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The key is the culture in Finnish schools

A culture of trust among teachers and students, plus plenty of student agency, are features of the Finnish education system we could use in the US, Fred Ende writes.

6 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

Learning finnish language. Smart child girl on the Finnish flag background

Suomi is the Finnish word for Finland. (JNemchinova/Getty Images)

During April, I had an amazing opportunity to join a group of educators for a short study of the Finnish education system. We were joined by a Finnish teacher who led us on a tour of a number of different schools in Helsinki and the surrounding suburbs. While there are quite a few similarities between the systems in Finland and the US, there are a number of significant differences. The biggest, in my humble opinion, is the cultural shifts in Finnish schools. With that in mind, I wanted to share four big shifts that I think the US could benefit from further incorporating pre-K-12 and beyond.

Trust as foundation

This will seem obvious, certainly; yet, as I spoke with two eighth-grade students working by themselves in an empty classroom, I realized that only when students and staff trust each other fully can we ever hope to create cultures that lead to lifelong learning. 

In all the Finnish schools we visited, there is a clear recognition that students, left to their own devices, will choose to engage in positive behavior and good deeds before those that would result in negative consequences. There is a similar belief that teachers truly want to do the best they can for the staff and students they support. This trust finds its way into a greater scaffolding of interdisciplinary work (teachers appear to trust each other as collaborators more in Finland than in the States), and students have more independence to work by themselves in classrooms, serve themselves lunch, clean up after themselves and select learning tracks that suit them best (more on this later). 

Of course, like all of us, students and staff in Finland make mistakes in their practice. That said, because there is a significant amount of trust provided, support is granted and given to help everyone get past errors and continue on the right path.

Self-care from the start

During our visit to a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten school (compulsory schooling starts with 6- and 7-year-olds in grade 1), we saw that most primary grades spend the vast majority of their days engaged in play-focused learning, and teaching is about self-care and awareness, regulation of emotions and actions, building student connection to the outdoors and each other, and open and flexible learning environments and experiences. 

As I passed a toy fish to a 6-year-old pretending to be a fox, I was reminded that play needs a prominent place in formalized schooling and that the more opportunities we provide to build a culture of care from the start, the more likely our students will continue to develop those skills throughout their learning experience. That will help them be most capable of helping themselves (and others) navigate the successes and challenges of life.

Multiple pathways

In American society, a four-year college (plus learning beyond basic post-secondary school) is seen as the golden ticket, so to speak. There is a general belief that if a student doesn’t follow a college track, then they have missed out on their best opportunity for future success. For some students, this may be true. However, the emphasis we place on the four-year college system for all (or the majority) ignores the fact that multiple pathways make sure that every student has a place, and multiple entry points to these pathways provide the greatest opportunity for each and every student to be successful. 

Finland’s system, where compulsory schooling continues to age 18, and where students can select from an academic track or a polytechnic track after ninth grade, seems to be an excellent way to let students know that they are valued, and their options for high school are theirs to make.

During one school visit we had the chance to speak with both types of students. In both cases, the students we spoke to seemed connected to their selected option and to the freedom it allowed for them to be who they were. And, because our identities change and grow, even once enrolled in their school of choice, there are still pathways that allow for a student to switch to another track. Multiple pathways and multiple entry points put control in the hands of students, something that the American system has not fully embraced.

Consistent community

Another area of success in Finnish schools is the focus on building long-term communities. Students can generally spend a significantly longer period of time in one school building, many times with elementary and middle schools combined in the same building and engaging in work together from first grade on to ninth. This consistency is key to building a culture that respects student growth and welcomes the time needed for positive cultures to form. 

In addition, many Finnish schools see community as more than the people; community also incorporates the structure and function of a school building. Grades in a given school are clustered around “homes” or “hearts” or other areas that serve as a collaborative place to work, to meet and to care for each other. These spaces can be simple in design and resources, often incorporating circular, oval or rectangular tables. They need little more than a bit of space, places to sit and opportunities to interact. The benefits are significant, as groups of students have the chance to learn and grow together on a regular basis. This type of opportunity needs to be further provided for American students as well.

As mentioned, quite a few similarities exist too. Students explore a variety of contemporary content areas and build lifelong skills. Grades can still be an issue. Teachers and leaders are doing truly innovative work in pockets of every school building. Students can still find themselves in challenging behavioral and academic situations. And, like any education system, the Finnish one isn’t perfect, as some have noted. There is still much work to be done. That said, there is much that we can take back to our work in the US that can give even more credence to the idea that culture is key.