Finnish education often seems paradoxical to outside observers because it appears to break a lot of the rules we take for granted. Finnish children don’t begin school until age 7. They have more recess, shorter school hours than many U.S. children do (nearly 300 fewer hours per year in elementary school), and the lightest homework load of any industrialized nation. There are no gifted programs, almost no private schools, and no high-stakes national standardized tests.
Yet over the past decade Finland has consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world. Finland’s school children didn’t always excel. Finland built its excellent, efficient, and equitable educational system in a few decades from scratch, and the concept guiding almost every educational reform has been equity. The Finnish paradox is that by focusing on the bigger picture for all, Finland has succeeded at fostering the individual potential of most every child.
I recently accompanied Krista Kiuru, Finland’s minister of education and science, when she visited the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in Boston, and asked her what Finland is doing that we could learn from.
I visited four Finnish schools while researching my book Parenting Without Borders. While there, I frequently heard a saying: “We can’t afford to waste a brain.” It was clear that children were regarded as one of Finland’s most precious resources. You invest significantly in providing the basic resources so that all children may prosper. How do these notions undergird your educational system?
We used to have a system which was really unequal. My parents never had a real possibility to study and have a higher education. We decided in the 1960s that we would provide a free quality education to all. Even universities are free of charge. Equal means that we support everyone and we’re not going to waste anyone’s skills. We don’t know what our kids will turn out like—we can’t know if one first-grader will become a famous composer, or another a famous scientist. Regardless of a person’s gender, background, or social welfare status, everyone should have an equal chance to make the most of their skills. It’s important because we are raising the potential of the entire human capital in Finland. Even if we don’t have oil or minerals or any other natural resources, well, we think human capital is also a valuable resource.
How well do you think Finland’s educational system, one based more squarely on equity rather than high achievement, is working?
We created a school system based on equality to make sure we can develop everyone’s potential. Now we can see how well it’s been working. Last year the OECD tested adults from 24 countries measuring the skill levels of adults aged 16-65, on a survey called the PIAAC (Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies), which tests skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments. Finland scored at or near the top on all measures. But there were differences between age groups. The test showed that all younger Finns who had had a chance to go to compulsory basic school after the reforms had extremely high knowledge; those who were older, and who were educated before the reforms, had average know-how. So, our educational system is creating people who have extremely good skills and strong know-how—a know-how which is created by investing into education. We have small class sizes and everyone is put in the same class, but we support struggling students more than others, because those individuals need more help. This helps us to be able to make sure we can use/develop everyone’s skills and potential.
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?