Kalli Mug

When I started this whole business about moving to Finland for a semester, it was about figuring out what Finns are up to that makes their schools so darn successful. Why does a system full of free time and decidedly lacking in rigor (by means of exams anyways) work so well? Well, obviously, I don't know all the answers - I've only been around for a month, but I'm starting to get the feeling that Finnish education really isn't that far off from home's.

So before you freak out, I will admit there is a super systemic difference between American and Finnish education. Namely, they use their time differently than we do and they value different parts of education than we do.

In Finland, school days are organized in 45 minute lesson blocks with 15 minute breaks between and a 30 minute break for lunch. So from 8am until 2pm, students have six lessons (as they get older, they might tack a seventh lesson on the end making the school day end at 3pm.) So, even though students spend about the same amount of time in their day at school, the actually spend less time doing school work. This gives students the autonomy to choose how they use some of their school time, and it lets them free their mind to cool off and reset before the next lesson.

Secondly, in Finland, there is more emphasis on student wellbeing. Sure, in America we say we care about our students, and in reality, I believe our teachers do (at least the good ones). But here, not only do the teachers care, but the system cares. The system is built so that all schools are full of an actual diverse group of students - there is no separation of socioeconomic background or ability. (Let me be sure to say though, there is a segregation between languages - there are Swedish language schools and Finnish language schools, but even that is slowly starting to blend.) Schools aren't funded by property tax (which effectively denies the poor districts from getting the access to the same resources for education as the rich).

Also, school seems less stressful since every 15 minutes they get to relax and recenter. And they don't do standardized tests every March that stresses out the teacher thereby freaking out the kids. In fact, although there is homework and constant evaluation, there is a blissful lack of high stakes exams. No wonder kids don't hate school here. They don't feel like they are having to beat their heads against it all the time.

Finnish schools value subjects far beyond the typical reading, math, and science. Before 6th grade, students already are learning not just their own language, but the second of the official languages (if they natively speak Swedish, they learn Finnish) AND a foreign language (usually English). Elementary school students are also learning home economics, physical education, music, art, and an even separate class time for hand crafts. In America, we hear of schools losing their music programs and neglecting their art programs, but in Finland, they are equally valued as the rest of the school subjects. Finnish schools build whole people, not just "book smart" kids. Which, combined with the lack of stressed out test-taking, makes kids (in general) way less dreadful about going to school.

Okay but here's the fun part, how we are similar:

This week, the school near the university that I observe at has an Interdisciplinary project day. I remember my school doing that once. It was an experiment and I don't know if they've continued it.

The schools are all about breaking the "desks in a row and the teacher at the front" mold. America too.

Finland is embracing technology in the classroom. America too.

Teachers teach from their heart. They have a personal relationship with students. They care about the individual. The good ones do. Guess what? The good American teachers do too.

Their school year is roughly the same as ours - 190 days to our 180.

I could go on and on and on about things that America does in education that Finland also does. Open floor plans, field trips, Exchange City and so much more. The point I'm trying to make here is that our education might not be where most of us want it to be, but we have it in us to get it there. Finland has a lot of things that make it special. But the more and more I learn, the more I realize the stuff they do and love, is stuff we try and don't always stick with.

I know change is never easy. But progress requires change, and my friends, the potential for progress in American education is overflowing. We can get it where we want it. Sure Finland is special, but they don't have to be the only place that is.

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest." - Benjamin Franklin

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