View Full Version : Education in Finland

June Pelo
23-04-04, 21:52
April 9, 2004

Educators Flocking to Finland, Land of Literate

UUTARILA, Finland - Imagine an educational system where children do not start school until they are 7, where spending is a paltry $5,000 a year per student, where there are no gifted programs and class sizes often approach 30. A prescription for failure, no doubt, in the eyes of many experts, but in this case a description of Finnish schools, which were recently ranked the world's best.

Finland topped a respected international survey last year, coming in first in literacy and placing in the top five in math and science. Ever since, educators from all over the world have thronged to this self-restrained country to deconstruct its school system - "educational pilgrims," the locals call them - and, with luck, take home a sliver of wisdom.

"We are a little bit embarrassed about our success," said Simo Juva, a special government adviser to the Ministry of Education, summing up the typical reaction in Finland, where boasting over accomplishments does not come easily. Perhaps next year, he said, wishfully, Finland will place second or third.

The question on people's minds is obvious: how did Finland, which was hobbled by a deep recession in
the 1990's, manage to outscore 31 other countries, including the United States, in the review by the
Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development last September? The rankings were based on reading, math and science tests given to a sample of 15-year-olds attending both public and private schools. United States students placed in the middle of the pack.

Finland's recipe is both complex and unabashedly basic. It is also similar to that in other Nordic countries. Some of the ingredients can be exported (its flexibility in the classroom, for example) and some cannot (the nation's small, homogenous population and the relative prosperity of most Finns, to name two).

If one trait sets Finland apart from many other countries, it is the quality and social standing of its teachers, said Barry Macgaw, the director for education at the O.E.C.D.

All teachers in Finland must have at least a master's degree, and while they are no better paid than teachers in other countries, the profession is highly respected. Many more people want to become teachers after graduating from upper schools than universities can actually handle, so the vast majority are turned down.

"Teaching is the No. 1," Outi Pihlman, the English teacher at Suutarila Lower Comprehensive School,
said about a recent survey asking teenagers to name their favorite profession. "At that age, you would think they would want anything but to go back to school."

The Suutarila school - cheerful, well lit, nicely heated - is typical of Finnish "comprehensive schools," which run from first to ninth grade. The students, who number about 500, pad about in their socks. After every 45-minute lesson, they are let loose outside for 15 minutes so they can burn off steam. Others are allowed to practice their music, and they file into classrooms, sling electric guitars across their chests or grab drumsticks and jam.

Children here start school late on the theory that they will learn to love learning through play. Preschool for 6-year-olds is optional, although most attend. And since most women work outside the home in Finland, children usually go to day care after they turn one.

At first, the 7-year-olds lag behind their peers in other countries in reading, but they catch up almost immediately and then excel. Experts cite several reasons: reading to children, telling folk tales and going to the library are activities cherished in Finland. Lastly, children grow up watching television shows and movies (many in English) with subtitles. So they read while they watch TV.

So long as schools stick to the core national curriculum, which lays out goals and subject areas, they are free to teach the way they want. They can choose their textbooks or ditch them altogether, teach indoors or outdoors, cluster children in small or large groups.

While there are no programs for gifted children, teachers are free to devise ways to challenge their smartest students. The smarter students help teach the average students. "Sometimes you learn better that way," said Pirjo Kanno, the principal in Suutarila.

Students must learn two foreign languages - Swedish is required by law, and most also take English. Art, music, physical education, woodwork and textiles (which is mostly sewing and knitting) are obligatory for girls and boys. Hot and healthy school lunches are free. There are also 90 computers scattered about the school, and students are free to attend homework clubs staffed by assistants after school.

Despite the accolades, Finnish officials say they are far from perfect. Boys, for example, perform much worse than girls in reading, and with so many wanting to become teachers, too few are willing to leap outside the social service sphere. "We're trying to get them to start their own businesses," said Kirsi Lindroos, the national board of education's director general.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

By way of comparison, according to NCES the US spent $9354 per pupil in 2001-02.


23-04-04, 22:04
Originally posted by June Pelo
Students must learn two foreign languages - Swedish is required by law...

Popular misconception. Swedish in not a foreign language in Finland. It is by constitution a domestic language.

I know, June, that you know this, but I thought I'd make it clear for everybody anyway.


Tracy Boeldt
24-04-04, 05:24
Thank you Sune and June--very interesting!


Paivi T
24-04-04, 20:07
This very same article was discussed on the Finngen mailing list about a week ago. I'm reproducing here my comments on some of the facts and views presented in the article.

On literacy:

I always think whenever our 100-percent literacy rate is discussed, a particularly important factor is nearly always grossly overlooked, namely the phonetical spelling system of the Finnish language. One-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters simplifies the learning process and lowers the learning curve no end. Each sound one utters is represented in writing with only one letter, and this letter never varies, regardless of its
context or use with other letters. When one learns which letter to use to represent a sound in writing, one learn to write and read quite easily. Then, one hears a word, one knows exactly how it is written, and, conversely, when one sees a word in writing,
one knows exactly how it is pronounced. Unless, of course, one is dyslexic.

This issue is very topical for me at the moment, as I'm introducing our 3,5-year-old to the world of sounds, letters and reading. Every time we're looking at letters and words, I am *so* happy for the phonetical spelling system of the Finnish language. Having studied several languages, none of which employ a systematically phonetical spelling system, the difference is overwhelming.

On television and subtitling vs dubbing:

The article claims that all foreign television programs are subtitled, and never dubbed. This is quite definitely incorrect. Nearly 100% of the foreign programs targeted at young
children (say, up to six years old) are dubbed, and dubbed only, not subtitled. As a mother of two under four-year-olds, I know this for a fact. Take The Teletubbies, for instance. Heck, even the feature-length animated Disney movies shown at movie theatres are dubbed, and so are some of the non-animated kids' movies, such as "The 101 Dalmatians".

Making use of the groundless claim that all imported television programs and movies are subtitled, the article gives the impression that television is used as a major means
of teaching the children how to read. Since all the programs that the kids learning to read would be watching are dubbed, this is not true. Yes, of course, children watch television but definitely not in order to learn to read.

Päivi T

25-04-04, 23:51
I thank you, June, for yet another interesting article.

As a classroom teacher with 30 years of experience, I am most intrigued to learn of the Finnish school system.

How refreshing to hear that teachers are actually treated with respect and, perhaps, even with deference. Here, we are treated with great disrepect, especially from our employers, our provincial government. I'm finding it a very thankless job after all these years and do NOT recommend the profession to anyone, including my own children. If it were not for the standards I set for myself and the personal integrity and perserverance I was raised with, I could not have endured the many years I have so far. I am delighted to learn that there exists a place where teachers are able to practice their chosen profession with pride and support. Here, I am most reluctant to even admit that I am a teacher as that comment most often elicits the most demoralizing negativity from others. As teachers enter this profession (like nurses and doctors, etc.) to be "helpers" in society, it is particularly hurtful to be treated with such a lack of understanding, appreciation and support. The underlying negativity adds great stress to an already challenging and demanding job.

Bravo Finland! I think you have the right attitude about your students and your teachers. The results you produce are proof of this.You have a lot to be proud of!!!!