Because life is a series of edits

On The Finland Phenomenon

In Education on May 6, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Today is a teacher in-service day, so I thought I'd spend a few minutes here processing a documentary on education that our staff just watched. The film is called The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World's Most Surprising School System and is produced by the same man who did Two Million Minutes: The 21st-Century Solution (we watched that one at a spring in-service two years ago – my notes are here). The write-up:

The Finland Phenomenon is a documentary that features Dr. Tony Wagner, a researcher at Harvard University and author of The Global Achievement Gap. Wagner narrates and also appears in the film interviewing Finnish students of Education. The documentary's take on Finnish education is that "less is more," citing Finland's view of homework, for example. The active role of a student is also recognized as vital to Finland's success.

Teachers are highly esteemed in Finland, and only the best and brightest are encouraged to pursue and are accepted into the teaching profession. The film greatly credits teacher preparedness, ongoing on-site professional development, and teacher-to-teacher observations. "The norm," as one Finnish educator points out, "is we're going to watch each other teach all the time." Finnish teachers work together in PLCs (professional learning communities) to help students learn and achieve at high levels.

The film is only an hour long and some of my colleagues expressed a wariness of its gushing review of Finland, both as a nation and educational leader (from 2000-2009, Finland was ranked #1 in education). Part of this concern had much to do with the fact that the film presents little critique of Finland either culturally or pedagogically, nor does it seem to recognize the fact that Finland is much more homogenous than the United States and therefore much less complicated culturally, politically, and philosophically on the topic of educating kids (the film does try to compare populations to that of the U.S. state of Minnesota, but the comparison is brief and inconclusive at best). For the most part, I agreed with my colleagues' critiques, though they did not take away my appreciation for what Finland has been able to accomplish.

The fact is that Finland, particularly in the past 25 years, has really figured some things out on the educational front. And, while few of their discoveries seem little more than common sense, their commitment to functioning within and by what they've discovered (or re-discovered) is to be admired. It may seem naive, but Finland seems to be proving that education is not rocket science when an entire culture adopts a "less is more" mentality concerning it; if anything, "less is more" seems to work. Some notes:

  • Parents in Finland value education much more than their foreign counterparts and the state views its students as its top natural resource.
  • Teachers are taught and trained with a mentality more focused on job performance than job security. As part of this effort, newer teachers develop lesson plans in conjunction with more experienced "master" teachers, evaluating and revising, teaching (with the master teacher observing the lesson), and then briefly meeting together once more for feedback and adjustment. This happens often and with a goal of simplicity rather than complexity.
  • The goal of teachers' lessons is to teach students how to think and to give them opportunity to engage with the material. The hope is that the teacher would only speak around 40% of the time and student questions, analysis, and discussion would make up the other 60% of the time.
  • Finland's curricula provides tracks for academic and vocational education, and there is no perceived attitude or stigma for either but nobility for both. There is also flexibility in students being able to go back and forth throughout their schooling years as the student's interests and abilities change and grow. (For more on the America's need for more vocational training, read this Washington Post article, just published today.)
  • Finland's educational system emphasizes helping all students embrace, develop, and pursue understanding through their own learning style, not sacrificing a student's love for learning on the altar of educational uniformity. There seems less of a concern for general rules and dress codes and instead a focusing of efforts and energies on the responsibilities of citizenship (interestingly, in addition to Finland's number one ranking in education, it is also considered the least corrupt nation in the world; the U.S. is something like 23rd).
  • While the state sets a national core curriculum, trust and responsibility are given to local municipalities and schools to customize and shape the curriculum as each sees fit. Equality and equity in every student's educational opportunity is in the forefront of the administrations' minds; as a result, schools and classes are much smaller in Finland, with 20 often being the most in a classroom.
  • Trust (rather than compliance) is the key motivator and glue that holds together the Finnish educational system. There is a much greater sense of governmental alignment and unity from the top down, teachers seems more open to evaluation and criqitue by peers, and students address teachers by their first names as a way of breaking down barriers rather than building them up.
  • In a nutshell (and as summarzied in the film), the "business" of school in Finland is learning; sports or other extra-curriculars may be part of that process, but they do not supercede the academic/vocational aspects.

Personally, this film was much more inspiring to me as an educator than 2 Million Minutes as it resonated a bit more with my Midwest sensibilities. I suppose preparing students for the global marketplace is important to a degree, but sheer competition can't be the only driving force behind why and how we educate our kids, especially from a Christian perspective. Our kids are people, not products.

No, the need we face in education calls for a virtues-centered, character-shaping, culture-contributing system in which students learn a wide variety of facts, practice sorting and synthesizing those facts with truth, and are encouraged and equipped to express said synthesized factual truth in wise and winsome ways that benefit the world (and not just their personal careers).

To do anything less is to fail another generation of kids. And ask yourself this question, America: how many failed generations can we really afford?

(For another simple but good perspective on a high school education, see Seth Godin's post today entitled "What's High School For?" Again, I love the simplicity here.)

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  1. I agree with your insights, and I thank you for processing this for us to read. I too found the film inspiring in many ways. One thing that I would add is that the they do not view an education as a commodity for which to compete. In America, most people see academic degrees as products to work for and pay for, in order to compete to get a good job, which will hopefully pay back that investment in future income – much like buying bars of gold or stocks. In Finland, there is no poverty (which is another reason you can’t compare it to the US); it’s a successful socialist state, and people are generally very content, much like the other Scandinavian nations. They truly value education as a process, not a product; it’s not a series of hassles to endure to get up the rungs of a ladder. Our nation raises kids to race and compete to get ahead (Race to Nowhere). As an educator, I envy their situation in which education is a community affair, supported by all. It seems like a different world.

  2. Well said, Andy. Thanks for reading and sharing your own thoughts here. I, too, marveled at the contentment expressed by their students and found it a much more refreshing perspective than the increasingly-elusive American Dream so many of our students have been trained to pursue.

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