Monday, September 10, 2012

Finnish Education - Focused on High Quality Education For All

 KRISTI WETPHALEN, Council General of Finland in Los Angeles, was at UAA today.  She had a lunch meeting at the Institute for Social and Economic Education (ISER) titled FINLAND AND ALASKA: A CONVERSATION ABOUT ARCTIC POLICY.

Since I posted on Sea Ice a last Thursday, I've started poking around on the topic of Arctic oil drilling and thought maybe I could get some information at the lunch.  There were about 30 folks there, including the Lt. Governor who has had a long interest in the Arctic.

Basically it was an exploration meeting to find areas where Finland and Alaska could work together from oil exploration to tourism and northern architecture and design.

Then this evening Consul General Wetphalen showed a US made film by a Harvard professor Tony Wagner on Finnish education.  After publishing a book entitled The Global Achievement Gap, Wagner was invited by the Finland Board of Education to discuss with them the skills all students need today.  He says he accepted the invitation because Finland's schools are ranked number 1 in the world by many.  Film maker Bob Compton went along and the result is the film we saw tonight.  Here's a trailer which is the opening of the film and identifies the issues the film will discuss about Finnish education.

 The rest of the film follows Tony Wagner during his visit to Finnish schools and talks to Finnish students and educators about their education system.  You can watch the whole film here at  [I couldn't get the embed code to work. But I'll leave it in and maybe it will show up on some people's browsers.]
[It does work. Click the little image below. It has a Chinese language ad, but then the movie starts, in English, without the intro.]
You can watch the whole movie here.  I think every American who has an opinion on education should watch this to either get support for their ideas or to expand what they think is possible.
[On this website it didn't have the ad and kept the opening that's in the trailer above.]

Some key factors about the Finnish system that are touted in the film include:

  1. Emphasis on teaching how to think rather than to memorize and repeat
    1. Ratio of student talking/doing time v. teacher talking/doing target is 60% student to 40% teacher
    2. National curriculum is not detailed, local schools and teachers have lots of leeway
    3. No national exams (in the movie the emphasis on no exams was misleading and afterward I asked one of the Finns there and she said they have tests in individual classes, but no national standardized exams)
    4. Students do lots of projects which where they must gather knowledge and make sense of it on their own  (with teacher oversight)
  2. Emphasis on teacher education and the status of teachers
    1. Entrance into university education programs is highly competitive - only 10% are accepted
    2. Teacher education is highly collaborative and students get lots of teaching experience, are critiqued by their classmates and mentors
  3. Trust in teachers and students 
    1. This was mentioned as an important part.  By giving students responsibility for their own learning in many projects, they let students pursue projects that interest them within the topic area and without an authoritarian setup, students live up to the trust
    2. Teachers are also trusted to do their work well (and since they pick the best to become teachers this seems to work well)
    3. It took a long time to put this trust principle into practice
Finnish Consul (LA) Kristi Wetphalen and UAA Chancellor Case

Someone in the film said that they went to this radical change in their school system about 25 years ago, because they realized that with their small population and few other natural resources, they couldn't afford to waste any of their human resources.  

 They also have a very serious vocational education track, but it's structured to not be a dead end.  Those who graduate in this track, can come back and take the academic track or go to university later if they choose. 

I watched this as a retired professor who has found much of this on my own.  Where I practiced these principles, they tended to work.  I could also see that my vision of what could be done here was limited because of the restrictions I worked under -  a university system that didn't embrace these concepts and required things such as grades and limited resources particularly time.  But at least at the University level, I was trusted to teach the way I thought best and many if not most other faculty lived up to those expectations.

Often it was hard to get students who had been in a much more top down system for most of their educations to adjust to more freedom in class.  Often they wanted the teacher to tell them what to do and how to do it.  But good students responded well to this.  I think about my students in Beijing who went through a very high pressure, teacher oriented, rote learning system.  They very quickly embraced the greater freedom and participation options in my class.

I also saw this work at my daughter's optional school - Steller Secondary - in the Anchorage School District, where students and parents where very much involved in the education and the students simply stepped up and took much more responsibility for their education.  

There are a number of issues I can raise about how this might not work in the US.  But I have no doubt it would work in the classroom.  The problems will be political, from current teachers who don't want to change (but there would also be teachers who would embrace this), to parents who want more structure and discipline and narrowly defined curriculum, to politicians who want accountability through standardized testing, or who simply want public school money spent at private schools, to religious groups who do not want students whose new found thinking skills might be used to challenge their orthodoxy. 

But most Americans seem to think there are problems with our school system, they just disagree on what the problems are and how to fix them.  This video shows how one country fixed them.  What is significant is that this country is recognized through international testing happens to come out on top worldwide for overall educational quality. 


  1. Study of Finland's educational system should somehow be mandatory, as part of the college education major's curriculum. Judy and I hope to visit Finland in the future, looking at some of the growing differences between how their society approaches 21st century problems from the ways we are doing that here in Alaska (and the USA).

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