In Finland, Kids Learn Computer Science Without Computers

Students can learn the basics with a set of knitting needles.

Thomas Peter / Reuters

The Finns are pretty bemused by Americans’ preoccupation with whether to put iPads in every classroom. If a tablet would enhance learning, great. If it wouldn’t, skip it. Move on. The whole thing is a little tilting-at-windmills, anyway.

That was the gist of the conversation one recent morning at the Finnish Embassy in Washington, D.C., where diplomats and experts gathered to celebrate the country’s education accomplishments as Finland turns 100. And Americans could stand to take notes. (Yes, from Finland—again.)

Coding and programming are now part of the curriculum in the Scandinavian country, and they’re subjects kids tackle from a young age. But unlike in some parts of the United States where learning to code is an isolated skill, Finnish children are taught to think of coding and programming more as tools to be explored and utilized across multiple subjects.

That mindset aims to accomplish a couple of things: to make coding and programming accessible to kids with a variety of interests, and to show students why understanding how technology works is relevant to their lives by linking its use to a multitude of activities.

Linda Liukas is a Finnish programmer, author, and illustrator who has worked with teachers in Finland (and a few early adopters in the United States) to make technology less of a mystery to both instructors and students. She’s created a whimsical character named Ruby (and penned a series of Hello Ruby books) who can guide even very young children unwittingly through the basics of programming in a variety of school environments. If kids are in a physical-education class, students can act out the concept of a loop (essentially a sequence) by putting on a favorite tune and repeating a series of dance steps. Clap, clap, stomp, stomp, jump! The class can learn about different types of loops by adding other specifications—say, having students close their eyes—to the sequence or modifying it.

In art class, kids can learn about loops by knitting, which is, after all, a sequence of stitches that sometimes vary and sometimes stay the same. Kids who are enchanted by stories can be introduced through storytelling to the foundational idea that specific outcomes require particular instructions in a particular order. In one of the Ruby stories, Ruby’s dad tells the redheaded youngster to get dressed. So Ruby does—by putting her clothes on over her pajamas. Only when he specifies that she should take off her pajamas and put on fresh day clothes does Ruby’s father get the result he was looking for: a properly attired Ruby ready to face the day.

Liukas pushes back at the idea that children are already tech-savvy simply because they seem to be able to navigate an iPhone intuitively. She’s particularly fond of this quote from the American computing professor Mark Guzdial:

We want students to understand what a computer can do, what a human can do, and why that’s different. To understand computing is to have a robust mental model of a notional machine.

In other words, knowing how to use something isn’t the same as understanding how it works. And because programming can be taught in so many ways, Liukas said, it can be an opportunity for kids to learn lots of related skills, such as how to collaborate, how to tell a story, and how to think creatively.

“This demands a lot from the teachers, obviously,” Liukas said during a presentation at the embassy event. This is true in the sense that incorporating coding and programming lessons across disciplines requires all kinds of educators, from the science teacher to the art teacher, to understand the basics. But it’s also a manageable challenge in Finland because teachers there have more autonomy than American teachers when it comes to how and what they teach, and they aren’t constantly evaluated by how their students score on standardized tests.

This is where the argument that it’s supposedly not fair to compare Finland to the United States because the former is much smaller, more homogenous, and more egalitarian often comes in. But Samuel Abrams, a professor at Columbia University and the author of a book about the push to privatize education in the United States, challenges that narrative. Abrams, who outlined his research at the embassy, compared Finland’s high marks on international education tests to those produced by other, similarly sized Nordic countries that are also relatively more homogenous and egalitarian than the United States. Those countries—Sweden, Denmark, and Norway—score lower than Finland and more in line with America.

Finland, Abrams argued, sees education as a mode of nation building and economic development because it has to. While Norway has oil and Sweden has minerals and Denmark has banking, Finland has the brains of its citizens. And while Finland is today considered a frontrunner on education, that wasn’t always the case. The country was hit hard by World War II and focused in part on bolstering its education system to rebound, implementing a series of reforms in the 1970s. By 1979, teachers needed a master’s degree. Today, class sizes are small, teachers are paid well compared to their college classmates who study other disciplines, and the country only opens as many teacher training spaces as it needs, meaning fewer than 10 percent of those who want to teach are accepted. Crucially, teachers are trained, Abrams said, to be “a guide on the side as opposed to a sage on the stage.”

And while it is true that teachers in Finland typically aren’t grappling with issues like extreme poverty that American teachers face, and that teachers and the public-education system in Finland seem to, on the whole, command more respect from their communities, it is also true that the United States could take steps to improve its own education system and command that respect. Abrams would like to see an end to annual testing, and a move toward “sampling” when testing is necessary. Doctors don’t remove every ounce of blood when they want to run tests on a patient, he pointed out dryly. He also thinks teachers should be paid more (which he argues would help with turnover and quality) and have more say over what they teach. The issue, of course, is political will. But he has little patience for the notion that the United States is somehow incapable of educating its students better.

When it comes to technology, it’s hard to evaluate just how well the Finnish approach is working. Computer science isn’t covered on international tests, and it’s a relatively recent addition to the curriculum. But Liukas and others point to Finnish inventions like Linux and Nokia as evidence that the country’s education system sparks the innovation and entrepreneurship that will drive the tech-based economy of the future. And while the United States is obviously a different beast than Finland, with a host of challenges, as Liukas tells the children she meets, “Even the biggest problems in the world are just tiny problems stuck together.”