7 Lessons from Finland's Schools

I returned last week from an inspiring trip to Finland, meeting with educators and learning how they've built what is arguably the most progressive school system in the world, and one that consistently scores very highly on international test scores (though those don't tell the full story, to be sure). Not everything they've done can apply in the US or at our school, but we take these 7 ideas as inspiration as we develop our curriculum:

  1. Everything stems from the quality of teachers: This won't surprise anyone - but how they did it is amazing. They shut down all of their teacher's colleges, and enabled only the best universities to credential new teachers. Now, their teachers are drawn from the top 10% of all students in the country - and that quality underlies everything else they've achieved.
  2. Trust > Structure (when you have the right teachers). They give individual schools, and individual teachers in their classrooms, a very large degree of trust and autonomy. Teachers can change their methods, change the curriculum, personalize as they see fit, etc. They have lots of planning time (see below) and flexibility - for example, when not teaching (planning or otherwise), which is at least 1/3 of their work hours, they don’t have to be at the school.
  3. Less Rush. They have much less curriculum content to get through compared to a typical US school. They do zero standardized testing. Their average class is 20 kids. Teachers get a 1/2 hour of planning time for every hour of teaching time, every day. They don’t have “zero” homework as reported in some articles, but keep it modest – about an hour to 90 min maximum for middle school. The school day itself is less rushed – typical schedule is 15 minutes recess for every 45 minutes of class. 
  4. Mainstreaming of kids with learning differences. They put huge effort into bringing all kids into the classroom. One educator told me that the Finnish education ministry’s own research shows that this mainstreaming may explain much of their high PISA test scores – Finland has a lot of average scorers but remarkably few very-low-scorers, compared to other countries, and they think that’s because they mainstream kids with learning differences, encouraging and supporting them to participate in regular classes. Teachers have flexibility to make extra time and personalize, with staff support (and keep in mind they do this with overall spending per student that is below US levels). 
  5. No tracking. They never track students, learning groups are heterogeneous, students moving faster are given the opportunity to help others.
  6. All assessment is formative. Schools are never compared (they have no tests that would do it), and students are never compared in any standardized large-scale way. They use assessment to support learning going forward, not just as a summary of what has happened.
  7. Phenomenon Based Learning: As we've written about before on this blog, this is their version of what US educators call "project-based learning." In Finland, their aim is to reduce the importance of subjects as the key structure of school (Math, English, etc), and shift toward studying real-world topics, for example the European Union, in that case perhaps weaving history, literature, communication, and language through one interdisciplinary unit. 
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