Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Finland schools

"When we want the elephant to grow we don't measure it, we feed it." -a typical Finland School response to comparison with American education.

Pat Bassett's report on Finland Schools was fascinating, adding a great deal to my own understanding, and most of what I share here is based on what Pat reported at the ISACS conference. Here in the US, teachers are drawn from the bottom 3rd of college graduates, but in Finland teachers come from the top 10%. How can a small nation be so effective at bringing its best and brightest into schools?

First, it is not the money (teachers aren't paid that much) but rather, teaching is afforded a high status in Finnish society. Teachers are highly trained with a masters degree being required. Then, teachers are given a great deal of autonomy in the classroom. They design their own curriculum to fit the loose national guidelines. In other words, you hire the best, and then trust them to do the noble work of educating the nation.

Actually, what Pat reported about Finland Schools is a lot like what we already have here at Clear Spring School, so educators could save a great deal of money by coming here instead. The first similarity is the trust and autonomy given the teaching staff. They are given the opportunity to become excited about their work as a creative art form. Students in classrooms are divided 3 age groups to a class, allowing the teacher to fine tune and personalize lessons to meet a variety of comprehension levels within the same class. This alleviates the concerns some children may face of being left behind in particular subject areas. It also means that an individual teacher has a greater opportunity to know each child's distinct learning needs. In Finland, as in Clear Spring School few text books are used, and the teachers are trusted to plan flexible lessons to capture and follow innate student interests.

And now we get down to the important part. Play. Finland schools recognize the value of play. Even in the worst weather (bitter cold) and during the long winter (dark even at noon) Finland students play out of doors for 30 minutes each day during school hours, and then attend after school recreation centers. Educators in Finland better understand the workings of the brain and know that physical activity is required to anchor intellectual concepts. Here in the US, our schools have little time for play and have nearly completely forgotten its value in learning. In some schools, recess has been eliminated to provide more time for classroom studies. We are often too busy measuring the elephant as required by No Child Left Behind legislation to allow its feeding and growth. While we are pushing hard for kindergarten students to read, Finland students start at age 8 and far surpass American students by 8th grade while American students are spinning wheels and wasting time that could have been better spent in developmental play and creative activities.

And I can't help but say something more about the hands. In Finland, kindergarten teachers are taught at the university to incorporate woodworking in their lesson, and craft (sloyd or käsityön) activities are an important part of the school curriculum throughout grades 1 through 9.


  1. I've been enjoying your ISACS conference posts - especially these last two on education in Finland. Thanks!

  2. Anonymous4:57 PM

    If I had known this when I started out as a teacher 35 years ago, I would have been very tempted to move to Finland.


  3. Mario, 35 years ago, Finland was a small country sitting at the edge of the cold war, and the Soviets weren't being very nice. They have become a bit more confident to take part in international affairs now that Estonia, Latvia and others have escaped Russian domination. It might not have been so much fun to live there back then.

  4. Doug,

    Very true in re: 35 years ago, but things evolve...some for the better, some for the worse. Finland's philosophy about the elephant is most telling about their approach to education. I suspect that most reasonable people understand and know this! Why haven't we evolved the same way? I won't begin now to get into itemizing the answers.

    The Finnish concept of hiring good people and getting out of their way is one that I profess daily. I really don't think that is happening in American education. Yes, many of our teachers are good, but we are not attracting the brightest and best, mainly because the teaching profession is not held up to where it should be...the MOST important job in the world.

    It is truly sad. We had a brief exchange earlier about your ideas about going back to school. What I think is more important is bottling what you do at Clear Spring. Well, not bottling literally, but starting other Clear Springs. You can do that. You are eloquent, passionate, and exceptionally competent. Remember my comment about Maria Montessori. She must have started out just like this.

    I resonate so much with what you are doing, particularly as I see more and more about what is happening in public and higher education. Can someone make a difference? Yes, I think so. But it is hard work and takes time. You are obviously devoted to making a difference, and I would love to have more discussions with you about how that can happen.

    Keep up the good work...


  5. JD, there are a number of things that I would be looking for if I go back to school. One would be mentoring, concerning how to bring the Clear Spring School story to greater public awareness and to help me navigate the world of academic journals. Most people see independent schools as being completely unrelated to what goes on in public education, and so universities have very little awareness of what we do.

    I have a meeting scheduled with the former dean of graduate education at U of A this Thursday, so I will get a chance to see if they are interested in making things work for me. On the one hand, it seems that I am asking for very special treatment which they may not feel compelled to offer. On the other, I feel that for a graduate school to have an open door to a school like Clear Spring and a program like the Wisdom of the Hands would be an incredible opportunity, if they are wise enough to see it and grasp it.

  6. Doug,

    Forgive me for being sour grapes in advance of your meeting. Maybe it will turn out better than I expect...

    I don't think academic journals are the way to go with this. Who reads academic journals? Other academics. You have to ask yourself if that is the group you need to reach. I don't think so.

    Isn't the success of Clear Spring School due largely to the parents of those students enrolled who BELIEVE in what you stand for and what you do? Do they read the academic journals? Or do they just want what is best and right for tier children? I know you are in tune with this :)

    Although I have never met you, I feel as if I know you so very well via your blog. I hope that your meeting will result in positive outcomes. Forgive the skeptic in me... I will be eager to hear the results of your conversation.

    In my humble opinion, you already have going on what needs to go on... I'm not convinced that U of A has anything to offer to you...(Yikes, that is coming from a DEAN in a major higher education institution!!! Maybe it is time for me to retire...).

    Good luck, my friend. Please let me know how it all goes. I will keep my fingers crossed for positive outcomes...


  7. Anonymous8:47 AM

    Yes, feed the elephant but if what you're feeding it isn't making it grow, then without measuring the elephant you'll never know that. You'll then keep replicating your mistake on elephant food and nothing will change. That's not a recipe for success on any level.

  8. Anonymous,
    Standardized testing is not the only way to measure the elephant's growth. Teachers used various observed benchmarks long before standardized testing began. For instance, my mother used skipping as an indicator of left-right brain integration as a means to note reading readiness.

    By taking observation out of the hands of teachers and standardizing the measurement method, you can get away with having less teacher training and sensitivity, or at least that appears to be the theory. However, if you follow the other measurement methods, you see that 30 percent of students are dropping out prior to the completion of high school and a huge proportion need remediation to bring them up to college standards.

    So my point in reference to your comment is that standardized testing is not the only way to weigh an elephant. They grow and you would have to be brain dead to miss it. You might want to check out Arnold Gesell who chronicled milestones for child development at certain ages.