Opportunity, Collaboration & Discovery

The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World's Most Surprising School System

CJ Westerberg, March 17, 2014 7:08 PM

Finland. Finnishflag.BobCompton.jpg

March 17, 2014 Update via The Atlantic
Finnish Education Chief: "We Created a School System Based on Equality".
Here are excerpts from interview post:

Q.  I remember being struck by how many vocational or hands-on classes
(home economics, art, technology, and so forth) were available to students
at every Finnish school I visited.  At one secondary school I visited, kids were cooking breakfast; at another, I saw that all the kids had learned how to sew
their own bathing suits.  More than one teacher remarked, "It's important for
students to have different activities to do during the day." And there seems
to be no stigma about vocational education. Is this attitude true of all schools
in Finland?

A.  Yes, we definitely believe that for young people handcrafts, cooking,
creative pursuits, and sports, are all important. We believe these help young
people benefit more from the skills they're learning in school. 

Q.   Do you think that this takes time away from academics?

A.  Academics isn't all kids need. Kids need so much more. School should
be where we teach the meaning of life; where kids learn they are needed;
where they can learn community skills. We like to think that school is also
important for developing a good self-image, a strong sensitivity to other people's feelings. . . . and understanding it matters to take care of others. We definitely want to incorporate all those things in education.

Finland Education:  What's up? 
The Daily Riff Library

by C.J. Westerberg

The Daily Riff is updating and curating the best key story links about Finland and their intensely watched and admired education system ("the best in the world").

December 3, 2013 - Are Finland's Vaulted Schools Slipping? via Wapo
 by Pasi Sahlberg -
 . . . .Finland should also continue to let national education and youth policies - and not PISA - drive what is happening in schools. Reading, science, and mathematics are important in Finnish education system but so are social studies, arts, music, physical education, and various practical skills. Play and joy of learning characterize Finland's pre-schools and elementary classrooms. Many teachers and parents in Finland believe that the best way to learn mathematics and science is to combine conceptual, abstract learning with singing, drama, and sports. This balance between academic and non-academic learning is critical to children's well-being and happiness in school. PISA tells only a little about these important aspects of school education.

December 3rd - OECD Education Report:  Finland's No Inspection, no league tables and few exams PLUS article round-up via TELEGRAPH

 December 2, 2013 -
Yong Zhao weighs in on the new PISA scores from Finland   

Here's the newest update - September 2013:
China's Education Plan . . .stealing from Finland's Playbook.  Excerpt:

If you think the business competition from China is hard now, brace yourself. It will likely get tougher in about 20 years or so. And how is China doing it? By borrowing a page from Finland.

At first blush, though, it would appear that China is simply lightening up.

"The Ministry of Education plans to lessen the heavy workload," said CCTV, China's state television network explained in a post on the English version of its website.

Under the proposed guidelines, which are still under discussion, "primary schools may no longer set any form of written homework for students in grades one to six," said CCTV, "Instead, schools should work with parents to organize extracurricular activities and after-school assignments, including museum tours and library study."

In addition, the new system would revamp scoring systems and reduce the number of mandatory exams.

Check out this from Business Insider - it's quick & to-the-point which is getting a lot of whoa's from people who even lose interest in top ten lists. Finnish students rank top of the charts in international studies of standardized testing (PISA). 

Next below is a top ten list via Cooperative Catalyst via via Parenting magazine's Mom Congress 2012 summarizing the traits of the much admired and controversial Finnish education.  The Finns seem to do exactly opposite the growing U.S. education agenda:

  1. Finland does not give their kids standardized tests.
  2. Individual schools have curriculum autonomy; individual teachers have classroom autonomy.
  3. It is not mandatory to give students grades until they are in the 8th grade.
  4. All teachers are required to have a master's degree.
  5. Finland does not have a culture of negative accountability for their teachers. According to Partanen, "bad" teachers receive more professional development; they are not threatened with being fired.
  6. Finland has a culture of collaboration between schools, not competition. Most schools, according to Partanen, perform at the same level, so there is no status in attending a particular facility.
  7. Finland has no private schools.
  8. Education emphasis is "equal opportunity to all."They value equality over excellence.
  9. A much higher percentage of Finland's educational budget goes directly into the classroom than it does in the US, as administrators make approximately the same salary as teachers. This also makes Finland's education more affordable than it is in the US.
  10. Finnish culture values childhood independence; one example: children mostly get themselves to school on their own, by walking or bicycling, etc. Helicopter parenting isn't really in their vocabulary.
  11. Finnish schools don't assign homework, because it is assumed that mastery is attained in the classroom.
  12. Finnish schools have sports, but no sports teams. Competition is not valued.
  13. The focus is on the individual child. If a child is falling behind, the highly trained teaching staff recognizes this need and immediately creates a plan to address the child's individual needs. Likewise, if a child is soaring ahead and bored, the staff is trained and prepared to appropriately address this as well.
  14. Partanen correlated the methods and success of their public schools to US private schools. We already have a model right here at home.
  15. Compulsory school in Finland doesn't begin until children are 7 years old.

What are Finland's strengths?  Perhaps the quickest way to get the big picture is this slide show, or this new and the most in-depth being the above-titled documentary film, "The Finland Phenomenon."  Even if you read all the articles about the Finland school system, I highly recommend you watch the documentary - it fills in the blanks left bare by generalities.

 Can the U.S. and other countries learn from Finland?  Or, as some argue, is this an "outlier" country (translate: a country that teaches others no real lessons to others)?  We also find juxtaposing Finland's practices with Singapore and Japan, there are several key common themes shared by all, but not witnessed in the U.S., such as teacher autonomy, along with some key differences. You be the decider, and let us know what your riff is, on or off-line. 

Other recent links - don't miss podcasts and videos below!:
New curriculum 'abolishes childhood' (  and

The Atlantic Monthly: The Secret to Finland's Success with Schools, Moms, Kids---And Everything.  Sorry the headline and Study did not refer to "Parents" as opposed to "Moms", but a worthy read as it relates to how the general "vibe" of the household or family can affect the well-being and achievement of their children. Glad to see a common sense reality being addressed - does it take deep thinking to get this?

I like how the reporting gives obvious comparisons, such as these:

Tuition at his daughter's university is free, though she took out a small loan for living expenses. Its interest rate is 1 percent.

My cousin is a recent immigrant, and while she was learning the language and training for jobs, the state gave her 700 euros a month to live on.

Check out comments below PLUS
 (3) NEW short videos (under 3 min) via CNN - Perspective from a Math Teacher, Letting Teachers Teach, and Tips from Finland

Video, Articles, and Podcasts

#1 - Video Trailer to the Bob Compton and Tony Wagner Documentary, "The Finland Phenomenon"
        (Bob Compton produced the controversial "2 Million Minutes" edu-documentary; also  
         featuring Tony Wagner, author and educator, "The Global Achievement Gap")

#2 - 30 second Quik-Vid on "Teachers Key to Finland Education"

#3 - Dan Rather and HD NET - "Finnish First"

#4 - NEW New School Venture Fund Summit 2013 - Video - What America Can Learn from the World's Leading Schools


What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland's School Success via The Atlantic

26 Amazing Facts about Finland's Unorthodox Education System via Business Insider

 The Children Must Play - The New Republic

 The Final Word is Always Finland  - Quick and the ED 

Finland's Educational Success?  The Anti-Tiger Mom Approach

Interview with Finland Minister of Education


Steve Hargadon's "Future of Education" Podcast on Finnish & American Education Perspectives on Learning Communities  (Well worth the visit!)

h/t #1 video via a tweet from Heidi Hayes Jacobs; h/t  Joanne Jacob

  • Raf Feys

    Pasi Sahlberg verspreidt volgens Finse leraars al te veel nonsens over Fins onderwijs

    Wat Finland-propagandist PASI Sahlberg hier (zie bijlage) en elders beweert over de toepassing van progressieve ideeën à la Dewey e.d. in het (eerder kl...assieke) Fins onderwijs is volgens Finse leerkrachten complete onzin.

    *oldspaper :This is complete nonsense. Here are five real things about Finland that are different:
    1. A terminal exam that you prevents you from getting an arbitur diploma unless you pass it. 2. Higher expectations and more independence for students.
    3. A vocational option for high school (tracking) 4. Less focus on school sports

    *@Popo: I'm not complaining about the education system, but this article just doesn't match with any of my experiences

    *@Alecaldi: What a bunch of crap. As a Fin with 18 years in the school system, now M.Sc Tech, I can't recognize most of the stuff.And to remind you, there is no High school in any Scandinavian countries. It's more like a pre-college for 3 years if you choose to go academic.

    *AM : This article is just unbelievable propaganda and it would be very interesting to know who fed you all this rubbish. Where are these so-called "facts" been taken from? Several of them are simply not true! Finnish teachers are not selected from the top 10% of graduates. All pupils take exams and have homework. All children are certainly not taught in the same classrooms. And what in the world is this "mandatory standardized test which is taken when children are 16"?! I've never heard of it and I work as a teacher in Finland. And excuse me...according to these "facts" I only spend four hours per day in the classroom?! That is so not true!

    *DI: This article explains why there have been so many Nobel prizes per capita in Finland, and why Finnish technology companies like Nokia are currently destroying the competition, and why Finland leads the pack on biotech.

    *PM I went through the Finnish education system so I can correct a few "facts". 1. We start to get homework since the first grade. Of course not that much in the beginning, but there definitely is homework. 2. We definitely are measured since grade one (=eerste leerjaar) at school.3. All kids are taught in the same classroom except when a kid is having difficulties with learning, and then he/she can go to a special teacher's little class to be taught. 4. Teachers spend way more than 4 hours a day in a classroom, except maybe when his/her class is the first or second grade and their days are shorter. But I remember being 10 and had 7-8 hour days and my teacher was there all the time.5.. Although teachers are highly regarded, they are not regarded as highly as doctors and lawyers. Especially if you teach Swedish in Junior High School.

    *Arto Pekkanen Lately the Finnish education system has started to fail, .... Now there are too many students in a single class, and individual students cannot get the support they need. There are a lot of misbehaving kids in schools, since there are too many kids and too few teachers and councellors. That's my take on our education system anyways ...

    Meer weergeven
    Five U.S. innovations that helped Finland’s schools improve but that American reformers now ignore
    Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg explains in an important post.

  • Raf Feys

    View of Finnish
    teachers versus view of Pasi Sahlberg

    Oxford- Prof. Jennifer Chung ( AN INVESTIGATION OF REASONS
    FOR FINLAND’S SUCCESS IN PISA (University of Oxford 2008).

    “Many of the teachers mentioned the converse of the great
    strength of Finnish education (= de grote aandacht voor kinderen met leerproblemen)
    as the great weakness. Jukka S. (BM)
    believes that school does not provide enough challenges for intelligent
    students: “I think my only concern is
    that we give lots of support to those pupils who are underachievers, and we
    don’t give that much to the brightest pupils.
    I find it a problem, since I think, for the future of a whole nation, those pupils who
    are really the stars should be supported, given some more challenges, given
    some more difficulty in their exercises and so on. To not just spend their time here but to make some effort and
    have the idea to become something, no matter what field you are choosing, you
    must not only be talented like they are, but work hard. That is needed. “

    Pia (EL) feels that
    the schools do not motivate very intelligent students to work. She thinks the schools should provide more challenges for the academically
    talented students. In fact, she
    thinks the current school system in Finland does not provide well for its
    students. Mixed-ability classrooms, she
    feels, are worse than the previous selective system: “ I think this school is for nobody.
    That is my private opinion. Actually I think so, because when you have
    all these people at mixed levels in your class, then you have to concentrate on
    the ones who need the most help, of course.
    Those who are really good, they get lazy. “

    Pia believes these students become bored and lazy, and float
    through school with no study skills.
    Jonny (EM) describes how comprehensive education places the academically
    gifted at a disadvantage: “We have lost a
    great possibility when we don’t have the segregated levels of math and natural
    sciences… That should be once again taken back and started with. The good talents are now torturing themselves
    with not very interesting education and teaching in classes that aren’t for their

    Pia (EL) finds the PISA frenzy about Finland amusing, since
    she believes the schools have declined in recent years: “I think [the
    attention] is quite funny because school isn’t as good as it used to be … I
    used to be proud of being a teacher and proud of this school, but I can’t say I
    ’m proud any more.”

    Aino (BS) states that the evenness and equality of the education
    system has a “dark side.” Teaching to the “middle student” in a class of
    heterogeneous ability bores the gifted students, who commonly do not perform
    well in school. Maarit (DMS) finds
    teaching heterogeneous classrooms very difficult. She admits that dividing the students into ability
    levels would make the teaching easier, but worries that it may affect the self-esteem
    of the weaker worse than a more egalitarian system Similarly, Terttu (FMS) thinks that the
    class size is a detriment to the students’ learning. Even though Finnish schools have relatively
    small class sizes, she thinks that a group of twenty is too large, since she
    does not have time for all of the students: “You don’t have enough time for everyone
    … All children have to be in the same class.
    That is not so nice. You have the
    better pupils. I can’t give them as much
    as I want. You have to go so slowly in
    the classroom.” Curiously, Jukka E.
    (DL) thinks that the special education students need more support and the
    education system needs to improve in that area.

    Miikka (FL) describes how he will give extra work to students
    who want to have more academic challenges, but admits that “they can get quite
    good grades, excellent grades, by doing nothing actually, or very little.” Miikka (FL) describes discussion in
    educational circles about creating schools and universities for academically
    talented students: 3 Everyone has the same chances…One problem is that it can
    be too easy for talented students. There has been now discussion in Finland if
    there should be schools and universities for talented students… I think it will
    happen, but I don’t know if it is good, but it will happen, I think so. I am also afraid there will be private
    schools again in Finland in the future … [There] will be more rich people and
    more poor people, and then will come so [many] problems in comprehensive
    schools that some day quite soon …
    parents will demand that we should have private schools again, and that is quite sad.

    Linda (AL), however, feels the love of reading has declined
    in the younger generation, as they tend to gravitate more to video games and
    television. Miikka (FL), also a teacher
    of mother tongue, also cites a decline in reading interest and an increase of
    video game and computer play. Saij a
    (BL) agrees. As a teacher of Finnish, she feels that she has difficulty motivating
    her students to learn: “I think my subject is not the … easiest one to teach. They don’t read so much, newspapers or
    novels.” Her students, especially the
    boys, do not like their assignments in Finnish language. She also thinks the respect for teachers has
    declined in this past generation. Miikka
    (FL) also thinks his students do not respect their teachers: “They don’t
    respect the teachers. They respect them
    very little … I think it has changed a
    lot in recent years. In Helsinki, it was
    actually earlier. When I came here six
    years ago, I thought this was
    heaven. I thought it was incredible,
    how the children were like that after
    Helsinki, but now I think it is the same.

    Linda (AL) notes deficiency in the amount of time available
    for subjects. With more time, she would
    implement more creative activities, such as speech and drama, into her
    lessons. Saij a (BL) also thinks that
    her students need more arts subjects like drama and art. She worries that they consider mathematics as
    the only important subject. Shefeels
    countries such as Sweden, Norway, and England have better arts programs than in
    Finnish schools. Arts subjects,
    according to Saij a, help the students get to know themselves. Maarit (DMS), a Finnish-speaker, thinks that
    schools need to spend more time cultivating social skills.

  • Marley Howards

    "Academics isn't all kids need. Kids need so much more. School should be where we teach the meaning of life; where kids learn they are needed; where they can learn community skills. " - this is a poignant point. Finland may not have the most ideal model for an educational institution but it seems to operating on that premise. - Marl of

  • Abigail

    30 minutes to an hour of homework? That sounds great! I was sick and absent from school today, and I still haven't caught up on yesterday's homework. I've been working since 10 am. its 4 o clock here. I have 2 subjects to go!

  • Raf Feys

    University of Helsinki - Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Department of Teacher of Education Research Report No 347Authors: Jarkko Hautamäki, Sirkku Kupiainen, Jukka Marjanen, Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen and Risto Hotulainen
    Learning to learn at the end of basic education: Results in 2012 and changes from 2001

    New study: Finnish students’ achievement declined significantly

    Summery:The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average

    Since 1996, educational effectiveness has been understood in Finland to include not only subject specific knowledge and skills but also the more general competences which are not the exclusive domain of any single subject but develop through good teaching along a student’s educational career. Many of these, including the object of the present assessment, learning to learn, have been named in the education policy documents of the European Union as key competences which each member state should provide their citizens as part of general education (EU 2006).

    In spring 2012, the Helsinki University Centre for Educational Assessment implemented a nationally representative assessment of ninth grade students’ learning to learn competence. The assessment was inspired by signs of declining results in the past few years’ assessments. This decline had been observed both in the subject specific assessments of the Finnish National Board of Education, in the OECD PISA 2009 study, and in the learning to learn assessment implemented by the Centre for Educational Assessment in all comprehensive schools in Vantaa in 2010.

    The results of the Vantaa study could be compared against the results of a similar assessment implemented in 2004. As the decline in students’ cognitive competence and in their learning related attitudes was especially strong in the two Vantaa studies, with only 6 years apart, a decision was made to direct the national assessment of spring 2012 to the same schools which had participated in a respective study in 2001.

    The goal of the assessment was to find out whether the decline in results, observed in the Helsinki region, were the same for the whole country. The assessment also offered a possibility to look at the readiness of schools to implement a computer-based assessment, and how this has changed during the 11 years between the two assessments. After all, the 2001 assessment was the first in Finland where large scale student assessment data was collected in schools using the Internet.

    The main focus of the assessment was on students’ competence and their learning-related attitudes at the end of the comprehensive school education, but the assessment also relates to educational equity: to regional, between-school, and between- class differences and to the relation of students’ gender and home background to their competence and attitudes.
    The assessment reached about 7 800 ninth grade students in 82 schools in 65 municipalities. Of the students, 49% were girls and 51% boys. The share of students in Swedish speaking schools was 3.4%. As in 2001, the assessment was implemented in about half of the schools using a printed test booklet and in the other half via the Internet. The results of the 2001 and 2012 assessments were uniformed through IRT modelling to secure the comparability of the results. Hence, the results can be interpreted to represent the full Finnish ninth grade population.

    Girls performed better than boys in all three fields of competence measured in the assessment: reasoning, mathematical thinking, and reading comprehension. The difference was especially noticeable in reading comprehension even if in this task girls’ attainment had declined more than boys’ attainment. Differences between the AVI-districts were small. The impact of students’ home-background was, instead, obvious: the higher the education of the parents, the better the student performed in the assessment tasks. There was no difference in the impact of mother’s education on boys’ and girls’ attainment. The between-school-differences were very small (explaining under 2% of the variance) while the between-class differences were relatively large (9 % – 20 %).
    The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. The mean level of students’ learning-supporting attitudes still falls above the mean of the scale used in the questions but also that mean has declined from 2001.
    The mean level of attitudes detrimental to learning has risen but the rise is more modest. Girls’ attainment has declined more than boys’ in three of the five tasks. There was no gender difference in the change of students’ attitudes, however. Between-school differences were un-changed but differences between classes and between individual students had grown. The change in attitudes—unlike the change in attainment—was related to students’ home background: The decline in learning-supporting attitudes and the growth in attitudes detrimental to school work were weaker the better educated the mother. Home background was not related to the change in students’ attainment, however. A decline could be discerned both among the best and the weakest students.
    The results of the assessment point to a deeper, on-going cultural change which seems to affect the young generation especially hard. Formal education seems to be losing its former power and the accepting of the societal expectations which the school represents seems to be related more strongly than before to students’ home background. The school has to compete with students’ self-elected pastime activities, the social media, and the boundless world of information and entertainment open to all through the Internet. The school is to a growing number of youngpeople just one, often critically reviewed, developmental environment among many.
    The change is not a surprise, however. A similar decline in student attainment has been registered in the other Nordic countries already earlier. It is time to concede that the signals of change have been discernible already for a while and to open up a national discussion regarding the state and future of the Finnish comprehensive school that rose to international acclaim due to our students’success in the PISA studies.
    University of Helsinki - Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Department of Teacher of Education Research Report No 347Authors: Jarkko Hautamäki, Sirkku Kupiainen, Jukka Marjanen, Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen and Risto Hotulainen
    Learning to learn at the end of basic education: Results in 2012 and changes from 2001

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