The month is October, and already schools around the nation are in full swing. Thousands of American high school students are piling up coursework from their AP classes, cramming frantically for tests, and giving up sleep in favor of their GPAs– but this is nothing new for them, they’ve been doing so their entire high school careers. Many of them have never been given another option; in this increasingly-competitive academic system, it’s study ‘til you drop or lose. So it may come as a surprise that this is not the case in all parts of the world: something incredible has been happening in the classrooms of Finland that’s turned the traditional school system on its head to staggering success.
A 2016 study released by Central Conneticut State University that surveyed literacy and literate behaviors in over 60 nations revealed Finland to be the most literate of them, surpassing the USA along with Great Britain and Canada. Indeed, Finland has consistently ranked at the top for its students’ results on the Program for International Student Assessments (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in 65 nations around the world. 93% of Finnish students complete secondary school, compared to 75.5% in the US. However, this was not always the case: before the 1970s, Finland suffered from significant educational inequalities in substandard institutions hampered by bureaucracy. It only recently began to rebuild its system from scratch, based largely on one key principle.
“Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” explains Olli Luukkainen, who has been president of Finland’s impressive teachers’ union since 2011. At a first glance at the Nordic nation’s education system fails to confirm this, with school days that are far shorter than the rest of the world, children that don’t begin classes until the age of 7, and a system that spends 30% less per student than the US. Numerous breaks and recesses are interspersed between classes, offering children outdoor playtime even during the brutal winters. Finland’s also known to assign the least amount of homework compared to other industrialized countries. It takes looking at the bigger picture to understand the attitudes and values behind Finnish education, and why they’re integral to its triumph. Schools in Finland have adopted an approach that puts learning before testing, and also stresses community-building and students’ wellbeing.
Writes William Doyle for the Hechinger Report of the Finnish classroom’s atmosphere: “Instead of control, competition, stress, standardized testing, screen-based schools and loosened teacher qualifications, try warmth, collaboration, and highly professionalized, teacher-led encouragement and assessment.” Schooling in Finland is built on the foundation of cooperation rather than competition; as such, the only standardized test available is the National Matriculation Exam, taken at the end of students’ last year of high school. Lists of school and teacher rankings are unheard of, and Finland boasts no advanced programs nor does it offer the option of private schooling. Children with learning disabilities are taught in the same classrooms as academically-gifted children, but due to the small class sizes that have become standard there, teachers are able to provide adequate support to struggling students in a manner that has ultimately worked to lessen inequalities in their classrooms.
What’s more, the nation has nearly eliminated educational inequalities causing the constantly-widening gap of opportunity between the wealthy and the impoverished, something America’s system has failed to remedy. In Finland, students living below the poverty line are given the same quality and intensity of education as those well above it, meaning that they’re offered the possibility for upward social mobility in a manner difficult to find elsewhere in the world. Finland is among the countries spending the most money on education, offering free education at all levels in addition to a free meal daily in all grade schools. Medical care, taxi service and counseling are among the other resources Finnish schools provide to students.
Admittedly, it’s not a perfect system, but no system would be without its faults. Social and financial pressures abound within it; the system may be in decline and controversy surrounds a recent proposal of moving away from traditional subjects. This doesn’t change the fact that we have something to learn from this republic of 5.4 million, because they’ll have us beat in this category until we begin to consider and implement educational reforms that are, most importantly, equal-opportunity. Come on– step it up, America.
This article was written by Jade Carraway, a writer for dusk magazine.