When people talk about education in the world, Finland is always talked about as being the best. America could only wish they had the international prestige that Finland has with education. Bordering between Sweden and Russia, Finland has one of the best education systems in the world. The USA should take notes to find out the reasons for this. Here’s a major clue: It isn’t all about data and testing. The profession of teaching is given great weight in Finland’s society, probably just as much or more than a doctor or lawyer. Special education is something very different in Finland as well.
In Finland, education means everything to students, parents, teachers and the government. To the rest of the world, Finland’s rise to the top of education has been a wonder to behold. What is it about this Scandinavian country that works?
For starters, the poverty level is almost non-existent. This can have a huge impact on the culture of a school. With poverty comes environmental issues beyond a school’s control. Crime is a huge impact that can affect a classroom. Some may “not necessarily see this as a hurdle to overcome”, but if a student can’t cope with the realities outside of school, how can they concentrate on their studies?
Teachers are considered to be in the top echelon of professions in Finland. They have the same status given to doctors and lawyers. If we did that in America, just think what we could accomplish. They are paid about the same as their American counterparts, but with status comes respectability. And with respectability comes focus and motivation.
In Finland, they don’t wait for problems to occur and then tackle them. They begin to check for issues in pre-school and kindergarten. Special education in America is a lot like being late on a credit card payment. The companies tell you they can’t implement a plan until you are already behind. In Finland, educators are very proactive in the beginning. This is one of the many reasons Finland is at the top.
Finns know three languages at a very early age: Finnish, Swedish and English. English is considered to be the universal language, and the country has very close ties to Sweden. In contrast, Sweden’s experiments with the school voucher system have failed miserably. It always amazes me when a country like Finland has the best education, yet other countries don’t try to mirror what works.
Finland doesn’t have long school days like America. Students are given many breaks between classes, and recess isn’t jammed into an already tight schedule. This gives students time to wind down and process. Can you imagine the outrage a teacher would get if she gave every student a 15 minute break each hour? An American teacher named Tim Walker began teaching in a Finnish school last year. In this Helsinki school he tried to do it the American way, successive hours of teaching. He noticed the students became lethargic and he describe them as zombie-like. He implemented the Finnish practice of more breaks, and he found a very quick turnaround with the students energy and attitude.
In an article from The Atlantic last June, Walker was quoted as saying “Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom. Throughout the school year, my Finnish students would—without fail—enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a 15-minute break. And most importantly, they were more focused during lessons.”
Finland was ranked at or near the bottom a few decades ago. Reform movement came in the early 1990s and the Finnish government began to give school districts more control. This was instrumental in changing the educational landscape in Finland. Now they stand at the top of the charts and rankings for education.
For special needs children, the very idea of special education is vastly different from in America. For American children in this category, they must go through a difficult process to qualify for special education, have a medical diagnosis of a disability or disorder, and then the schools accommodate academic instruction based on the child’s individual needs. Or this is what is supposed to happen. In Finland they don’t even call it special education. It is called schooling and learning support. Instead of the disability or disorder defining a child, the Finnish teachers determine what the child is struggling with in learning. They then tailor a support model for the individual student to help them succeed academically. For example, if a student is having problems with reading, they will then receive services for that particular problem. A disability does not need to be present for a student to qualify. Annually, 1/3rd of all Finnish students receive schooling and learning support.
I will be writing more about why Finland’s school strategies should be implemented by the USA. But for this to happen in America, so many facets of government and society would need to change. Could America even reach this status?