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Here's What the US Can Learn From Finland's Student-First Education Policy

US education policy makers could follow the lead of Finland's education reform that shapes its school system around what goes on in the classroom.

by Alexis Chemblette
Aug 23 2017, 7:30pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In December 2016, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) - a club of rich countries that promotes democracy and free trade - released the sixth edition of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) -- a global test of 15-year-olds' science, reading and math skills in 72 participating countries including all 35 OECD member countries. It provided American policy-makers telling clues on how to fix the country's school systems.

America is trailing its western counterparts, ranking 31st overall behind countries such as Russia or Vietnam. The report's key finding is that, in developed countries, more spending does not reliably lead to better results and educational equality. Perhaps the most worrying finding is that the No Child Left Behind approach has failed.

Despite obvious demographic and economic disparities, if the United States wants better education it should look to the success story of Finland, Europe's top performer, for lessons. Like other top PISA performers, Finland remains hell-bent on shaping its school system around what goes on in the classroom to ensure equitable access to resources.

VICE Impact met with Sanni Grahn-Laasonen, Finland's minister of education to discuss what makes Finland's system so unique and what the United States can learn from it.

VICE Impact: Is affordable quality education the philosophy that guides Finland's school system?

Sanni Grahn-Laasonen: The fundamental principle of Finnish education is to guarantee everyone equal access to high-quality education and training regardless of social and financial background. Finns have access to free education from preschool to higher education.

We want students with learning difficulty to reach similar levels of achievement by means of extra attention and support from their teachers. Holding a student back for a year is an exception, and we want to keep it this way.

As the world around us is changing rapidly, education must evolve as well to meet the needs of the future. We are currently undertaking reforms at every level of our system of education. The objective of these reforms is the constant renewal of our society, raising our level of competence, and promoting equal opportunity.


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Nearly 30 percent of Finland's children receive some special help during their first nine years of school. What does that typically consist of, and how does that help curb educational inequality?

We provide individual support and guidance as soon as their needs are detected. This typically means remedial teaching in small groups and one-on-one guidance. In the case of permanent learning difficulty, an individual learning plan is drawn up for the student.

We want students with learning difficulty to reach similar levels of achievement by means of extra attention and support from their teachers. Holding a student back for a year is an exception, and we want to keep it this way.

According to PISA, Finnish students are assigned significantly less homework and aren't assessed until the age of 16. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students. So how do you ensure there is no child left behind?

First, we want to widen participation in a quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) since there's strong national and international research-based evidence of the ECEC's success. Quality ECEC reinforces equal opportunity in education, preventing social exclusion and promoting learning capacities.

We also want to curb dropouts after comprehensive school. Not continuing with secondary studies leads to social exclusion and is linked with major health and social issues. Every child is guaranteed a study place in secondary level education (general education or vocational training), and we're working to raise the completion rate of secondary vocational studies and lower the dropout rate there, too.

Finally: the role of teachers. Professional and highly-trained teachers are key to student achievement as well as for early problem detection and support.

Finland's primary and middle school education system emphasizes multidisciplinary learning and courses designed around broad notions and concepts like the European ideal. What results has this approach yielded?

The new national core curriculum (NCC) emphasizes community spirit and collaboration -- the student is the focal point at school, not the teacher. The curriculum includes transversal competencies and multidisciplinary learning, such as multi-literacy and multicultural understanding. These transversal competencies encompass both knowledge and skills as well as values and attitudes.

The new curriculum has made it transform from "what to learn" to "how to learn."

The learning gap between brilliant students and underperforming students-- rural and urban, wealthy and poor -- is the smallest in the world in Finland. How did you do that?

The answer lies in highly educated, skilled and motivated teachers. It's the teachers who motivate students to strive for self-development, creativity, and responsibility.

We are also paying closer attention to the motivation and participation of students. Personal attachment is critical to the learning process. In Finland, we aim for better motivation by modernizing our learning environments, by including students in planning school work, and by taking advantage of new technologies.

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Finnish schools and teachers are given significant freedom over the material assigned, curricula and teaching methods. How do those talents converge at a university level?

In Finnish universities, admissions is selective in all fields of study and each college admits students independently. Student selection criteria include previous academic achievement (particularly the national matriculation examination, which is national exam based on the syllabus of the upper secondary school), and faculties' entrance exams.

The new curriculum has made it transform from "what to learn" to "how to learn."

Talking about talent, Finland is a scientifically advanced country with several centers of excellence at the very cutting edge of science. But in a small country we cannot rely on a large population base, so we must emphasize taking care of everyone. Our universities are free of charge, and the government provides each student with financial support. This way, a modest background is not an obstacle to higher learning.

If you're in the US and want to find out more about free post-secondary education opportunities near you, call your state 's Department of Education. Nothing nearby? Take your concerns to the statehouse through phone or email. Let your elected officials know that affordable, accessible higher education should be a legislative priority.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
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