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August 23, 2017

Reflections From Finland: The Grass is Always Greener

By Meghan Everette
Grades PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

    We’ve all heard that education in Finland is the bee's knees. What is it that makes Finland, a small country of five million, so ahead of the game? And is it all we’ve heard? I was fortunate enough to travel with Global Ed Allies this past summer to spend time learning about the education system in Finland. From a tiny, rural, 108-year-old elementary school, to the University in Helsinki, and even time at the Ministry of Education, we explored how Finnish schools educate their teachers and students, and work with communities. We even spent time with educator host families. While I loved the dedicated educators and holistic approach to education, Finland isn’t the magic wonderland we’ve been led to believe. Here are unexpected ways I found Finland to be different from what I imagined:

    Finnish Teachers Are Paid Like Teachers

    It’s the thing we hear again and again: Finnish teachers are paid like doctors. For starters, Finnish doctors are not paid like American doctors. Their doctors make about half of a U.S. doctor’s salary and teachers then make about half of that. The cost of living in Finland is about 30 percent higher than in the United States and yet, teachers make less than their U.S. counterparts. Finnish teachers with 15 years of experience earn around $37,000 per year compared with an average of $45,000 for American veteran teachers. I didn’t hear teachers bemoan their salaries, but my host mom did mention “we only make what teachers make, which is not so much.”

     

     

    There Isn’t a National Curriculum

    The Finnish Ministry of Education does provide a national “curriculum” but the word doesn’t mean what we equate curriculum with. In Finland, there are some national standards that guide what skills students should be able to do in what timeframe (sound familiar?) This is akin to our Common Core State Standards, with some glaring differences. Students in Finland work with a grade band and have longer timeframes to meet objectives. They are taught to be reflective and give self-reflection on their own learning, along with the teacher’s observations. There are some books that schools purchase to help meet the standards and objectives, but they are purchased locally. By and large, teachers were required to find and develop their class lessons on their own (and no one seemed bothered by this in the least). One interesting note is new standards are just now being implemented in a slow roll-out throughout the country. They are asking teachers to integrate technology and the outdoors. Time will tell how the new standards impact Finnish student success.

     

    Special Education is . . . Different

    At first glance, special education seems to function in an idyllic way. Students needing help or support in secondary school (aka high school) just pop on down to the special education room. They could be truly in need, or could have missed school for illness, or maybe just not get the current lesson. A teacher pops around the room servicing the needs of each student until they go on their merry way. And schools have strong partnerships with the social welfare system, connecting easily to services provided throughout the country. There’s no waiting on forms and permissions — you help the kid that needs help when they need it. Except that every time we inquired about special education we were met with discussions about depression and eating disorders.

    It seems “special education” in regular education setting is taken to mean more common mental health disorders. We could not find any school with students that had severe or multiple disabilities, and not because they don’t exist. The state maintains seven schools that provide comprehensive education to students with hearing, visual, physical, or “other” impairments. Yet only 2 percent of students are included in this population. There are separate standards for students needing special education services, but those are limited to students with an "administrative final act" declaring the need for services. In general, Finland aims to meet the needs of all students in the classroom and only turns to special services when needs are severe. 

    Gender Bias

    A hot topic in the United States lately is our treatment of gender. I read a post recently discussing how wonderful it was that in Finland they don’t delineate between genders and how open and accepting that makes their teachers. The truth? Finnish language doesn’t have a gender pronoun for females and males. There is no “she” or “he” to differentiate. This isn’t some proactive consideration meant to foster being comfortable with oneself, it is simply the language. I saw blue clothing for boys, and pink dresses for girls. I saw sports equipment, dinosaurs, and cars for boys and pink ponies and dollies for girls. Are they more progressive and understanding than our culture? Maybe and maybe not, but the idea that their educators are so advanced as to not use gender pronouns is false.  

     

    Other differences abound in the Finnish system. They have a culture of trust, which leads to less pushback on initiatives because the belief is whoever made the change is working in the best interest of students. And while all citizens, not just teachers, are respected for their roles in society, several teachers pointed out how more parents are placing the blame on them, instead of holding students accountable — an issue bemoaned by many U.S. educators. Teacher education programs have a low rate of acceptance and require a master’s degree to be a teacher, yet clinical experience time is shorter.

    What do they think of us? The theme again and again was that Finish educators and students value our ability to confidently speak our minds. We sat with a group of eighth graders and asked what they thought of our schools. Beyond what they recognized as made-for-TV stereotypes, they said our students are willing to take ownership and pride in their ideas. They don’t shy away from sharing their views and are willing to debate and discuss points. Our students have a confidence that students and teachers in Finland want to develop.

    I found Finland to be a beautiful country filled with friendly people willing to reach out to the world. At the end of the day, we fight many of the same battles and issues that plague education the world over. We heard again and again “We are only a country of five million, we have to reach out to the world.” We should definitely be reaching back.

     

    We’ve all heard that education in Finland is the bee's knees. What is it that makes Finland, a small country of five million, so ahead of the game? And is it all we’ve heard? I was fortunate enough to travel with Global Ed Allies this past summer to spend time learning about the education system in Finland. From a tiny, rural, 108-year-old elementary school, to the University in Helsinki, and even time at the Ministry of Education, we explored how Finnish schools educate their teachers and students, and work with communities. We even spent time with educator host families. While I loved the dedicated educators and holistic approach to education, Finland isn’t the magic wonderland we’ve been led to believe. Here are unexpected ways I found Finland to be different from what I imagined:

    Finnish Teachers Are Paid Like Teachers

    It’s the thing we hear again and again: Finnish teachers are paid like doctors. For starters, Finnish doctors are not paid like American doctors. Their doctors make about half of a U.S. doctor’s salary and teachers then make about half of that. The cost of living in Finland is about 30 percent higher than in the United States and yet, teachers make less than their U.S. counterparts. Finnish teachers with 15 years of experience earn around $37,000 per year compared with an average of $45,000 for American veteran teachers. I didn’t hear teachers bemoan their salaries, but my host mom did mention “we only make what teachers make, which is not so much.”

     

     

    There Isn’t a National Curriculum

    The Finnish Ministry of Education does provide a national “curriculum” but the word doesn’t mean what we equate curriculum with. In Finland, there are some national standards that guide what skills students should be able to do in what timeframe (sound familiar?) This is akin to our Common Core State Standards, with some glaring differences. Students in Finland work with a grade band and have longer timeframes to meet objectives. They are taught to be reflective and give self-reflection on their own learning, along with the teacher’s observations. There are some books that schools purchase to help meet the standards and objectives, but they are purchased locally. By and large, teachers were required to find and develop their class lessons on their own (and no one seemed bothered by this in the least). One interesting note is new standards are just now being implemented in a slow roll-out throughout the country. They are asking teachers to integrate technology and the outdoors. Time will tell how the new standards impact Finnish student success.

     

    Special Education is . . . Different

    At first glance, special education seems to function in an idyllic way. Students needing help or support in secondary school (aka high school) just pop on down to the special education room. They could be truly in need, or could have missed school for illness, or maybe just not get the current lesson. A teacher pops around the room servicing the needs of each student until they go on their merry way. And schools have strong partnerships with the social welfare system, connecting easily to services provided throughout the country. There’s no waiting on forms and permissions — you help the kid that needs help when they need it. Except that every time we inquired about special education we were met with discussions about depression and eating disorders.

    It seems “special education” in regular education setting is taken to mean more common mental health disorders. We could not find any school with students that had severe or multiple disabilities, and not because they don’t exist. The state maintains seven schools that provide comprehensive education to students with hearing, visual, physical, or “other” impairments. Yet only 2 percent of students are included in this population. There are separate standards for students needing special education services, but those are limited to students with an "administrative final act" declaring the need for services. In general, Finland aims to meet the needs of all students in the classroom and only turns to special services when needs are severe. 

    Gender Bias

    A hot topic in the United States lately is our treatment of gender. I read a post recently discussing how wonderful it was that in Finland they don’t delineate between genders and how open and accepting that makes their teachers. The truth? Finnish language doesn’t have a gender pronoun for females and males. There is no “she” or “he” to differentiate. This isn’t some proactive consideration meant to foster being comfortable with oneself, it is simply the language. I saw blue clothing for boys, and pink dresses for girls. I saw sports equipment, dinosaurs, and cars for boys and pink ponies and dollies for girls. Are they more progressive and understanding than our culture? Maybe and maybe not, but the idea that their educators are so advanced as to not use gender pronouns is false.  

     

    Other differences abound in the Finnish system. They have a culture of trust, which leads to less pushback on initiatives because the belief is whoever made the change is working in the best interest of students. And while all citizens, not just teachers, are respected for their roles in society, several teachers pointed out how more parents are placing the blame on them, instead of holding students accountable — an issue bemoaned by many U.S. educators. Teacher education programs have a low rate of acceptance and require a master’s degree to be a teacher, yet clinical experience time is shorter.

    What do they think of us? The theme again and again was that Finish educators and students value our ability to confidently speak our minds. We sat with a group of eighth graders and asked what they thought of our schools. Beyond what they recognized as made-for-TV stereotypes, they said our students are willing to take ownership and pride in their ideas. They don’t shy away from sharing their views and are willing to debate and discuss points. Our students have a confidence that students and teachers in Finland want to develop.

    I found Finland to be a beautiful country filled with friendly people willing to reach out to the world. At the end of the day, we fight many of the same battles and issues that plague education the world over. We heard again and again “We are only a country of five million, we have to reach out to the world.” We should definitely be reaching back.

     

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