Finland’s Education System (5 Surprising Findings)

Can the U.S. Learn from Finland’s Education System?

As American teachers despair about the state of our schools, many point to a small Nordic country that seems to have figured out how to deliver high-quality education to everyone. Is Finland really an educator’s paradise? Let’s find out as we explore Finland’s Education System (5 Surprising Findings).

What’s Special About Finland’s Education System?

Here are the five top things that stand out about Finland’s school system. Most U.S. teachers will be amazed by these differences.

1. Respect for Public Schools

Finland has no private schools. All schools are public. Most post-secondary education is also free or low-cost.

There is no demand for private schools, because Finnish universities and employers take it for granted that public schools are producing well-educated, well-rounded and skilled graduates. Schools issue their own assessments based on what teachers see during the school year. There is no government-mandated accountability.

2. Respect for Teachers and the Teaching Profession

Teaching is a highly respected profession in Finland. Schools of education turn away far more applicants than they accept. Teaching is one of the most desirable careers.

Once accepted into training, Finnish teachers undergo a rigorous training program.

Teachers are Well-Paid

As a result, teachers are well-paid. They are also highly respected.

The Finnish National Agency for Education points out that most teachers have a master’s degree. This includes vocational teachers and primary school teachers. Even teachers at daycare centers usually have a B.A.

“The high level of training is seen as necessary,” the agency notes, “as teachers in Finland are very autonomous professionally.”

3. Nationally Accepted Curriculum

The Finnish government approves a core curriculum of the key subjects that schools must teach. In addition to academic subjects, schools must teach art, music, drama, nutrition and Finnish folklore.

Schools and teachers are free to develop their own methods for teaching those subjects.

Schools are not subject to the political and community engagement that frequently tear apart U.S. schools. Parents do not routinely criticize school curricula, teachers, teaching methods or disciplinary measures. They accept that teachers are professionals who know how to do their jobs.

4. No Standardized Testing

Finland has no standardized tests. Teachers don’t have to spend hours drilling test material into students. They don’t have to wait to see test scores to know whether they’ll get a raise or get fired.

According to the Finnish National Agency for Education, “The focus in education is on learning rather than testing. There are no national tests for pupils in basic education in Finland. Instead, teachers are responsible for assessment in their respective subjects.”

All students take a final matriculation exam when they complete their secondary schooling. This determines where they can go for post-secondary training.

No High-Risk Tests

Finland doesn’t have high-risk AP or college placement exams. There is no pressure to do well on these tests. In Finland, students can go on to well-paid jobs without going to college. About 40% of students take vocational training to prepare for these jobs.

5. Emphasis on Free Time

All Finnish schools are required to give students 15 minutes of recess for every 45 minutes of instruction. Teachers probably appreciate getting those breaks, too.

Finnish students don’t get any homework. Teachers are expected to cover the material during classroom time. Children are expected to spend their evenings with their families, enjoying creative pursuits or playing sports. That also means teachers don’t have to spend time chasing or correcting homework.

Would the Finnish System Work in the U.S.?

Could the U.S. replicate Finland’s school system? It would take an overhaul of our current system. The U.S. also has certain features that might make it difficult to implement those plans.

Poverty and Inequality

One of the major differences between U.S. and Finnish economies is the higher income inequality in the U.S. Among industrialized countries, the U.S. has the highest income gap between rich and poor. Pockets of extreme poverty still exist here to the degree that they don’t exist in countries like Finland.

As Toni Airaksinen writes in the Undergraduate Times,

“Living in poverty is not conducive to educational development. Even before children begin elementary school, children from the lower income bracket come to school less prepared to learn.”

As Airaksinen notes, one of these big differences is what’s known as the language gap:

“The ‘language gap’ refers to the fact that lower-income infants of the same age have a significantly smaller vocabulary than their higher-income peers. This gap is recognizable at 18 months of age. By the time that these children reach kindergarten, the difference in language ability is enough to have a pervading negative effect on their education long into their years of schooling.”

American Schools Value Competition

Shannon Frank is an American teacher from Houston who won a grant to study the Finnish education model. She noted that the lack of standardized tests and high-risk tests made Finnish schools more cooperative.

“Teaching in Finland is not about creating the best students with the best SAT scores who know the most about history, physics, or algebra,” Frank wrote in an article for Education Week. “It is about creating globally competent, critical thinkers who are ready to be successful in their post-graduation life. In my mind, the Finns grow their children as if they were plants in a garden. In order to produce well-rounded students, they focus on many disciplines that will help them become well-rounded adults.”

Finland Has a More Homogenous Culture

Finland’s foreign-born population is less than 5% of the population. In the U.S., the figure is closer to 13%. The U.S. also has deep cultural, religious and political divides. As many people note, it’s easier to institute school reforms in a population that is smaller and less diverse.

An article in the Atlantic Monthly casts some doubt on that assertion.

Writer Anu Partanen points to research by education scholar Samuel Abrams. Abrams compared Finland’s school system to that of Norway, a similarly homogeneous Nordic country.

“Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland, it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish,” writes Partanen. “The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.”

It Would Require a Massive Shift in Our Culture and Thinking

Many education reformers have noted that the U.S. won’t have high-quality education for everyone until we have economic equality. Achieving that will require a massive shift in our culture, thinking and politics.

Writing in the Huffington Post, teacher Nicole Stellon O’Donnell points out that the U.S. is not ready for Finnish-style reform, because “articles about Finland don’t address poverty, rates of youth incarceration, the availability of affordable medical care, the availability of maternal/paternal leave, the impact of the rise and influence of religious fundamentalism on public education, or the monetization of our education system by entrepreneurial edu-corp reformers. They certainly don’t discuss the impact our history of slavery, and segregation has upon school systems.”

In short, it’s unlikely the U.S. will get a school system like Finland’s without reforming the rest of our systems.

Where Does that Leave Us?

I’ve read several articles praising the system the Finns have put into place, and shaming teachers in the U.S. for not following their lead. Ridiculous notions when you consider that despite what some believe, American teachers don’t have that kind of power or pull.

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12 thoughts on “Finland’s Education System (5 Surprising Findings)”

  1. This is a fantastic look at how a well thought out program can be run. US schools need a major change in some of their biggest philosophies in order to best set up the kids (and teachers) for success. Dropping the standardized tests is a contentious issue in the era of “No Child Left Behind”, but when teachers develop their lessons around a standardized test, they don’t have the flexibility to teach the lessons that their class may need most. 

    • American schools are still working on a philosophy that was crafted over 100 years ago.  Add to that the number of different groups with often conflicting goals, and you get some idea of what it’s like trying to make it all work.  

      You already realize that when teaching to a test, all hope of creativity and flexibility is lost.  

      Thanks for joining the conversation; I appreciate it!

  2. Wow, I super love Finland’s education system, they create very kind individuals every day, no wonder they have no private schools around! And here in Malaysia, everyone saves up money in hopes of not sending their schools to local public schools as our teachers are hopeless and education is biased to teaching politics :/

    • I love the sound of their system too!  I had no idea the public school system in Malaysia caused parents to invest in private schooling for their children.  I’ll have to do some research!

      Thanks for joining the conversation;  I appreciate it!

  3. Wow! This is really surprising and filled with surprising facts.

    The level at which teachers are respected in Finland is one great unique thing to see in this current world. I actually love the fact that the parents have less influence and cannot criticise teachers because they know them to be professionals in their field. These people understand the fact that education is more important than academic degrees. I really envy them and if I have my way, I would have a career switch to becoming a teacher in this nation. Such respect accorded to them. Very nice post this is.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this post!  I too feel a bit of envy for the working conditions Finnish teachers experience on a daily basis.  I would be very surprised to find that they or their students experience the same levels of stress that plague teachers and students in U.S. schools.

      Thanks so much for joining the conversation.  I appreciate it!

  4. This is a subject near and dear to my heart. The educational methodology of Finland appears to be directly opposite to the US. I can relate to the autonomous nature of Finnish teachers because I operated under the same guidelines as a teacher in an adult technical college in England. 

    Although our curriculum was based on National guidelines, I was free to use my own methods to teach as well as to test the students. I wrote the tests as well as marked the tests myself. I didn’t use multiple choice questions as the automated tests methods in the US are based on. 

    I believe that there are private schools in the US that have teaching methods similar to Finland and that the students graduating are also well rounded academically as well as in life. But these are in the minority and not accessible to lower income populations. 

    The conclusion that the US first needs to reduce the economic gap between the rich and poor before a system such as Finland’s can be adopted implies that we are doomed to mediocrity in large areas of the population. 

    • Thanks so much for sharing your experiences teaching in England.  It’s fascinating that you enjoyed so much freedom.  

      Your observation that we appear to be doomed regarding the possibility for change in the education system in the U.S. appears spot on.  However, I don’t believe there is only one way to experience these benefits for our children.  I suspect it would just take a small number of highly motivated parents and teachers with a mutual plan to effect real change.  It’s simple!  However, simple doesn’t mean easy.   

      Thanks for joining the conversation;  I appreciate it!

  5. Wo, thank you for sharing Finland’s education system. 3 things that I love the most are no private school, no standardized test and focusing on free time! Will this work in the States or not it is hard to tell but a beginning of anything will take time but at least it is a start. I really wish that the States will let the teachers be creative with their teaching, I have seen many good teachers quit teaching because of the politics and that is sad and the pay as we know isn’t that great. We need a new education system and we need to start now. Thanks for expanding my knowledge.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article.  Getting rid of private schools may be difficult to do, but eliminating standardized tests and adding more free time to the school day is something we could definitely begin work toward.  

      The number of teachers leaving each year is staggering, and doesn’t need to happen.  But, until education becomes less of a political football, I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

      Thanks for joining the conversation; I appreciate it!

  6. Very interesting article. 

    I had no idea of the difference. I do know that our system in America is broken as you stated, it would need a global shift to be fixed. I highly doubt that we will see this in our lifetime. 

    My daughter went to a private school in her elementary years where she learned the Bible world view. That was a huge blessing. My son went to public school in his elementary years. I had no idea how the public system worked up till then. That standardized testing is most frustrating. He spent from January-April drilling for that and everything else fell to the wayside. I believe this hurt his education. He was stressed about passing this test and lost focus on the other things he was trying to learn.

    I feel bad for our teachers in this country. They are bound by the government and have no freedom. They don’t get paid enough to put up with the crazy things the kids are doing in the classrooms as more and more homes are becoming dysfunctional. 

    If I had to choose, it would be Finland for my family.  I think those young ones have a much better chance to be well-grounded adults than the kids in the US.

    Great information!

    • Your son’s experience with testing pushing out almost everything else is happening throughout the country.  As you observed, it leaves students frustrated, and less focused than they would be under a different system.  It’s not surprising that the stress levels of our students are sky-rocketing!

      I believe your observation is correct; Finnish children have a much better chance of becoming well-grounded adults.  Our students deserve the same!

      Thanks for joining the conversation;  I appreciate it!


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