Below is the fourth in a series of posts I'm writing from Finland, as part of a trip with a delegation of U.S. education leaders. For a week, we're immersing ourselves in Finland's top-performing education system. (Read parts one, two, and three for more reflections.)
A Relaxed Pace
When I walked in, I felt an “ease of pace” that is rarely found in American schools. Finnish schools are well supported with a child-development infrastructure that guarantees every child a pre-primary experience between the ages of three and six. This pre-school experience strengthens children’s self-esteem and autonomy as learners. You could see the benefits clearly in how older children and young adolescents behaved and tuned into their teachers at Kallahti. The foundations of the Finnish day care system, described briefly yesterday, show up in the perfect manners of teenagers in the school cafeteria.
Respect for Differences
Walking down the halls, observing classrooms, and having lunch with students, teachers, and the principal, I felt the enormous amount of respect that everyone had for one another. Each student’s culture, religion, and language are honored. In fact, we learned that educators in Finland view the “mother tongue as the tool of thinking.”
Room for Development
There are five-week crash courses on how to teach in Finland. (For a rich description of why Finnish schools are successful, see LynNell Hancock’s article published by Smithsoian.com, as well as this Channel One video clip.)
That said, Kallahti Comprehensive, as described by headmaster Timo Heikkinen (who is highlighted in LynNell’s article and the Channel One clip), is “not a school at the top. Timo would like to see more coordinated time to teach subjects in depth and not in “one sitting” (i.e., 45 minutes). He’d also like more coordinated professional development for a staff that he says is, for the most part, “very, very well prepared.”
I learned that while the Finns support a highly centralized approach to preservice teacher education, their professional development is funded solely by municipalities and can therefore vary greatly. Perhaps this is why we saw some outstanding teaching, as well as some very traditional approaches.
The Big Takeaway
The Finns have built a terrific infrastructure to support kids and their parents—allowing for solid teaching from virtually every teacher and translating that teaching to extraordinary results for students.
As we learned today in a debrief session back at the Center for International Mobility (led by the venerable Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons), teachers want to teach in Finland because they have "big freedom.” Every teacher seemed to have so much patience—and worked at an even, unrushed pace. They weren’t pressed into frenzied teaching by high-stakes tests like so many of their American counterparts.
And parents have deep trust and confidence in the Finnish teachers—a sentiment echoed by Tuomas Kurttila, executive director of the Finnish Parents’ League.
I want to conclude by sharing what I thought was one of the most insightful analyses of the day, from Nick Donahue of the Nellie Mae Foundation (and one of the 30-plus delegates on our study tour): “In the United States, we rush to implement technical solutions and ignore the kind of community and culture context."
The Finns do the opposite. It is clear that they value children, seriously fund education and day care, and invest in teachers. In the United States, teachers are seen as an expense, not an investment, and while our policymakers say they value children, they do not back up their lofty rhetoric with the right policies and programs.