The Finnish Experience: A Reflection by Jim Flynn, Ed.D.
I had the privilege to participate on a trip to Finland as part of a 22-member team of superintendents, board members, college professors, and graduate students to learn the secret behind the country’s high performance on international tests. We visited with various university professors and representatives who train teachers and principals, visited two schools, met with Fulbright exchange teachers, union representatives, representatives from the Ministry of Education including Dr. Pasi Sahlberg. Our visits gave us a fairly broad perspective of the Finnish education system and many opportunities for dialog, idea exchange, and questions.
Finland has ranked very high in recent years on the Program for International Student Assessments (PISA), sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). PISA is given to 15 year olds every three years in about 74 countries world-wide. It measures performance in reading, math, and science literacy.
My Finnish experience made a profound impact on me as an educational leader. I am particularly interested in the aspect of Finnish culture that contributes to the success of their education system. In addition, I believe the teacher education and preparation system is a big factor in their success. Finally, I am fascinated with the emphasis on multi-lingualism among the Finnish people and its role in the educational success of Finnish students. Interestingly, the Finnish educators I spoke with only viewed the foreign language education as an economic necessity, not as an educational advantage.
The affect of the Finnish culture on the schools and education system were well documented in the literature I read prior to my visit to Finland. In his book Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?, Pasi Sahlberg describes how the values of trust, professionalism, and shared responsibility permeate the education system. Unlike many other contemporary education systems, the Finnish system has not been infected by market-based competition and high-stakes testing policies. Consequently, unhealthy competition has not permeated the system. Additionally, equity is a key cultural attribute supported in Finland. Educational and social policies in the country are inter-twined to support all students. The collective consensus of the country around the well-being of its people, providing a good public education system is evident among everyone we met. They are proud of their welfare programs, as well as their education system.
There is a strong trust-responsibility ethic in Finland. Trust is an important component in the Finnish culture, particularly as it relates to education. The Finnish people trust the Ministry of Education to provide an equitable and high quality system of education, the Ministry of Education trusts the municipalities and schools to do their part, principals trust their teachers, and in turn the teachers trust their students. One reason it seems to work is the strong ethic around responsibility. Finnish schools, and I assume families do as well, emphasize self-initiative, teamwork, and a positive outlook which leads to a culture of self-regulation, trust, and personal responsibility. Interestingly, it was noted that almost every presenter in their introductions to us clearly articulated their responsibilities besides telling their name and job title.
It appears this strong commitment to a trust-responsibility culture works in Finland. They have no accountability tests until the very end of secondary education with the National Matriculation Exam. Teachers and schools are not closely monitored. In fact, principals rarely observe classrooms. Teacher evaluations are mainly self-evaluations. Teachers generally meet with their principal annually to discuss their professional development needs. However, there is no formal evaluation of the teacher. Students are trusted as well. We observed students going to recess and the cafeteria by themselves. The students are expected to self-regulate according to the expectations of the school.
Students not only receive a high quality education system, they are entitled to any welfare service they may need for full engagement in their educational program. These services include general health and dental care. Additionally, all students in basic education receive free meals. Students with disabilities are screened early for intervention services. Again, the Finns are proud of these systems that enhance the well-being of all students.
In Finland, teachers are revered and respected in the culture. Because of the societal reverence along with the autonomy and independence they enjoy in their work, teaching attracts many of the best and brightest individuals. Interestingly, teachers in Finland get paid similarly to teachers in America. However, the autonomy and societal respect make teaching one of the most desirable careers in Finland. They typically have thousands of applicants for a very limited number of admissions with about 10% being admitted to teacher education programs. The Ministry of Education limits the number of openings in the university teacher education programs. This makes these programs even more competitive and desirable.
Clearly the Finnish culture makes a big difference in their educational success. Interestingly, some of the core tenants of the culture of education are very different from those found in the United States and Kentucky. We are steeped in a system of high stakes testing and accountability, moving toward more standardization, and make competition among schools and students a major emphasis. All of these policy initiatives erode the trust-responsibility ethic we desire in our schools. It is essential we deliver exceptional leadership to offset the impact of these policy maneuvers and focus our professional educators and students on the learning process and developing an effective character ethic for success.
As I shared earlier, the teaching profession attracts many of the best and brightest students. Consequently, Finnish universities can be highly selective in teacher education. As a result, the universities take more responsibility for teacher quality in Finland. They do the front end work of screening candidates and training them for their work in schools. The clinical experience component seems to be very powerful and provide student teachers with experience in the classroom with significant feedback prior to graduation. Subject teachers do advanced study in their content areas at the master’s level as part of their preparation, while classroom teachers also are required to earn a master’s degree. This high level of training with talented people has had a profound impact on the student performance outcomes including PISA.
Another big take-away from my experience and research is the apparent power of the language development programs in Finland. I contend that one of the powerful different makers for Finland is the fact that their students study multiple languages annually throughout their schooling. All students learn Finnish, Swedish, and at least one other language (mostly English). In fact, most schools begin teaching English in the 3rd grade. Many students take an additional foreign language before completing their studies. There is evidence that early language development can change the brain and improve overall academic success. Though the Finns see the multi-lingual education as an economic necessity, it may be a key component in their success.
Finally, the idea of "school is school" is interesting and may play an important role in the success of Finnish schools. Schools in Finland mainly deliver classroom instruction. Beyond that, the schools offer very limited activities. Athletics is mostly delivered through community athletic clubs. The arts are often integrated in the classrooms, but many of the performing arts programs occur outside the school as well. Several of the Finnish educational leaders pointed out that “school is school” as one of the advantages they have over American schools.
Jamie Vollmer, an American businessman and educational advocate, speaks about how the American society keeps piling on programs and initiatives in our schools that are not really education issues. It seems that schools in America are the preferred conduit to solving all our societal issues. However, this approach may weaken what we are really designed to do - help kids learn! I realize this is not an easy fix, but it may need to be more of the conversation with our policy makers at all levels. I will qualify this by emphasizing that many of our extra-curricular programs are wonderful additions and enhance the educational experience of our students. I would never want to give up our athletic, arts, and other academic programs that are not explicitly part of the school’s classroom academic program. I believe these programs provide students with niches and a sense of belonging. Additionally, many of these teach important skills of teamwork, creativity, persistence, and good communication. However, there are add-ons in our schools that may not belong and this issue needs more attention in Kentucky and the USA.
In closing, this experience affirms the power of the culture in all aspects of life, including our work as educators. Finnish culture plays an important role in the success of their schools. I believe they adhere to a set of values, beliefs, and principles that affects behaviors of the people in positive ways regarding education. I believe we can learn something from these principles: trust-based responsibility, a well-being focus, customization, and collaboration vs. competition. Additionally, the quality of teachers in Finnish schools is a game changer. High quality teachers make a huge difference in student achievement and Finland has developed a system to produce the teachers they need for success. Finally, I believe the teaching of multiple languages in Finnish schools makes a difference in their academic performance.
What impact did this experience have for me as leader within the context of my organization?
From a practical application, I am very interested in exploring ways to bring foreign language instruction into our elementary and middle schools at a much more prominent level. We currently have Chinese language, but it is limited and our Chinese teachers focus more on culture sharing in the lower grades. I met recently with Dr. Jacque Van Houten, World Language and International Education Consultant for the Kentucky Department of Education. She gave me some good ideas and leads on schools to visit for learning more about implementing a P-12 foreign language program. Additionally, I have done some background research about the impact of P-12 foreign language programs on student learning and achievement. The findings are exciting and enhance my resolve to overcome the financial barriers to implementing a comprehensive foreign language program in my school district.
Another exciting development is the possibility of a clinical practice model partnership with Western Kentucky University and Franklin Simpson High School. The Kentucky Council on Post-Secondary Education is offering grants to selected universities to use a clinical practice model for preparing teacher education students. The model they presented to us has many similarities with the Finnish model. This may be a good first step in improving teacher quality at the university training level, rather than much of the responsibility falling on school district post-hire which is costly.
Lastly, I am going to work even harder to cultivate an environment in our school district around the trust-responsibility character ethic frame similar to what we experienced in Finland. Our district is beginning the journey of implementing the Leader in Me Program, which is based on Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I believe this effort will drive our culture more toward a trust-responsibility culture where people take personal responsibility for their actions by being proactive, beginning with the end in mind, and putting first things first. Additionally, this effort will enhance our ability to find win-win solutions, listening to understand others, and looking for ways to synergize with others. These efforts will help us develop students who are academically and socially prepared for college and/or careers, as well as provide our employees with a satisfying and exhilarating career that makes a difference in the lives’ of others!
The Finnish Experience has been a life-altering opportunity for me as an individual and educational leader. I am honored to have had this experience and look forward to sharing what I learned with others and pursuing the initiatives and ideas I’ve shared.
Hargreaves, A., Halasz, G., & Pont, P. (2007). School leadership for systematic improvement in Finland: A case study report for the OECD activity improving school leadership. Paris:OECD. Retrieved from School Leadership for Systemic Improvement in Finland.
Partranen, A. (2011). What Americans keep ignoring about Finland's school success. Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/**
Sahlberg, Pasi. (2011). Finnish lessons. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Kupiainen, S., Hautamaki, J., and Karjalainen, T. (2009). The Finnish education system and PISA. Helsinki, Finland. Ministry of Education Publications.
Foreign Language Research Resources: