Less School, Higher Scores in Finland

by Robert Pondiscio
April 9th, 2010

Children in Finland spend fewer hours in school than any other country in the developed world so how do they consistently turn in top international scores in reading, science and math?  A BBC report focuses on the relaxed atmosphere of the nation’s schools, lack of political interference, as well as the country’s approach to schooling.

“The Finnish philosophy with education is that everyone has something to contribute and those who struggle in certain subjects should not be left behind.  A tactic used in virtually every lesson is the provision of an additional teacher who helps those who struggle in a particular subject. But the pupils are all kept in the same classroom, regardless of their ability in that particular subject.”

The report makes much of the contributions of Finnish home life to student achievement.  “There is a culture of reading with the kids at home and families have regular contact with their children’s teachers,” notes the BBC’s Tom Burridge, who also points out that teaching is a prestigious career in Finland. “Teachers are highly valued and teaching standards are high,” he says.

Education Minister Henna Virkkunen is now looking to boost the performance of Finland’s brightest pupils.  ”The Finnish system supports very much those pupils who have learning difficulties but we have to pay more attention also to those pupils who are very talented. Now we have started a pilot project about how to support those pupils who are very gifted in certain areas,” she says.

24 Comments »

  1. Fascinating stuff. And look at Finland’s assessments… This is what Diane Ravitch said in a talk I recently attended: “One of my favorite examples of American assessments was posted by a reader on the Bridging Differences blog. The reader described two parallel testing items appearing on the Finnish and the American 12th grade science assessment. On the Finnish exam, the student was presented with a description of a virus, and had to explain what the virus was, what drug they would use to combat the virus, and why they made this choice. On the American exam, the student was given four choices, and asked to identify which one was an element in the Earth’s atmosphere.” (Read the full transcript at http://www.edskeptic.com/2010/04/diane-ravitch-live-bootleg-edition-part_09.html)

    But, one of my favorite-ever Bridging Differences posts discusses the many problems with comparing America and Finland. America is a large, multicultural, heterogeneous society that values pluralism and hates paternalism. Finland is small society, homogeneous with respect to values and religion, and doesn’t mind paternalism as much as America. Eh, Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch know a lot more than I do. Read the debate here:

    http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2008/04/is_finland_the_answer.html

    http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2008/05/what_finlands_example_proves.html

    Comment by The Ed Skeptic — April 9, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

  2. I’ve always found it curious that so many advocates of sophisticated reforms invoke Finland when they make their case. Finland does few of the things many reformers are calling for in this country. Finland is also so different from the US, and in so many respects, that it’s not always easy to draw clear lessons from its practice or success.

    That said, I’ve always admired their support for teachers and their commitment to early intervention.

    Comment by Claus — April 9, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

  3. Fascinating stuff. And look at Finland’s assessments… This is what Diane Ravitch said in a talk I recently attended: “One of my favorite examples of American assessments was posted by a reader on the Bridging Differences blog. The reader described two parallel testing items appearing on the Finnish and the American 12th grade science assessment. On the Finnish exam, the student was presented with a description of a virus, and had to explain what the virus was, what drug they would use to combat the virus, and why they made this choice. On the American exam, the student was given four choices, and asked to identify which one was an element in the Earth’s atmosphere.” (Read the full transcript at http://www.edskeptic.com/2010/04/diane-ravitch-live-bootleg-edition-part_09.html)

    Comment by The Ed Skeptic — April 9, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

  4. Oops. The second part didn’t get posted…

    But, one of my favorite-ever Bridging Differences posts discusses the many problems with comparing America and Finland. America is a large, multicultural, heterogeneous society that values pluralism and hates paternalism. Finland is small society, homogeneous with respect to values and religion, and doesn’t mind paternalism as much as America. Eh, Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch know a lot more than I do. Read the debate here:

    http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2008/04/is_finland_the_answer.html

    http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2008/05/what_finlands_example_proves.html

    Comment by The Ed Skeptic — April 9, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

  5. The Finnish matriculation exam is a “high-stakes” exam that largely determines their employment options unlike the 12th grade US exam. Presumably, that would mean that Finnish students might study quite a bit to pass the exam, while American students have no incentive to do well on theirs. Also, the Finns take this exam at 19, which would be more equivalent taking the exam after finishing the first year of college in the US.

    Diane is completely correct that the level of content that is seen on the Finland exam is very high compared to the US. But if we compare apples to apples, that Finnish question is not unlike those seen on an AP Biology exam.

    Do you think that Americans would accept/embrace a high-stakes exit exam from high school if it ensured that our students would learn more?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — April 9, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

  6. Is it relevant that homeschoolers in the US also often spend much less time on school work than their in school counterparts and yet, apparently, do as well or better on standardized tests? Seems as if there is definitely more involved than time spent on school work. The effective level of concentration on the part of the student is probably one factor.

    The homeschooling parent is not going to leave the student behind when she or she struggles. The HS parents I’ve observed are quick to pull in supplemental materials or change curriculum, individualizing the material for their students-children. I suspect the individualizing, ala Paul Hoss’s description in this forum, is a hallmark of effective teaching.

    Comment by Homeschooling Granny — April 10, 2010 @ 10:39 am

  7. Another factor that is possibly, maybe likely, significant is that of stability of student population. Are Finnish students likely to stay in the same school(s) for their entire education? It is my impression that kids/families in Europe are less mobile than in the US.

    Comment by momof4 — April 10, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

  8. I’ve always found it at least mildly perplexing that people want to compare Finnish students with ours in America. Please don’t think I’m making excuses here BUT; Finland has a population of 5.35 million people. 97.5% of whom are Finnish and 92% speak Finnish (Wiki). We know the US, at over 300 million people, has perhaps the most heterogeneous population on the planet. And Robert, how many different languages spoken in New York City alone? Apples and oranges, much?

    “A tactic used in virtually every lesson is the provision of an additional teacher who helps those who struggle in a particular subject?” Come on!!! Where do US students sign up for this?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 10, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

  9. Ever since learning that Finland does well in international comparisons of educational achievement I have wondered why. Not knowing anything about the issue I have no basis to come to any conclusions. There are occasional explanations now and then on the ed blogs, but only Erin’s comment above, that Finland has high stakes testing at age nineteen, and therefore students have reason to be highly motivated, really seems to provide an explanation. I can’t prove that a high stakes test at age 19 is a significant factor in Finland’s educational success, but it sure seems to me like it would be. It seems a far more powerful explanation than anything else I have ever read.

    Would that mean that all America has to do to gain ground would be to institute a high school exit exam with genuinely high stakes? It would seem that way. So what are we waiting for?

    I would fervently hope we would wait for a very sober consideration of the trade-offs this involves. In America we believe in second chances, lots of them. Indeed the community college at which I teach, like most any community college anywhere, might be aptly named “Second Chance U”. A great many of our students are in their twenties, thirties, and forties, trying to make a better life for themselves. We solicit them and cater to them, partly for the tuition money they bring, but also partly because of our cultural values. We believe in individual self improvement. We believe in second chances.

    But so long as we place a high cultural value on giving second chances, then that high-stakes high school exit exam cannot really be high stakes. To really copy the Finns, wouldn’t we have to cut back drastically on the second chances that we grant? If we really want that high school exit exam to be high stakes, shouldn’t we throw out this silly idea of forty year old college freshmen?

    Would this be a good trade-off?

    Of course I’m sure the situation is more complicated than this. It always is. But my point is that every society makes many trade-offs, and reaps both advantages and disadvantages from those trade-offs. The trade-offs made by any given society at any given time should never be set in stone, but neither should we tinker lightly with them. I happen to like the idea of forty year old college freshmen. I think it is part of our cultural strength and virtue.

    Comment by Brian Rude — April 10, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

  10. Paul, There are many things that we can learn about schooling from the international studies and Finland is no exception. Even compared to other countries with relatively homogeneous populations (e.g. Germany) Finland excels in both actual achievement levels as well as narrowing the SES achievement gap.

    A couple of interesting tidbits: Finns learn to fluently decode in 6-9 months (compared to 2-3 years for English speaking school systems). So what is it about their language or teaching that enable their students to learn to read so quickly?

    Additionally, the Finnish content-dense exit exam is largely responsible for setting an accelerated learning pace (compared to traditional American learning) because of the need to adequately prepare students to do well on the exit exam.

    Unlike the Asian countries that do exceptionally well using rigorous whole class instruction, the techniques used in Finland are more consistent with what advocates of constructivist learning are promoting (group work, projects-based learning and the use of “authentic testing” that is not based upon multiple choice questions). Additionally, those supporters of more socialist policies concerning education, health care, etc. point to Finland as a model because of their generous governmental subsidies.

    It is rather easy to find isolated elements to like in any school system. What is difficult is to distill down to the essential elements of learning that really are responsible for that school systems great results and then to translate how (or if) those elements would work in our country.

    Excellence comes not from copying but from learning and building upon the best. There certainly is a lot that we can learn from Finland (as well as other countries). But the real question that we should be asking: what are the elements that contribute to Finland’s success? (If it was just homegeneity then Germany should be comparable, but the Germans are not.) And once those elements are delineated: is it possible for us to translate those elements into our scattered, fragmented public school system?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — April 10, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

  11. Erin,

    As I understand it, kids in Finland don’t start school until age seven. Does their success in reading have anything to do with their reading instruction also not starting until most/all are ready (seven years old)? Or is their success in reading related more to the simplicity of the Finnish language as opposed to the complexity of English for US kids learning to read?

    How can it be damaging to US students when a number of US kids ‘start’ reading at age four and five, some even as young as three? Or is the damage really one of a pronounced achievement gap between the haves (readers) and have-nots (non-readers)?

    This would be a good subject for a book for someone to develop. Have something on my desk please by the first of the month (just kidding).

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 11, 2010 @ 11:24 am

  12. Paul,

    It looks like Finnish success in reading is mostly due to two elements: 1) a transparent orthography (one sound – one letter) and 2) teaching to decode using blending only (sounding-out). No sight words, no cueing from pictures etc.

    English has a more complicated orthography, but decoding can be easily taught in that 6-9 month window by teaching blending as the primary (only) skill used to recognize words.

    With current techniques to teach reading (conventional phonics, sight words, etc.), English readers take a longer time to learn to decode and a significant number of students (estimates ~40%) develop maladaptive decoding strategies (partial sounding out, sight word readers), that can contribute to lasting “reading” issues.

    The new Core Knowledge Reading program uses the blending technique to teach decoding and the initial pilot results are fantastic.

    http://www.coreknowledge.org/mimik/mimik_live_data/view.php?id=1833&record_id=112

    Diane McGuinness wrote a comprehensive book on this topic, including the Finnish results and how they compare to teaching English. “Why Our Children Can’t Read And What We Can Do About It”. A great read.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — April 11, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  13. Erin,

    I think you are at least partly right about the Finnish matriculation examination. I have not been able to convince my kids of the importance of it and they certainly pay no attention to things so far (more than a year or two) in the future. However, the subjects and the content all through the school, beginning from the first grade, is designed to prepare the student for the examination.

    I have spent a year in a US High School and I was stunned by the unbelievable variety of classes that I could choose from. That was fun, but hardly useful. Many options keep the overall level rather low, and the classes taken during different years may not form any kind of continuity towards a skill in a subject.

    In Finland you take a second and a third language rather young (3rd grade, English, 5th grade, Swedish are probably most common), and you’ll have them every year untill you finish your school at 18 or 19. The same more or less goes with mathematics, biology and chemistry, and all the subjects – there is no way you could escape them, you are likely to have them every year, like it or not.

    So in fact the Finnish school is very systematic: You will be taught everything that you will need to know in the matriculation examination (which is a lot), and that starts from the first grade, and everything will follow in a proper order. There is no time for messing around – you become part of the system that will lead you to knowledge. I try to encourage my son at least to stay awake during the classes, because that alone – without even any homework done – will guarentee a decent education. Just hanging in there, somehow. And any additional effort will bring really good results.

    Finland has some advantages – that you are already familiar with – and one of them is the clever Finnish language. It is easy to start with because of the simple orthography. When the kid has learned the basics fluently, the really complicated upper structure of the language will follow – Finnish is a great tool for thinking and learning. In recent years the 6 year old kids have received preliminary education of letters and reading in kindergardens, and I think with all my three kids half of the class or more read fluently when they started school at 7. In one case every single pupil in the first grade could read fluently before Christmas.

    Still we have to remember, that PISA is only one way of evaluating results. It is a fact that the talented really get bored in the classes, and the top performers most likely come from other than Finnish schools. Our system is for the average pupil, and pretty good for that.

    Comment by Sam — April 11, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

  14. Hola Robert,

    Doesn’t Finland reject 90% of those who apply to become teachers? I wonder if that’s the story. Reject pretty much everyone who wants to be a teacher, then trust the judgments of the standouts.

    Comment by MG — April 11, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

  15. It’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard, Mike. I’ve long found it odd that of all the ideas to come from business management to education, one that never seems to have made the trip is “hire good people and get out of their way.”

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 11, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

  16. @Brian, I don’t think that a high-stakes high school exit exam would ever work in the US as the idea of second chances is (rightly so) so ingrained in our culture.

    What could work is a sequence of detailed syllabus/exams that delineate what student should know/learn and be able to pass to be able to progress to the next level (i.e. and AP-like exam) for every subject starting in 6th grade.

    @Sam, Finnish does have the advantages of a transparent orthography (one sound – one letter) but it is entirely possible for English to almost match that with a carefully sequenced orthography using blending skills (I do this with my students with tremendous/fast success!). While Finland does wait until 7 years old to start to learn to decode, this is not an advantage. The earlier that kids learn to read the more experience they have with print the better.

    @MG, There is a tremendous amount of push into asserting that a “quality teacher” is defined by their own personal scores in college/grad school. The studies that have actually looked at this issue do not support the notion that only “smart people” are good at teaching. Rather the elements that do enable a teacher to teach well are: knowing their subject matter and a strong desire to do well. These are two items that are not always picked up using grade point averages. Given that teachers can learn new techniques to enable quality student learning, should we not at least try to work on professional development before dismissing many well-intentioned teachers that have yet to learn how to engage their students?:

    Comment by Erin Johnson — April 12, 2010 @ 2:58 am

  17. Knowing how to teach is certainly important, but knowledge of subject matter has to be primary; you can’t teach what you don’t know. Given that all incoming el ed majors SHOULD already know the subject matter in the k-8 curriculum, expecting them to acquire additional knowledge across the disciplines (even math, which many el ed students say they hate/don’t understand) and the most effective and efficient ways to teach it seems perfectly reasonable in four years.

    Higher entrance standards are a start. Taking kids who never were serious, successful students and having them sit through four years of edubabble, without increasing either their academic knowledge or their ability to teach it has been pretty much a failure.

    Comment by momof4 — April 12, 2010 @ 8:30 am

  18. @Momof4, It is not numerically possible to improve schools anytime soon without a viable strategy for improving the teaching of our existing teachers. The Teach for America example shows us that just being a top student in college does not give teachers the needed skills to improve student learning.

    We have a cultural belief that teachers are born not made. But teachers can learn too, given the proper system supports (great curricula, evaluation and feedback regarding curricular effectiveness, transparent classroom teaching, collaboration between teachers regarding teaching techniques, etc.)

    Improvements in curricula, for one, do have the potential to dramatically improve student learning using the existing teaching force. The problem our schools face is that there are not mechanisms for developing, evaluating and effectively implementing better curricula. Classroom instruction is opaque and our schools have no mechanisms for teachers sharing specific lesson approaches.

    Effective teaching supports are integral to the effectiveness of top performing countries around the world.

    A good example of improvements in student learning by curricular reforms coupled with teaching support comes from beginning reading instruction in Singapore. In 2001, Singapore had only a median showing on the PIRLS (4th grade reading). Their MoE developed a new program and with extensive teacher training enabled their students to read substantially better (in the 2006 PIRLS, Singapore exceeded most English speaking countries). This is remarkable considering that 75% of the students are English Language Learners and this jump in reading ability happened within the span of only 5 years.

    Higher entrance exams for teachers won’t do anything to improve instruction in the classroom. It is classroom instruction that needs to change. Even the “smartest” teachers will not suddenly adopt Core Knowledge or pick up Singapore math. To get those essential reforms into the classroom requires a systemic support that is not based upon the faulty notion that our teachers are just not “smart” enough.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — April 12, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

  19. Erin: In no way, shape or form was I suggesting that we should not improve the quality of teachers or teaching; quite the contrary. What I did say was that the current ed school model needs to change, both in terms of higher standards for admission and in academic focus, content and pedagogical methods taught there. Not only do I not believe that good teachers are born, not made; I believe that good teachers need to have both solid background (often lacking even for ES-MS levels), and specific instruction in “the most effective and efficient ways to teach.” I absolutely agree with the need for strong institutional support in k-12 schools, for both experienced and new teachers, to strengthen both curriculum and instruction.

    I do believe, however, that higher admission standards for prospective teachers are part of the solution. There’s an old saying “the plural of anecdote is data” and there seem to be too many ES teachers uncomfortable with math and science, in particular. I have many teachers in my family and have seen 4 kids through school and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard teachers say they don’t like math, don’t understand it, wouldn’t have become a teacher if they had to take (more?) math/science. I’ve read and heard the same comments from many others. Ed schools need to fix that problem because it’s hard to see how those people are going to be effective teachers, even with support. In teaching, like in any area of human endeavor, there will never be enough superstars; the idea is to get more moved into the effective column. It would certainly help enormously if the parents did their job, too, but that’s not something the school can control.

    Comment by momof4 — April 12, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

  20. Erin and momof4, very interesting conversation. You guys certainly know your stuff.

    Thorndike’s Law of effect explains all too clearly the rationale behind elementary teachers with their aversion for math and science.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 12, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

  21. “Hire good people and get out of their way” works much better in a business, where there are financial consequences and rewards, than it does in a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies exist to expand their scope and influence; their focus is on inputs instead of outputs and steamlining means cutting jobs. Unions don’t like that, much as I wish it was otherwise. Just think of all the resources that could be directed to classrooms and teachers if there were far fewer assistant superintendents, deputy assistant superintendents, specialists for everything conceivable (except teaching), assorted supervisors, assistant principals, instructional coaches etc. etc. etc…

    Comment by momof4 — April 12, 2010 @ 10:35 pm

  22. I feel that we in the US tend to overlook one of the most important factors in the success of Finnish students. They are given more responsibility for themselves at a young age than kids in the US.

    Comment by kcab — April 13, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

  23. [...] [...]

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