Tag Archives: Finland


This is the second part in a series of blog posts sharing what I learned during my visit to Finland May 3-14, 2013.

Before leaving for Finland I read articles and blogs, and watched videos like Pasi Sahlberg’s TED Talk  and “The Finland Phenomenon” (http://vimeo.com/32210434). I wanted to learn about all the amazing teaching and learning going on in Finnish schools. I arrived expecting to see engaging, dynamic lessons that would blow away anything happening here in the US. I was expecting Finnish schools to look drastically different than American schools with thoughtfully designed creative learning spaces, and state of the art classrooms. I was expecting to see classes full of focused, attentive students, actively participating and producing awe-inspiring projects.

That’s the problem with expectations. They are used as a measuring stick to evaluate what we see. “This exceeded my expectations.” “That did not meet my expectations.” Expectations put an ideas in our heads and focus our attention to look only for certain things and not notice important details that fall outside that focus. My colleague Janet warned me not to let my observations be skewed by expectations, but rather to go in without any expectations at all and see the teachers, schools, and students for what they really are. I’m thankful for her advice. I’ve now had several days to process what we saw, heard, and talked about.

The Finnish schools I saw did not look that much different from schools in the US. Desks, chalkboards – yes I said, chalkboards. Student artwork decorates the halls. What I noticed is how clean and well maintained they were. Students walk the halls in socks – they are trained to leave their outside shoes by the door to prevent tracking in snow and dirt. I didn’t see an abundance of technology. The school in Ivalo had a computer lab not unlike those at many US schools, and the school in Utsjoki had a distance learning room equipped with a SmartBoard, but overall they were not equipped as well as many schools here in the states. Now I admit, we were visiting rural schools 200+ kilometers above the arctic circle, but Janet informed me that while there are some schools that feature some pretty innovative learning spaces, most are what we would recognize at typical schools.

Finnish teachers I met know their students personally. The schools I visited were small rural schools but I was told that even the largest schools in Finland don’t have more than several hundred students. This allows teachers time to build relationships, and develop an understanding of individual student needs. Teachers stress less about themselves and all they are required to teach, but focus more on each student and what they need in order to learn. Isn’t that what differentiation is all about?

One major difference between Finnish and American schools is that these teachers do not have all the standards we do. In fact, they don’t have “standards” at all. Instead their national core curriculum has “objectives”. These objectives are a lot more open-ended, like essential questions, and allow teachers to design lessons and activities that get students asking their own questions, thinking critically, and solving problems. Individual schools are in charge of their own curriculum and teachers are free to decide the best methods for teaching their students.

Here are a few examples of their objectives:

Biology (Grades 5-6)

  • learn to move about in the natural environment and observe and investigate nature outdoors
  • come to understand that people depend on the rest of nature in their food production
  • take responsibility for their own actions and take others into consideration

Physics (Grades 7-9)

  • learn to plan and carry out scientific investigation in which variables affecting natural phenomena are held constant and varied and correlations among the variables are found out

History (Grades 5-6)

  • understand that historical information consists of the interpretations of historians which may change as new sources or methods of investigation emerge
  • learn to identify the continuity of history with the aid of examples
  • learn to present reasons for historical changes

Math (Grades 1 -2)

  • learn to justify their solutions and conclusions by means of pictures and concrete models or tools, in writing or orally; and to find similarities, differences, regularities and cause-and-effect relationships between phenomena
  • become practiced in making observations about mathematical problems that come up and are challenging and important from their personal standpoints

Source: http://www.oph.fi/english/sources_of_information/core_curricula_and_qualification_requirements/basic_education

If you look at their national core curriculum you’ll see, listed under their objectives for each subject area, core contents to be integrated into these objectives. The emphasis appears to be on practical examples, real world experiences, problem solving, and critical thinking rather than lists of facts to be memorized and tested. I encourage you to check them out for yourself.

The Finnish teachers we saw don’t take home stacks of homework to grade. The teachers I observed check to make sure homework is done, but that homework has little effect on students grades. Proof that students understand and meet the objectives is determined by assessments and student projects.  The don’t send home progress reports, but do communicate to parents when students are struggling.  I mentioned in my last post that students are trusted with more personal responsibility. This translates to a greater personal responsibility for their own learning as well.

Finland doesn’t have standardized testing like we have in the US, but that doesn’t mean they don’t test. They have one standardized test that all students take when they are 15 years old. They also have a matriculation exam to check and see if students are ready for upper secondary school and another one to determine if students go to University or Vocational School. The National Board of Education also randomly selects a sampling of basic and secondary schools for testing each year. Here’s the big difference. Those test are developed and administered by the National Board of Education, not private for-profit testing companies, and the purpose of those tests is to see how schools across Finland are doing as whole. These standardized tests are not used to evaluate individual teacher performance or rate schools as good or bad. Schools and teachers are not in competition with each other.

The Finnish teachers I met seem to have great respect for American teachers. In fact, many lesson and projects ideas used in Finnish classrooms come from American teachers. They feel that American teachers are among the best, hardest working teachers in the world, yet they are stuck in a system that is broken. A system that emphasizes picking correct answers over producing products that demonstrate student problem solving and critical thinking.

Wonder what might happen if you took an American teacher and a Finnish teacher and let them switch places? Here is what Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg thinks: “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?” The last three paragraphs of the article answer the question. I’m thinking this might make an interesting TV Show for next Fall: “TeacherSwap”. This is a reality show I might actually watch.

Why Finland?

This is the first part of several blog posts sharing what I learned during my visit to Finland May 3-14, 2013.

You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach as you near the front of the line to ride that scary new roller coaster for the first time?  That’s the best way to describe the feeling I had stepping on to British Airways flight 268 from LAX to London – the first leg of two flights that would take me to Helsinki, Finland. I was full of anticipation and excitement, mixed with a little anxiety. This would be my first ever trip to Europe. After months of mental preparation it was actually happening.

So why Finland? And why was I using my full allotment of personal days and spending my own money to jet off for 11 days in the middle of May? My good friend Janet English (http://eltorofulbright.blogspot.com/) has been in Finland since January on a Fulbright Scholarship studying how Finnish schools teach problem solving. Her project has her visiting schools and interviewing students & teachers all over Finland to get their story. For the last several years Finland schools have been the focus of world attention because of their students high scores on the PISA, an international test that “looks at students’ ability to apply knowledge and skills in key subject areas and to analyse, reason and communicate effectively as they examine, interpret and solve problems.” (http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisafaq/)  When she invited me to join her on an adventure north to visit schools in Lapland, how could I refuse?

I arrived in Helsinki at 11pm local time Friday night. This gave me two nights to adjust to the 10 hour time difference and explore Helsinki before leaving for Lapland. It is a fascinating place and fun to explore. I’m embarrassed to admit that I am fluent in just one language while most Finns speak two or three. When I tried to use some of the VERY limited Finnish I learned online and on Youtube, most people just smiled and answered me in English.  The Finns are very gracious.  By the way, the World Hockey Championships (iihfworlds2013.com) just happened to be starting in Helsinki the day I arrived so finding something to do on Saturday was not an issue. Go Team USA (“Ooo, Ess, Ahh” in Finnish!)


Janet arrived in Helsinki Sunday afternoon, just in time for dinner and another hockey game. Monday morning our adventure to Lapland began. We flew to Ivalo, which is about as far north as commercial airlines will take you in Finland, then drove another two hours north from there to Kevo Subarctic Research Institute (http://www.kevo.utu.fi/en/). This would be our “home base” the next week. Since Kevo is 350km north of the Arctic circle we were blessed with 24 hours of daylight. While the sun would dip below the horizon for a couple of hours it never really got dark. In another month, it won’t even set, but rather just make a 360 degree circle around the horizon.

IMG_20130507_145228The next day we were off on my first school visit, a small Jr/Sr High School in Ivalo. As soon as we arrived the difference between Finnish schools and US schools was evident.  Doors were unlocked.  We just walked in. I admit I was a bit uneasy as we walked the halls. With security such a big issue in US schools, I couldn’t help but feel we needed so sign in somewhere, get a badge, or be escorted by someone official. Janet assured me we were fine. Finnish schools are open like this. When we finally met the school administrator with whom we had arranged our visit I was much more at ease – even though I really had nothing to worry about.

The math teacher created this card with string to help her students understand triangles in geometry and showed me how to fold a rectangular piece of paper into a triangular prism to teach surface area.

She brought us to the English class. Finnish students start studying English in first grade. One the high school students gave us a tour of the school and answered our questions – in English of course. Once again I felt a bit humbled that I only speak one language. We toured the school, observed math, chemistry, and art classes, and joined the Finnish teachers at their table in the cafeteria for lunch. Students here have a lot more independence than their American counterparts.  In this school, they have their own student lounge with couches and coffee. Students (age 15-17) who travel more than 50km to school stay overnight during the week in a building adjacent to the school. There they take care of themselves, even preparing their own meals.

IMG_20130508_100054The next day we visited a smaller school in Utsjoki – at the very top of Finland.  Here we met with their science teacher, a very talented yet humble man. He shared how his students learn principles of science by studying the outdoors right around them. They learn about biology by studying their own environments and how they survive and interact with it. We also met and spoke with a Sami teacher, a native Laplander, who teaches the Sami language to students at their school and others using their distance learning classroom. For lunch we enjoyed a delicious salmon soup in the cafeteria, and then met with students in the English class.  There we talked with them, in English, about life in Southern California. Our life is quite a contrast from theirs.  They wanted to know about Los Angeles, earthquakes, and life a metropolitan area that has more people than their entire country.  It was a good opportunity to let them hear that there is more to America and Americans than just what they see in the media.  Conversely, their lives are quite different from anything I could imagine growing up.  One of the students in the class actually works as a reindeer herder.  I suppose the definition of “fast food” is a little different here, but that’s not a bad thing.  In fact I found reindeer quite tasty.

That’s me sitting on a reindeer hide roasting reindeer sausage over a fire inside the “kota” (a teepee) at Kevo.