Let’s talk about Finland: Lessons learned

In this post I am going to share some observations of my time in Finland in late 2016. For a thorough understanding of the Finnish education system I recommend that you read:

Sahlberg, P. (2015). Finnish Lessons 2.0. New York: Teachers College Press

25 years ago, Finland’s education system was not considered to be anything special – they made a conscious decision to create a system that was based upon equity. They looked at other systems for ideas, but then they decided to follow their own dream. Peruskoulu is the term used to describe comprehensive school from Years 1– 9 (compulsory schooling goes from ages 7-16).

Now, all children in Finland go to their local school (for free) and there is “little variation in student performance between schools in different parts of the country” (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 6).

Before traveling to Finland in 2016 to spend time in schools and preschools, I read Sahlberg’s book and found it fascinating, but . . . I had this underlying idea that while the Finnish system was impressive, we couldn’t apply their processes here in Australia.  However, having been there in August/Sept 2016 and read Sahlberg’s book for the second time I think we can learn some important lessons from Finland that may make a difference to the learning opportunities for Australian children.

Finland has a smaller population than Australia.  True – but we have state education systems and the only Australian state bigger than Finland is NSW and it isn’t that much bigger. I wonder . . . who would dare?

Finland is not multicultural like Australia. Absolutely true – although they are taking more refugees and things are changing.

But did you know there are three official languages – Finnish, Swedish and Sami and most also speak some English? Finnish is the main language of education, with English introduced in Year 3 (by main stream classroom teachers and taught throughout primary school) and Swedish taught at high school. Many Finnish students leave school with Finnish plus two other languages (Swedish and English). Impressive!

Teaching as a profession is highly regarded and there is stiff competition to be accepted into a 5 year Research based Teacher Education Course. Teacher Education is free, but it is highly competitive. In 2016, the new intake of 90 into the Teacher Education Course at University of Lapland (where I was visiting) had been selected from 1000 applicants. Teachers are respected in the same way as doctors are in Finland. Why not in Australia? What could we do to ensure that Australian teachers were equally well regarded?

Teachers are respected for their knowledge and they are given a great deal of professional freedom – teacher judgement and formative assessment processes are pivotal. Teachers interpret the curriculum to meet the needs of their students. Primary schools teachers usually teach students for at least two years, giving them time to know their students and understand their learning needs. They do swap students to other classes if they feel that the student needs a different teacher.

Teachers in Finland teach less – the Primary School Day (at the schools I visited) goes from 8am-1pm, leaving the afternoon for planning, preparation and professional development.

“In Finland, teachers teach less and students spend less time studying, both in and out of school, than their peers in other countries” (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 14).

I saw no wasted time in these shorter school days. Teaching is quite focused during each 45 minute lesson – I did not ever see a teacher NOT teaching during lesson time – whole class, small group or individual. Many lessons are conducted orally (class and group conversations) with a small amount of book work towards the end of the lesson. The only homework students have is the completion of book work (started in class but not completed). Primary school student who are efficient workers may never have homework.

The school assemblies I observed were limited to one per week – whole school – 10 minutes – the principal was the only speaker – short and sharp.

Starting school – the year children turn 7 in Finland, they start school. My observations of children starting school in August 2016, they are ready to go to school and ready to cope with the expectations of the teachers – they know how to listen, they know how to concentrate, they know how to engage, they know how to communicate, they know how to collaborate. There doesn’t seem to be a rush to get children reading and writing although the process starts on day one of the first year of school. Teachers refer to 9 year old students as ‘beginner readers and writers’.

Free hot lunches – All children in Finland preschools and schools are provided with a freshly prepared hot meal five days per week. They learn to try new things and eat together. This is the right of every child in Finland. The meals are good. I ate with the children while I was visiting, although I, like the teachers, had to pay a small fee for each meal (about 7 Euros). This is an interesting equity decision. No children bring food to school. All children eat the same food. If they have an allergy, they bring a doctor’s certificate and the school kitchen caters for their needs. I saw little of this. All children are encouraged to try a little of everything – and they do.

Creativity – I was amazed to see so much time devoted to create endeavours – art and handicrafts. The art and craft supplies were beautiful quality and time was provided under the careful guidance of the preschool and classroom teachers. Children developed their fine motor skills through these activities as well as their creativity. A recent post on the EduResearch Matters by Susan Davis (UCQ) challenged us to consider how Arts education fosters creativity and innovation –

“Creativity and innovation involves putting things together in new ways, it involves risk-taking, experimenting and refining, valuing the role of productive failure, and it involves making and doing, and is often collaborative and co-creative”.

Extra Support for Learning – Teachers’ aides are highly respected and actively involved in preschools and primary school lessons. Special Education teams are also evident in schools. According to Sahlberg (2015) almost half of all Finnish students “receive some sort of special education, personalised help, or individual guidance during their time in school”. This is a source of pride.

Preschool is free and is for one year only – the year children turn 6 years of age. It is free, and groups of 20 children are guided through preschool by a team of 4 qualified adults. Usually two qualified preschool educators and two qualified aides. Preschool is organised around play – half of the four hours daily is free play and the other half is structured play. However, free play has structure created by the resources that are provided. Board games, Jig saw puzzles and creative activities dominate although there are the usual Barbie Dolls, Home Corner, Lego and outside activities. Literacy instruction is restricted to learning how to read and write your name and to read and write the letters of the alphabet in Upper Case letters. There is no rush to learn to read or write, although about 25% of children ‘accidentally learn to read at preschool’.

What do children learn at preschool? Dispositions for learning that stand them in good stead for school:

  • Creativity
  • Concentration
  • Collaboration
  • Communication (includes listening skills)
  • You start something, you finish it

Our children can be at school from 4 ½ with Foundation classrooms often including children from 4 ½ to 6. Why couldn’t we model what we do in the first year of school on the Finnish Preschool with a greater focus on Play (structured and unstructured), Creativity and the development of Learning Dispositions and less on measurable outcomes? Why is play at school only what happens at recess and lunch?

These are my thoughts about some on the things I observed in Finland in 2016. It is interesting to note that the Finnish economy has also improved over the past 25 years along side their education system.

Published by nmackenz

My name is Noella Mackenzie and I am an Associate Professor (Adjunct) at Charles Sturt University, Albury-Wodonga Campus in NSW, Australia and a Senior Fellow of the Australian Literacy Educators' of Australia. I also work as an independent education consultant. I am also a daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother who loves to read, garden and travel. While my career has always been in education, there have been four distinct phases. The first phase was that of classroom teacher – teaching children from 5-12 years of age in a number of primary schools. The second phase of my career saw me working as a specialist professional development provider working with teachers in early intervention and special education. The third phase had me working as an academic at Charles Sturt University. That role involved me teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, researching and continuing my work with teachers and parents of young children. The fourth phase sees me working as an independent education consultant, supporting school systems and schools with professional learning input for teachers. I am passionate about teaching and in particular early literacy development. I am proudly the product of public education. I grew up on a farm and went to the local primary and high schools where I was fortunate to have some fabulous teachers. My Diploma of Education (Early Childhood) was earned at the Riverina College of Advanced Education in Wagga Wagga NSW. My Bachelor of Education, Master of Education and Doctor of Education qualifications were all earned at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Vic and were spread out over a number of years as I studied part time and worked full time. I completed my doctorate in 2004 and started work at CSU in the same year.

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