Finnish schools and education have gotten a lot of attention in recent years due to our success on the PISA tests. We have received many visitors from around the world asking what our secret is, and why our students do so well.
The answer is highly trained teachers, short school-days, lots of playtime, not too much homework, long holidays, no testing, no competition between schools, and trusting in teachers and schools.
This may sound like a joke, but it’s not.
In Finland, the profession of teaching is quite popular and highly valued. Teachers from preschool up to the highest grades have earned the required master’s degree in education. In addition, every school has specially trained teachers for students with special needs. Every school has a multi-professional team consisting of a psychologist, social worker, nurse and study councilors, who meet weekly along with the principal and teachers to observe classes and students who might need help.
Being a small nation we cannot afford to lose any of our children. We try to take care of everyone by supporting education and having good healthcare. Every student gets a free warm meal every day. There are no school fees, and books and learning materials are free.
Compulsory schooling starts at the age of seven, and most children start preschool at the age of six. In first and second grade, kids have 20 hours of lessons. In grades three through six, lessons increase from 24 to 26 hours per week, and in grades seven through nine students have 30 hours per week.
Most of the work is done in school, but kids get some homework too. Lessons last 45 minutes with a 15 minute break or teachers can put two lessons together and have a 30 minute break. But children have at least 60 minutes of playtime each day.
In Finland, there are practically no private schools. Students go to the school nearest their home and that school is publicly funded. Schools don’t compete with each other and families don’t select schools. Principals and all of those working in the system - from national officials to local authorities - are educators.
Every school has the same national goals and gets teachers with the same university training. So differences between schools are small, and the quality of education is more or less the same no matter where the child lives. The differences between weakest and strongest students are also very small, and come from small emphases in some subjects. Some schools may have a little bit more music, sports or natural science. In these instances, we are talking about one to two hours per week of additional instruction, compared to a neighbor school. But schools are equipped alike with a good variety of musical instruments for playing in bands, smart boards, etc.
Principals choose their staff, which gives them the chance to build up a good team that works well together. In a good team, teachers prosper and stay for years at the same school, getting to know the students’ families and building a local network in the community.
Testing is not widespread in Finland. Of course, teachers test their students to see how well they have learned, but there are actually no national tests until the end of secondary high. Sixth graders will have the option to participate in a district-wide exam, if their school agrees to participate in it. Generally schools do participate, but merely out of curiosity. Results are not published, but schools get information about how their classes have done in comparison to other schools as a whole.
Trusting schools means that bureaucracy is minimal. The national curriculum is a broad guideline: Town councils add local material and schools put their part into it. There are no inspectors. Schools practice self-evaluation. Because teachers are experts in education, they know best what’s going on in their schools, how their students are learning, how their teaching must be improved. Schools, principals and teachers are trusted that they will do their jobs well, that they will evaluate their work, and that they will be honest.
Schools are very independent in choosing their methods of teaching. They have much expertise and freedom to make use of it for the benefit of the students.
If you would like to learn more about Finland’s education system, Professor LynNell Hancock has written a good article in The Smithsonian Magazine on the topic.
Kari Louhivuori is the principal of Kirkkojärvi School in Espoo, Finland.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.