FINLAND STUDY TOUR by Penni Cyr
Recently, when I was serving as President of the National Council of State Education Association (NCSEA), I had the opportunity to work with the National Education Association Foundation to create and participate in an education study tour of the Finnish education system. It was a chance of a lifetime which 26 state affiliate presidents were able to attended!
Finland is a beautiful country that welcomed us with open arms. Most of our time was spent in Helsinki, the capital, which is located on the Baltic Sea on the southern tip of Finland. We enjoyed limited free time while visiting and took advantage of the easy walks around this beautiful city, interacting with vendors in open air markets where everything from felted wool hats to Baltic amber to leather items to works of art were sold. We also enjoyed local treats such as fried sardines, salmon, and reindeer meatballs (which are quite good with Lingonberry jam!).
THE SCHOOL SYSTEM
Finland was not always first. In the 1970’s, leaders in Finland recognized that their school system needed some work. They wanted to do better, so they brought together stakeholders – including union leaders, politicians, university faculty, teachers, and others – to hold critical conversations. Among the important lesson we learned from this model are not to have isolated conversations and to listen to the practitioners. The Finnish sought answers to several key questions: What is the value of education? Why is education important for our future as a nation? What is the main objective of our schools? What should be taught? To help answer these questions, they did a lot of deep thinking and research, even looking at research from the United States and incorporating some of those recommendations into their plan.
After many such conversations, they designed a comprehensive system with each component working together to create an overall system. It is important to note that they did not focus on pieces and parts like pre-service or standards, but rather held to the belief that all things combined were what makes an excellent system. So another lesson Idaho can learn from the Finns is to focus on the complete public education system from early childhood through higher education. This includes teacher training and recruitment, salary and benefits, curriculum, school experiences, time in school for both the student and the teacher, and resources to accomplish their goals in all areas.
- Public education is valued. The Finns do not entertain any serious conversation about private schools, vouchers or charter schools.
- Funding is equal for all schools. There is no talk of good or bad schools.
- Students attend their neighborhood school.
- Education is promoted, honored and seen as a lifelong endeavor.
- Teachers are given full autonomy as experts to make decisions about what is best for students.
- Becoming a teacher is highly competitive; teaching is considered the most prestigious profession and teachers are given ultimate respect.
- Teachers are not evaluated, and the Department of Ministry does not grade, monitor or oversee schools.
- Trust is given to the highly educated teachers and to the schools to do what is needed.
- A national core curriculum outlines the skills and goals for educators to use in developing the lessons for students.
- There are no standardized tests that students must take except for a matriculation exam at the end of their schooling.
At the University of Helsinki, we met with Dr. Matti Meri, an instructor in Teacher Education, which is in the College of Behavioral Science. Dr. Meri was a delightful man who was concerned about making himself understood. As he explained, “My English is Finglish.” Dr. Meri began by explaining that because teachers can influence children’s futures, teacher education is considered key in Finland. In fact, it is easier to get an education in the field of medicine than it is become a teacher. They believe that it very important to educate as well as they can and that teachers need to understand what it means to be a teacher.
There are nine university teacher prep programs in Finland and all are very competitive. At the University of Helsinki for example, teacher-students are chosen by a series of requirements. Every year, over 1,800 applicants apply to get into the University of Helsinki Teaching College but only 120 actually get accepted. The requirements include interviews, teamwork that is observed by professors analyzing a person’s collaboration and interaction skills, and finally a four-hour writing assignment, formulating an essay based on a required 250 pages of reading per month that applicants are given.
Programs such as Teach for America, which trains teachers in six weeks and then assigns them to schools, would not be accepted by the Finns. Rather than filling open teaching positions with just anyone, the Finns believe that only those who complete their rigorous teacher prep program should be placed in front of students. To become a teacher, one must complete a very intense program that lasts five years, culminating with a master’s degree. The last year of the program includes student teaching at a teacher training school where student teachers are mentored by trained teachers.
Teachers in Finland earn approximately $32,000 in U.S. dollars, which isn’t much more than beginning teachers in the U.S. However, teachers are given autonomy, are considered experts, and are highly respected.
TRUST AND EQUITY
Trust is embedded in the Finnish culture and is a big deal in Finland. As one speaker at the Ministry of Education explained, “We trust – we trust our police, we trust our teachers, we trust our politicians. That’s just part of what we believe”.
Equity drives their belief system, too – equity of resources and funding to schools, equally staffed schools and language immersion for all immigrants needing to learn Finnish, one of the most difficult languages in the world. A child’s socioeconomic status doesn’t matter; resources are equitable, including free health care and free public schools. There is no tuition for higher education – even for college students from foreign countries.
School is in session for 190 days, five days a week, but their day is shorter than the U. S. school day. A full-time teacher teaches 25 units a week, each unit being approximately 45 minutes. Once they fulfill this obligation, they can work on preparation of lesson plans, collaborate, or meet with each other about student needs. Children are in school until 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. each day and because they attend neighborhood schools, either go to daycare or go home at the end of the day – as their parents did before them.
Kindergarten – which is our preschool – is not mandatory and is paid for by the parents. Compulsory preschool – our kindergarten starts at age seven. Students begin grades 1-6 at age seven; and these classes look a lot like ours. Teachers teach whole classes and cover most of the subjects, and students interact as a whole group or work on their own lessons. There are often many teachers and aides in a classroom along with student teachers, who serve and learn in a real classroom for a full year. They do not “student teach” like in the U.S.; but rather team teach and receive instruction from the classroom teachers they work beside.
Grades 7-9, as in the U.S, are arranged by subjects. The end of ninth grade is a key turning point for students. It is then that they choose their next step: stay for the 10th grade (rare), go to upper secondary for general studies (leading to the university) or begin vocational studies (leading to an apprenticeship, job and possible university studies). There is no stigma in taking the vocational route. Whatever choice is made does not close off future studies, since adult education is promoted.
Upper secondary schools do not divide students into grades. Instead, students choose subjects that fit with their interests, skills and career choices. It is similar to our community college arrangement. Students complete their courses within two to four years; at the end of this time they take a matriculation exam, the only required test. The teachers in the vocational programs are highly skilled and are required to have a degree plus three years of work in their field.
Finland is highly unionized, and the teacher trade union OAJ keeps a steady membership of around 95 percent. The union is included in all committees, task forces and discussions with the Ministry of Education and bargains a basic contract that is followed by the municipalities. Collaboration in schools is a basic tenet and also embraced at the OAJ union/Ministry leadership level. Unions of all kinds are an accepted part of the Finnish culture.
Finland’s economy is in jeopardy. Because of this, everyone is worried whether or not they can continue their practice of free higher education, and there is some talk of beginning to charge tuition, at least to foreign students. Finland continues to monitor what they need to do to stay at the top in education. They continue to embrace and acknowledge that constant collaboration among stakeholders and the education experts is key to their education system.
However, they are faced with growing diversity. Just last year, over 30,000 immigrants came into Finland from Syria, Bosnia, Ethiopia, and Russia and this has put a strain on their economy. They are working hard to do full-language immersion for all, but also attempt to educate students in their mother tongue when they can.
This year they began a new type of teaching called phenomenon-based education, where they look at a student’s skill goals first and only then look at subject goals. Students participate in determining their own learning and how they will be assessed.
U.S. and FINLAND
I learned that the U.S. and Idaho should be very proud of the work we do with and for our students, especially when we do not have the same commitment to funding, trust, and equity as they do in Finland. We also offer more for our students such as extracurricular activities, sports, and clubs. Finland took ideas from the U.S., but have implemented them in a comprehensive way. Should the U.S. try to emulate the Finnish way? In many ways, we are very similar and in fact, exceed in offerings for many, especially special needs students. But I also think there are many things we can learn from Finland – most importantly, listen to the practitioners, trust educators, work on our whole system of education, as well as fund schools so that they are equitable for every child. As we have experienced in Idaho, too often ‘reformers’ attempt to ‘reform’ pieces and parts of our education system, rather than looking at the whole. It is time that we begin to view public education – from preschool through higher education – as one system and properly design something that works cohesively.
With thanks to Cinda Klickna, President, Illinois Education Association.