to be the career-driven element of education here, but it needs to be fully supported by state political leaders through both funding and training.

The third pedagogical element to be replicated has to do with the Finnish approach to high-stakes testing or really testing in general, because high-stakes testing in Finland is not high-stakes as we know it in America. Testing is done for the positive benefit or impact it has on students. Testing in Finland is not simply done for the sake of the test itself, or to obtain the resulting data, or to make the testing company even wealthier. The test is seen through the lens of positive impact on students. If it helps students get closer to content and skill mastery then it is useful, if it does not fulfill this aim, then it is time to examine something else. We have to change our approach to testing, and really our approach to grading overall. We have to start seeing grades as a two-way system of communication between teachers and students and a grade as a snapshot of how well both students and teachers are doing in reaching the goal of skill and content mastery. Subsequently, we have to see testing, or any type of assessment, as part of the communicative approach to grading.

Arriving at the point of seeing testing as just another part of the journey for a student to reach content and skill mastery requires a major paradigm shift in how education itself is viewed. Education in America is largely competitive. Education in Finland is focused on equity and shared responsibility. Competition has winners, losers, and spectators. Education in America has winners, the high achievers, and those amazing success stories of the homeless student getting a perfect score on the ACT or SAT. American education has losers too, the high school dropouts. Education in America also has an inordinate number of spectators in school – these are those students who have largely given up and checked out but are have not dropped out of the school system.  Incidentally, a number of these students have become spectators because they see no purpose in education and need to be given the why behind the what, or they are needing to be addressed physically, and emotionally in addition to the academic focus of the American classroom. Schools should be about student success not winners, losers, and spectators. To make this change we have to see school as a place where all can master the content and skills needed for that success. Further, we have to see our role as educators as being there to guide them to that success through facilitation and the removal of obstacles along the path. Every student can succeed, but for this to happen we have to shift away from competition and focus on equity and shared responsibility.

The biggest takeaway from the Finnish model of education is this view of equity rather than competition. To get there though, all of these other aforementioned elements – caring for the whole child, career guidance so the why is as important as the what, and utilizing testing solely for student benefit – must be addressed so that the focus of equity can be truly realized.