Finnish Education: an Insider Perspective

This week, I am spending my mornings following around a Finnish sixth grade class to see what school looks like from a student’s perspective. I’ve made a few super interesting observations in that time.

Class “buddies”. At the end of the day today, a third grade class came to play a programming board game with the sixth graders. It is a similar partnership to something I remember doing in school growing up (fancy that!) where the older students mentor or are “buddies” with the young ones to give the little guys some extra interaction in the school community and the older ones a sense of responsibility and leadership.

I remember when I was in Kindergarten at five years old having a buddy that I knew went to my school, but I didn’t know how old she was. As far as I was concerned, she was an adult, but a fun one that I could be friends with instead of a teachery one who I knew had a job to do before she could be my friend. Fast forward nine years and I’m in 8th grade and now I’m on the other side, being the “buddy” for my own couple kindergarteners, which, of course, being me, was the best thing that had ever happened to me so far in life haha!

So today, I watched 12 year olds hugging their little 10 year old buddies and sitting the little ones on their laps. I watched groups of these children play board games and learn together. It was cool. Although, I’d be interested to know if more of these buddy systems exist because it seemed like one of the other observing pre-service teachers was expecting the first graders to come.

Kids are allowed to be kids. At the end of the day, a couple of those third graders were finished with their games and were getting rowdy and started wrestling and laughing. And it was the cutest thing. It was one of those moments you don’t know if you should stop because it’s technically “bad behavior” or if you should just keep an eye out because no one is upset and they aren’t hurting anyone. When the other observer asked me what I thought we should do, I shrugged and mentioned that some people pay money to watch professionals to this! Needless to say, I and the other observer just watched. It turned out okay too, I promise!

Kids really need the brain breaks. Every time a lesson started – no matter who the teacher was, settling the kids down after the fifteen minute free period took some time. But once they were calmed down, they were attentive. It was super interesting to observe how the students’ behavior slipped into distractedness and jitteriness in the ends of the lessons though. By the end of the 45 minutes, the kids were ready to get out of the class and it was extremely evident in the way they acted. But the break was all it took to zero the kids back in on the new task a few minutes later. Sweet!

Good teaching is art. This week, I have observed lessons taught by practice teachers, classroom teachers, and I’ve even given a lesson myself (!!!), and let me tell you, there was a world of difference in quality and effectiveness between the newbies and the vets. The veteran teacher has better control of her classroom, she has a deeper relationship with her students, she doesn’t raise her voice as often, she is better capable of handling behavior problems and classroom distractions, she laughs more with her class, and her lessons are deeper. This is a universal observation, not just a thing about Finnish school. Newly hatched baby teachers are not going to be as experienced, and therefore not as effective, as teachers who have a few years of trial and error under their belt and some ruffles in their feathers.

This was both a frustrating and a heartening realization to make. On one hand, I’m frustrated that students have the potential to miss so much when they spend so much time with budding educators with little experience. On the other hand though, it gives me hope that those budding educators (am me!) will continue to learn through experience and be able to provide a masterful education to a classroom full of their own students one day, since the good teacher started in the same place we are now.

Of course, the environment is unique to this public school. It is a university funded practice school, so parents and students know what they are signing up for when they enroll in this school. However, in the Finnish education degree, pre-service teachers start integrating practical experience with teacher and theory-based learning starting in the first year of college. Practice teachers only teach a class up to a couple weeks at a time and they are only teaching one subject in the day (from what I’ve observed so far). The students have full-time classroom teachers to work with most of the time, so their education does not suffer for being taught by not-quite-yet professionals.



I wrote a blog a couple weeks ago comparing Finnish and American schools and I just want to take a moment to continue the thought. The more time I spend here, the more I realize how not-so-mystical Finnish school is. Yes, it is effective, and yes, it is worth striving for the same kinds of outcomes they yield. However, once you wade through the little pond of systemic differences between the two cultures, you are left with the same thing: a classroom full students with a teacher who just wants to educate and take care of her kiddos. Finnish teachers face the same battles: behavior problems, classroom management, achievement gaps, individual personalities, a national curriculum, low wages and much more. And they tackle these obsticals in similar ways; they provide lessons that accommodate different learning styles, they aim to move away from rows of desks, they work with technology when possible, they build a personal relationship with their munchkins as individuals, and again, much more.

So let me say this: American teachers, you are doing a good job. Be proud of what you do and keep teaching from the heart. I don’t think the problem in American education is at a classroom level. Teachers are doing the best we can. The problem is at the policy and legislative level. If you want to do more, make your voice heard by your governments. Your school board. Your state. Your nation. Parents, teachers, and community members who care need to come together to find the right ideas and build a better way. And our government needs to listen to the little guys when they have something worth listening to.

We can do it okay??? There is hope. Honestly, just look at Kansas schools. My home-state’s education has been neglected for so long it’s become a running joke, but it looks like it’s about to turn around. The Kansas Can school resign project is just one example of American schools doing something crazy in hopes of building a brighter future.

“The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” – Aristotle

2 thoughts on “Finnish Education: an Insider Perspective

  1. We don’t talk much anymore, but I sometimes wish we could talk about education more. IMHO, the biggest difference in education here and in Finland is the regard for education and teachers. Having taught for over 20 years in some 40 different elementary schools, I’ve seen things that work and things that don’t. Some are universal (kids need breaks), some are regional (funding), and some are cultural (expectations, discipline, and parental involvement) – add to that the different approach of another nation, you do have differences. What works in the rural areas, though, doesn’t necessarily work in the suburbs, and that might not work on an inner city school. Nor should it. Part of the inherent job of a teacher is to find what works, and the responsibility of a school system is to let them (& help them) do it.
    That’s where a lot of the problem occurs – it’s not teacher education that’s to blame in Kansas or the US, it’s a profound disregard for the teacher as the most important and capable player in the education process, and a slew of misplaced priorities and expectations.
    Finland has their regards, expectations, and priorities pretty well aligned. Here in the states, there’s starting to be a recognition that the paradigm isn’t working right, but instead of translating into a higher regard for teachers and more freedom, it’s resulted in more testing, fewer breaks, less freedom, a shift away from education as a right and necessity, as well as a general loss of respect for education in general. Our society places a much higher regard on vocational training than a well rounded education. Reading is for entertainment, but the populace can be entertained by the TV and the radio so reading is unnecessary. Yet, were classes required to read “The Lottery” perhaps people would learn the importance of tolerance. If “The Man Who Saw Through Heaven” were read, would people know more of the dangers of religion? What’s the significance of the title “Fahrenheit 451” and could it happen today? It does – it’s happened to you and as the internet becomes more critical, it happens to all of us. With the flip of a switch. Did you ever read the essay “Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts” Can you differentiate between Cow and Bull? That might help people understand what’s fake and what’s not.
    That’s just literature- we sacrifice spelling to teach keyboarding, we sacrifice bisecting angles and balancing textbooks to try and teach calculus. Students no longer have to learn world geography or state capitols. Few no how our electoral college works, yet they wonder how we got where we are. Ignorance is the friend of those seeking power, and as long as it proliferates, those in power stay in power, and those who suffer from it remain convinced that it’s not their fault, but the fault of “educated liberals.
    My point is, politics, education, and public perception are all inexplicably linked. To see why Finland has a good education system, look at their government, their politics, their social services, their overall education level. How much for them to go to college? In the US, we make sure that only the people those in power want to be educated can afford college. Did you know in some countries college is free? …and while homeschooling is a viable right and option, how many use it to KEEP their children from learning?
    Finally, a teacher must love children. Sounds simple, right? But it’s tossed aside in many places. Education is full of power hungry athletic coaches ( not in Finland) and housewives who need to supplement their family income. It has nothing to do with children – if it did, there would be no telling a child they failed, only that they’re not there yet. There’d be no “No Child Left Behind” because that happens, but there would ALWAYS be a hand reaching back to encourage those left behind. Look at grading policies – is failure easier than success? You’re in a great position to look at differences – the differences in the classroom are not nearly as profound, but some are important. Kids are kids (thankfully) though anywhere you go. Look for the differences in the adults! And keep looking for the good news – bad news is always easy to find and often questionable. ILY (family, for others reading) – take care. Proud for all you’ve become!

    Liked by 1 person

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