Who has the best education system in the world? Did you think Finland? As an educator who teaches teachers, I hear this at least once a week…”Why can’t we have schools like Finland?” or “Finland has the best education in the world, we should be more like them!”
In fact, Finland has remained at the top of the worldwide rankings since the year 2000 when the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) triennial international survey was birthed (Dickinson, 2019).
As mentioned, the Finnish education has been revered; yet, to compare Finland’s education to America’s is not a fair comparison. Our countries are very different, not only in size, but Finland’s GDP is 1.24% of that of the U.S.’s.
Yet, Finland spends 2% more of their overall budget on education. Additionally, Finland’s student to teacher ratio is 10:1, while America’s ratio is more than double that: 21:1 (World Top 20 Project, 2019).
Those critical differences are obviously out of the teachers’ control. However, there is something we can learn from Finland’s best practices to make our classrooms just a touch closer to this esteemed Scandinvian country’s education system.
Here are the top five practices Finnish teachers do that we can begin to apply to our own classrooms.
1) Instill the love of learning, for the sake of learning (Wood, 2018).
Historically, American students have been heavily tested, thanks to No Child Left Behind. Standardized tests have created a high stakes learning environment that makes it difficult to instill a love of learning.
Finns take very few, if any, standardized tests in their career which creates a lower stress learning environment. This lower stress learning environment is more conducive to instill a love for learning within their students. Think back to the last time you made a choice to learn how to do something new.
What was it? Why did you choose it? What did you like about it? Was it difficult? Did you do it anyway? Was it something that you really were interested in and/or truly cared about? Think about how differently that experience that may have been than the last time you sat in a class that you were required to take.
If we apply the Dewey principles to learning and allow students to have a democratic say in what they want to learn and explore, we could create this exciting learning experience similar to what you were imagining (Colagrossi, 2018). Begin to implement this with inquiry-based learning.
Get to know your students. Find out what they are interested in and connect it to your learning objectives. Sure this may take some more time at first, but when the students eyes light up with excitement and they can’t stop talking about what they are learning at school, it will be worth it.
Creating a classroom where students are able to explore and learn through inquiry keeps them excited and engaged in learning, and not to mention the retention of the content that will inevitably follow. Inquiry-based instruction creates a love of learning for the sake of learning. Not learning for the test, assignment, or grade. Just to learn.
2) Create a culture of cooperation not competition (Colagrossi, 2018).
With the emphasis off of tests, assignments, or grades, you can create a culture of cooperation. Something that I emphasize to my students (who are future teachers) is: they are not competing with each other, they are working with each other. If your classmate does well, you do well.
We are better together. Grades are a necessary byproduct of the system, but I take the focus off of grades and allow everyone to earn an A. Grading on a bell curve creates an unhealthy and unrealistic competitive environment. It’s unrealistic because when my students become teachers and are working in the schools, I want them to be collaborative with their fellow teachers, or even when they are student teachers.
Two minds are better than one, and three are even better, and so on. Competition can be healthy, but not when it comes to academia if you are trying to create a safe to fail culture in your classroom. Failing forward is a concept to instill. We learn more from failure than from success. If students feel safe to try something new, they are more likely to take risks.
As one of the 4Cs, collaboration is one of the 21st century skills necessary for our students to learn and apply to life and their future careers (NEA, 2019). To do this create more group projects with assigned roles. Don’t grade everything. Focus on feedback and formative assessment not attached to grades. Do this and you’ll create a fail forward culture of cooperation in your classroom.
Create a classroom where students work cooperatively together rather than competitively, you will create a more productive creative classroom.
3) Give less homework and fewer tests (Colagrossi, 2018).
There have been many schools who have adopted the no homework policies (Walker, 2017). These policies are based on research that students don’t learn or retain much from the hours of homework they are required to do each night. It even contributes to their disdain for school in general and students associate school with learning, that in turn pulls from the love of learning we discussed in step one.
Finnish students have no more than 30 minutes of homework a night (Colagrossi, 2018). There is also research to support that students should have no more than 10 minutes per grade level of homework (e.g., 3rd grade: 30 minutes of homework). There’s a win for you in here too, no grading that homework!
If you want students to be thinking about concepts at home or getting background on topics, try the Flipped Learning Model. Assign videos or audio content that would normally be your lecture for them to watch at home. Then when they come to class, they can work through those ideas with their peers and you, the expert. Students are consuming media anyway when they get home, it might as well be educationally related.
4) Create a more relaxed atmosphere (Colagrossi, 2018).
Well with fewer tests and homework, cooperation, and inquiry-based instruction; I think this next one comes a bit easier. That is if you are doing all of these at once. You certainly don’t have to. But what does a relaxed atmosphere mean? Well, Finnish students have late school day starts and early end times (must be nice).
They have long recesses, snack breaks, as well as take many stretch breaks throughout their school days too. Some of this you may not have control over, but you can integrate a few of these ideas. If you are already using inquiry-based learning you can add in some active learning.
Get your students up and moving around the room, working together, and researching and creating. Flexible seating is also a popular concept I’ve seen in schools. From stand-up desks, physioballs, and/or chairs on rollers or that oscillate. This flexible seating will allow student to expel extra energy and will allow students to focus on that love of learning in a way that is conducive to their physical needs as well.
5) Work on continuous learning and/or a Master’s Degree (Colagrossi, 2018).
This last one isn’t as much of what you can do in your classroom as it is what you can do for yourself. You are reading this blog post so you are likely always looking for ways to improve your practice, so great job! You’re off to a good start. In Finland, teachers are very highly esteemed and most have earned a Master’s Degree.
They are paid handsomely for it as well, and are highly supported in the community. Continuous learning is a common practice amongst all teachers in Finland. American schools have made efforts to support teachers in continuous learning as well. However, if you are not lucky enough to be supported for continuous learning by your school, you can start by developing your Personal and/or Professional Learning Networks (PLNs).
PLNs can help you connect with other like-minded educators. You can build your support system, share ideas, lessons, and even collaborate (i.e., cooperation). Also, modeling lifelong learning and the love of learning for your students will speak volumes. Students love to hear that their teachers are taking classes, or that you have teachers, or you are doing homework.
Where do you start? Lean into your social networks for your PLN connections. Twitter is an excellent resource. So is Skype for education. You will find more resources and teachers who want to collaborate than you will have time for. You are not alone in this. Just keep learning.
It is a new school year. Why not try some new teaching strategies! We might as well take lead from the best education system in the world. As I mentioned, you certainly don’t try all these strategies all at once.
Start with one and try it. If it makes a difference for you and your students, great! If not, try something else. I’d love for you to fail forward. What do you have to lose?
Colagrossi, M. (2018, September 10). 10 reasons why Finland’s education system is the best in the world. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/09/10-reasons-why-finlands-education-system-is-the-best-in-the-world.
Dickinson, K. (2019, February 15). How does Finland’s top-ranking education system work? World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/02/how-does-finland-s-top-ranking-education-system-work.
NEA (2019). An educator’s guide to the 4 C’s: Preparing 21st century students for a global society. National Education Association. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/tools/52217.htm.
Walker, T. (2017, January 26). If elementary schools say no homework, what takes it’s place? neaToday. Retrieved from http://neatoday.org/2017/01/26/no-homework-policy/.
Wood, J. (2018, June 4). Why Finland’s education system is the best in the world. Culture Trip. Retrieved from https://theculturetrip.com/europe/finland/articles/why-finlands-higher-education-system-is-the-best-in-the-world/.
World Top 20 Project (2019). 2019 world best education systems – 1st quarter rankings. Retrieved from https://worldtop20.org/worldbesteducationsystem.