March 28, 2008

Finland, Finland, Finland... it's where I want to be

Whenever an international educational standards report is fired out you can guarantee that the world will turn with admiration to the efficient-looking, charmingly snow-covered idyll of Finnish education. I've written a couple of posts on how other Scandinavian countries have taken the lead. The Times Educational Supplement Scotland is running a weekly series on what makes this country great.

Last week's message was simple enough, yet incredibly difficult to see in most country's systems and curricula: "we place trust in our teachers". Don't get me wrong: lots of countries state that this is, of course, a value they uphold. But it's what teachers actually feel that counts and, by and large, from the States to China, from Delhi to Dagenham, teachers don't feel that they have particular trust placed in them at all. Just look at the lack of control over their technology and it's not surprise that most teachers have, indeed, a fair distrust for the education Establishment.

This week, the newspaper's Henry Hepburn heads into an exceptional Helsinki Secondary. Here are the main points that strike me as completely logical, elements which teachers the world over might want to give a go were it not for the misplaced but general lack of confidence in their ability to cope with the freedoms and high expectations required of students in such a set-up (my comments in italics):

  • "A mobile phone has just gone off in class. It's on the vibrate setting, but everybody knows someone is calling because the 14-year-old owner has taken the phone out of her pocket to see who it is. Then, without so much as a look to her drama teacher, she calmly gets up to go outside and take the call. A short while later she returns; no one bats an eyelid." A stark contrast to the charade Will describes in one US school, and I can only imagine the even sharper intakes of breath from Davids' students back from their placements.
  • The entire class appears to be chewing gum - and teachers also chomp away on pieces of gum. How many hours are wasted on getting gum in the bin, instead of setting expectations that it doesn't end up under desks?
  • ...The prevailing atmosphere is one of quiet diligence. The secret appears to be in the placing of trust in pupils, allowing them to make the big decisions about what school should be to them. (while I still wonder if most schools' notion of student voice is just rhetoric)
  • No two timetables are the same... There are core lessons, but also huge flexibility... They do 90 courses over three years, in 14 of which they are free to do as they wish - if a student wants to fill it entirely with maths or art, that can be done.
  • Another factor in the school's quietly productive feel is the structuring of the day into three two-hour periods (similar to Stovner School's two four hour seshes).
  • Classes can sometimes have students of different ages.
  • There is less homework than the average Scottish student is used to.
  • Teachers are intermittently sent to spend three months working at a lower comprehensive, to help smooth the way for pupils making the jump to big school.
  • Ms Ihaliainen furrows her brow when asked if pupils are ever told to stay behind at school as punishment... It is not seen as an effective way to deal with a problem.
  • Pupils lead and teachers play a supporting role.

Finland, it's where I want to be. Sometimes.


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Soumi Finlande Perkele!
Finland is great. I met two absolute gentlemen at an engineering education conference in Dublin ( last year from Oulu University of Applied Sciences in Finland.
The keynote speaker at this same conference was Irish and he compared Mathematics results at second level from different countries (an obsessional concern of engineering educators). No surprise Finland was at the top. Apparently they value their teachers or something.

Right, my name might look a bit different and if you've ever met any Finns there really can't be any doubt about it - it just can't get more Finnish than this!

However, it's funny how things turn out in life: my base has been next door to Finland - here in Sweden - for more than 30 years now. In fact, I've never worked as a teacher in Finland but I'm fully aware of the fact that a teaching job in Finland is quite a bit different from one in Sweden. The job itself has much higher status in Finland than in Sweden and, not surprisingly, many other things about teaching follow suit.

Finland and Sweden share a common history - Swedish still being an official language in Finland - and that might suggest the two countries are very much alike. Definitely a myth in that case! Living and working in Finland is, in fact, much more different from the Swedish way of doing things than most people believe. The differences, then? Well, that would be a complete essay in itself! Perhaps one day..

I'm definitely impressed - and proud! - by what Finland has achieved within the educational field. However, there are quite a few good things brewing in Sweden as well and I guess the most important thing is that we share all that really good stuff.

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Every Finnish teacher must attain a Master's degree. Then they're paid, esteemed accordingly.

I'm just saying there are some striking, apples-to-oranges differences between the Finnish educational system and that of some other nations.

Yup, Dan, and in South Korea they are paid to do 140 hours of professional development per year. In New York State it's one hour. Says a lot, doesn't it?

I was not aware that the Finns were leading the world in standardized test scores Allowing the students to "construct" their education, almost personalizing it, seems to be behind the phenominal test scores. One word comes to mind when I think of the educational system in Finland, that word is 'economical.' McIntosh states that they forge ahead with a "quiet diligence,' which evidences a good work ethic. Or, are the students so engaged with they are doing that they appear intent on learning. I also found it interesting that students are given curriculum choices, allowing students to pursue interests and areas where they may have inherent aptitudes, thus, maximizing their educational experience. Micromanagement, of course, isn't something you will find in a Finnish classroom, freeing up even more time for learning. I especially liked the three two hour sessions, as 50mins really doesn't do justice to many subjects. I'm not saying that this model would work for everyone, everywhere, but it does prove that wonderful things can happen when students are allowed to follow their interests.

Trust seems to be at the heart of this winning formula--trust that teachers know what they're doing and trust that students can be responsible. The U.S. media have been all over this story since the recent study was released, but no one has dug in to find the concrete examples you share here. Those seemingly little things (gum=OK) add up.
There's one more piece to the puzzle, too. Teachers in Finland frequently work together to design projects. Again, it just seems like common sense--but continues to be a rare event in many of the world's schools. Here's a post that gives an example:

Sounds just great - and I agree with the previous comment about trust. Dead right.

I found this part of your blog very interesting. I'm going to Finland in May on a study visit (funded by LTS). I have some contacts and a draft programme but would very much welcome any suggestions or offers of visits for whilst I'm there, particularly schools heavily involved in ICT.
Any ideas or contacts anyone ?


I really enjoyed your post as it reminded me of meeting lovely Finnish colleagues during our school Comenius project. We had just completed an old style OFSTED and as we were discussing the differences in our educational systems. My Finnish colleagues asked "Why do you still have inspections like that? Don't they trust you???" We had to give a "Yes, but... " type of answer-not very convincing, I agree.



I really enjoyed your post as it reminded me of meeting lovely Finnish colleagues during our school Comenius project. We had just completed an old style OFSTED and, as we were discussing the differences in our educational systems, my Finnish colleagues asked "Why do you still have inspections like that? Don't they trust you???" We had to give a "Yes, but... " type of answer-not very convincing, I agree.


Hi Ewan

Thanks for making feel proud of my country and my education!

Have a great day!


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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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