12 “myths” about education in Finland debunked

The success of public schooling in Finland has been a huge topic of discussion in the education community over the past year. I’ve read a few good articles about it, including Why Are Finland’s Schools So Successful?, and was impressed with what I learned. So when the image to the left started circulating on social media, I shared it along with a link to 26 Amazing Facts About Education in Finland.

The image and the article weren’t in total agreement about the state of Finnish education, and neither were commenters on Facebook. That made me even more curious about what Finnish education is all about.

A Finland native named Nina Smith had recently offered to guest blog for me, and I was thrilled when she was receptive to my request for her to respond to the rumors floating around about Finnish education. Nina is a pedagogical consultant who earned her M.Ed. and teaching credentials from the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland. She’s an experienced educator who provides teachers with personalized tools that help them promote deep learning and create more effective and emotionally safe classrooms.

Obviously, Nina can’t speak on the experiences of all students and teachers in Finland, but having received her own education there as well as having taught there for several years, I feel she has some important experiences and insights to share with us. For each statement I provided, Nina responded with Fact, Fiction, or A Little of Both. 

1) Teachers in Finland are paid like doctors.

Fiction.  Starting salary for a teacher is not huge (around $40k-$50k), but when in a permanent contract they get paid for the summer, too. Doctors are paid more, but generally the salary gap between professionals is smaller in Finland. (Source)

2) Professional development is strongly emphasized in Finland and teachers are viewed as respected professionals.

Fact. This is a two-fold question. Professional growth is viewed necessary for teachers, but usually they have much independence in deciding about their PD.  Elementary teachers must have a M.Ed. with major in education and a minor in multi-disciplinary school subjects and another minor in a chosen subject. Teachers are part of the academia, and their professional opinion about learning is respected. Usually teaching is the chosen career, not a stepping stone to something else.

3) Teachers in Finland get a great deal of freedom to meet students’ needs: the national curriculum is very short and non-prescriptive.

Fact. The national curriculum includes the objectives and core contents for different school subjects, but schools and districts create their own curricula within the framework of the national core curriculum. Teachers get to decide how they help their students to reach the objectives. (Source)

4) Students in Finland get more than one hour of recess a day.

Fact. The basic model in K-12 is to have 45 minutes of instruction/learning and then a 15 minute break. First and second grade students go to school for four hours per day and from that time they have 75 minutes of recess. During recess students go outside to play – and they are encouraged to be physically active.

5) There is no mandatory testing in Finland.

Fact. Teachers are trusted to provide assessments they see best benefit their students’ learning. Feedback of individual learning process is emphasized over standardized testing. (Source)

6) School doesn’t start for Finnish children until age 7.

Fact. The year before school starts is called pre-school, and it is free for all students but not mandatory for 6-year-olds. Students are not expected to learn how to read in pre-school. They are learning how to learn and how to take part in group activities.

7) High quality early childhood education is free in Finland.

Fact, and A Little of Both.  Pre-school (the year before school starts) belongs to formal education system, and is free. The same requirements that regulate the teaching of 6-year-olds in schools also are valid in daycare centers for 6-year-olds, and enrolling is parents’ choice, often depending on their employment. Every child has a subjective right for high quality early childhood education, but whether it is free depends on the income level of parents. ECE is heavily subsidized, so the highest monthly payment for childcare is 264 euros ($350) per child at a daycare center.

8) There are no private schools in Finland.

A Little of Both.  Finland has common legislation for both private (state subsidized) and public (city or state owned) schools.  Last year there were 85 private schools in Finland serving approximately 3% of the whole student population.

9) Parental involvement is required.

Fiction. Parents are encouraged to be involved in their children’s education, but it is not a requirement. Students are very independent, including getting to school and back home when the distance is less than 5 km (~3miles). They walk or ride a bike, or parents transport them.

10) There are no teacher’s unions in Finland, and that makes for a better education for students.

Fiction. In fact more that 95% of teachers belong to the teachers’ union (OAJ) which is a member of the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff in Finland (AKAVA). But, the relationship between schools, education policy makers and union is constructive. (Source)

11) Finnish children do better in school than American students simply because the poverty rate is so much lower.

Fiction. The poverty rate in Finland is certainly lower, but what makes the difference in education is equity combined with quality. Instead of highlighting individual performance and competition of students in Finland the focus is on schools’ ability to provide equally good education for different learners. Basic education is completely free including instruction, school materials, school meals, health care, dental care, special needs education and remedial teaching. One Finnish specialty is the free hot lunch served to everyone every day. Hungry students cannot learn well. (Source)

12) The Finnish way of teaching could never be replicated in the United States because our population is so much more heterogeneous.

A Little of Both. No educational system should ever be replicated in another culture as it is – just like no information should be accepted as it is, but must be assimilated and/or accommodated to become a perfect fit. The way of facilitating individual students’ learning by promoting cooperation and cognition with constructive practices could easily be replicated. (Source)

Nina Smith is a pedagogical consultant who helps teachers to thrive in their profession. She also mentors teachers pursuing their master’s degrees, and is a mother of four successful children. Originally Nina comes from Finland where she earned her M.Ed. and teaching credentials from the University of Jyvaskyla. Today Nina provides teachers with personalized tools that help them promote deep learning and create more effective and emotionally safe classrooms. To learn more about meaningful learning, please visit Notes From Nina.   To contact Nina, please visit www.ninacsmith.com

Any questions for Nina? What do you find most interesting about the differences between Finnish schools and schools in your country?

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 James Wilson March 12, 2013 at 10:53 am

How did Finland’s post WWII relationship with Russia impact the development of its education system?
Having young people forcibly sent to another country at a certain age must have hugely impacted how the system was developed, and its goals would it not?

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2 Nina Smith March 12, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Hi James,
I am not the best person to answer your question, because my own interests are focused on how learning happens. Dr. Sahlberg discusses also post-war situation in his book, Finnish Lessons, and here is the table of content: http://www.tcpress.com/pdfs/9780807752579_toc.pdf

I know, though, that the current educational system (the comprehensive school) was sketched already in early 1930’s, but was implemented in 1970’s and has been under constant evaluation and improvement ever since. Wikipedia also provides some insight to the Finnish system: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Finland.

~Nina

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3 Jay June 12, 2014 at 10:16 am

Having a great education system is not the answer, America does have one (Iy League, etc). There are millions of hyper-educated baristas and wait staff. Without a functioning economy, and with no opportunities for anyone not born rich and entitled, you can be as smart as you want. You’ll still be kicking a can around the ‘hood……

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4 Heather aka HoJo March 12, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Nina – Thank you for taking the time to stop by and clear up some of these myths. I find Finland’s educational system to be extremely interesting, and I really appreciate you taking the time to share this information with all of us!

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5 Nina Smith March 12, 2013 at 7:12 pm

Hi Heather,

It is my pleasure, indeed. Good quality education is so important to me, and while I know there are many things that are not transferable from one culture to another, I still would like to encourage each and every teacher to reflect upon things that are in their control. Choosing to emphasize learning over teaching is one of these things, and keeping that idea alive in the classroom vocabulary helps students become more accountable for their own learning. Please visit my website and/or blog http://notesfromnina.wordpress.com/ for more information!

~Nina

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6 DeeAnn Grip March 12, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Good evening, Nina…I love all things Scandinavian being of nearly half Norwegian ethnicity myself. My questions are: What is the typical class size at the different grade levels? When students have difficulty, how is that addressed (i.e., what interventions)? Small group, specialists, or? Do all the grade levels have different teachers for the different subjects as they do in Norway? Thanks in advance for your insight! I sure wish our students could have 15 minute breaks every hour! I am sure discipline issues would plummet drastically in our system if this were the case. They’re just kids! Even in college we get those 10 minute breaks to walk to class. Why not them?

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7 Nina Smith March 12, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Hi DeeAnn,

Class size is usually around 16 students for preschool (6-year olds), 20 students for elementary (grades 1-6), and 18 for middle school age students (grades 7-9) says a report from ministry of education at 2010. There are bigger classes, too, up to 25-30 students, depending on the location (17 % of total classes are these “oversized” ones).
Mainstream classrooms are inclusive, special education services are planned around the students’ weekly schedule during school hours. Special education teachers and school psychologists are on-site in bigger schools and visit smaller schools regularly or when needed.
In elementary the class teacher usually teaches most subjects, but music, crafts, shop, PE and English are sometimes taught by another teacher (depends on faculty interests and specializations). Often students have the same teacher for two or more years.
Recess really makes a difference and is very much fun for students – but I also remember spending repeatedly the whole recess helping 20 first and second graders to get their skates on…. and then packing snowy clothes to dry during the next lesson. :)

~Nina

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8 Marge March 12, 2013 at 7:42 pm

Thank you, Nina and Angela for providing first-hand information. It is refreshing.

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9 Sue Ong March 12, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Hi Angela, thanks for this article. Really appreciate it!

hi Nina,
Thanks for taking the time to share your insights into the Finnish system.
I’m writing from Singapore. Over here, we have highly subsidized education and professionalism for teachers. I love that there’s less pressure on the kids to perform at a young age (you ought to see the kind of worksheets our kindergartners have to tackle) and that the teachers have so much autonomy over kids learning. We have mandatory tests here and they determine whether a child moves on to the next grade or which “stream” (arts or science at age 14) a child goes into. Very stressful.

My question actually is regarding teacher’s workloads. What would be the typical no. Of hours a Finnish teacher have in the classroom, other teacher related work (marking, lesson planning, etc.) and how many for school level meetings and committee work? For example, what time does a teach clock in to school and what time do they typically clock out? Do they bring work home? Commonly, teachers in Singapore work up to 9-12 hours in school and still bring work home and sleep at 2 am.

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10 Nina Smith March 12, 2013 at 8:43 pm

Hi Sue,

Finnish education certainly is much less about performing than emphasizing the learning process. Rushing learning doesn’t yield good results.
When I taught in Finland, my contact hours were 24 or 26 hours per week, and one staff meeting per week. Occasional meetings maybe once or twice a month. Sometimes meetings or retreats on weekend. And it was up to me whether I wanted to plan at school or at home. Sometimes I left school at 3 pm, some nights I stayed late. We did collaborative projects which was nice, and those took more time, but otherwise the workload was reasonable.

~Nina

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11 Mary Cain March 12, 2013 at 10:21 pm

I would be interested in knowing if students are held accountable for their own achievement. How is advancement for grade to grade determined? If their scores are not high enough, are students held back? Is there social promotion as there is is the US?

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12 Nina Smith March 12, 2013 at 11:38 pm

Hi Mary,

Learning is seen as students’ primary “work” and students are very independent, and also accountable for their own learning, even though the word itself doesn’t have a perfect Finnish equivalent. Also, learning objectives are open ended, so often students aim higher (and get there, too).

As there is no scoring system in Finland, and the teachers get to create their own tests, the main emphasis is in students’ learning process. Grades (in report card) reflect student’s own advancement and compares her/his own achievements and growth during the time period between assessments. Social promotion doesn’t exactly fit into this individualized view of student assessment, but is not unheard of, either.

At the time I was moving abroad there was lots of discussion of creating more developmentally appropriate practices for starting school, and the idea was to have a flexible age range (6-8 years) for first graders. There is no reason to hold back a 6-year old student who reads and writes fluently, but it is more beneficial for a 7-year old student to have one more year in preschool to mature and create interest (and maybe fine motor skills) for reading and writing. I am not sure if that idea was pursued – I wish it was!

~Nina

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13 Alicia Johnson March 12, 2013 at 11:20 pm

Thank you both for your thoughtful questions and responses. I have 2 questions.

1) You mention that about 95% of Finland’s teachers belong to a union. Does this union focus on contract negotiations, legal representation and political pull as in the US or is it one that is involved with training or helping educators keep up to speed on teaching techniques?

2) Does Finland have teacher colleges – colleges that focus on the educating of teachers specifically? Do you think that a singular approach to educating educators would be more helpful than a set of common expectations for all students in a particular grade level?

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14 Nina Smith March 13, 2013 at 12:01 am

Hi Alicia,

The teachers’ union website is actually in the source link under the question number 10, and provides information in English, too. It is the speaker and negotiator for legal issues, but also involved in training: “Trade Union of Education in Finland, is involved in promoting teacher education by influencing decisions concerning educational policy and the development of the educational and pedagogical system.”

Finland doesn’t have colleges (well, except the Police College), but universities and polytechnics. Teachers are trained in 7 universities. My own thought is that deep knowledge and understanding about education, psychology and instruction is necessary, especially with the amount of freedom teachers are enjoying in Finland. I believe the same recipe would be beneficial everywhere – but then again I am hopelessly hooked into learning.

I definitely think that education can be improved by emphasizing individual learning instead of following any given prescribed curricula. We need teachers who know how to choose, and who can help our students to learn how to make good choices, too. http://notesfromnina.wordpress.com/teaching-how-to-teach-teaching-how-to-choose-using-the-3cs-to-improve-learning/

~Nina

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15 Alicia Johnson March 15, 2013 at 5:45 pm

Thank you Nina – I appreciate your response. Very generous of your time. Have a great weekend.

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16 Daniel Wydo March 13, 2013 at 3:04 am

Brilliant analysis until # 11. Not only does Finland have a better system because there is less poverty, when disaggregating data based on poverty, every system across the spectrum can be viewed as better when poverty decreases – even within systems (including Finland) themselves. When analyzing data from Helsinki, we see big time issues within a stellar system. Why? Well of course, there is more poverty centralized in this area.

You are denying one of the foremost, if not THE foremost, cause of educational outcomes – the income level of a student’s parent(s). The relationship is so steadfast across multiple measures (ACT, SAT, PISA, TIMSS, NAEP, and every state standardized test I’ve ever seen), that to deny this cause-effect relationship should be likened to denying that when dropped, an object would accelerate towards the earth.

Equity in funding, although a step in the right direction, will not solve the ills of American education, which like in Finland (along with everywhere else), are centralized in our high poverty urban and rural areas. The better route is to solve the crises tied to wage inequity among classes and a decreasing trend in social and class mobility. The more stable, middle-class families, the more high quality educational outcomes. Our middle class families are in ruin, and have been progressively ruined by 30 years of legislation that favors the elite and creates a feudal system. Long story short, we have many things we need to work on in America, that if fixed, could exponentially increase educational outcomes – the quality of schools and students are largely dependent upon the quality of society and parents – both of which are lacking in our present day.

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17 Nina Smith March 13, 2013 at 11:31 am

Hi Daniel,

You obviously have researched the topic well. My problem in the question is the word “simply”, because correlations between school success and the social-economic status of the family is anything but simple. And while Finnish education is among the most equitable ones, the studies I have read describe how mothers’ education level correlates with school success explaining up to 38% of the variance, especially in High School and beyond. The explaining factor has been thought to be the positive attitude towards education and formal schooling.

Not being an expert in poverty I have no good answers for you, but I did some interesting searches: Median income in the poorest area of Helsinki is 19k euros/year, but 100 poorest municipalities in Finland (with median income 14k euros/year or less) are all located in eastern and northern areas of the country. I am not sure how this finding fits into the picture?

What I DO know, however, is that the meaningfulness of education and school well-being (both as perceived by the student) are contributing factors in good educational outcomes. And that is something we all can work on and impact on grassroot level (in the classroom) while getting the poverty problem fixed.

~Nina

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18 Judith March 22, 2013 at 8:18 pm

You mention the benefits of play, especially outside play. Here in England we have such an emphasis on safety it make outside play sometimes boring in my opinion. No climbing trees, only limited, safe play equipment, constant supervision, the limits of a school playground in space, and a constant stream of children who have bumped into each other complaining they are hurt and need a sticky plaster or an ice pack make for a challenge-less time, with little opportunity to be creative. What activities are on offer in your playtimes, for primary aged children? ( 5 to 11 years old)

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19 Nina Smith March 23, 2013 at 12:49 am

Hi Judith,

Safety is important, of course, but it is sad when kids’ play is too limited because of that. I have taught in schools that had forest on their backyard, so that was were students were playing – and going skating and skiing at winter. In city schools things were different, of course, as they only had asphalt and gravel on the yard, so it depends entirely of the school what activities are offered. I think the usual age appropriate play equipment like skipping ropes, balls, swings etc are used in many schools, and cooperative play is encouraged. Playing different types of tag, football, basketball, hide-and-seek, as well as games like duck-duck-goose are things my own kids listed to me when I asked what they remember to have had as recess activities.

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20 Marcia McLaughlin April 22, 2013 at 8:54 pm

Are there special schools for deaf students? If so which sign language do you use? What is the class size like?

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21 Jared Graham February 25, 2016 at 9:40 am

As background, I’ll let you know that I’ve taught in public elementary schools for 25 years. I appreciate the interesting information about Finland’s education, and I found it to be closely aligned with my own research I conducted some 10 years ago for my education blog (no longer up). Over all well done.

I feel your article title is misleading. You didn’t debunk the myths, you fact checked them, for, indeed, you found most of them to have merit, if not completely true.

Also, “myth” 11 should be marked as true (as Daniel Wydo in an earlier comment points out). American children don’t get free medical and dental care, and although we do have free breakfast and lunch programs, the conservative political party here is constantly trying to get rid of that (one of our politicians actually said we should hand poor kids a broom so they can earn their food). I’ve worked in schools were more than half the students lived below the poverty level, and I can tell you it can have a devastating effect on a child’s success in school.

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22 Angela Watson February 26, 2016 at 1:22 pm

The title has “myths” in quotes…alluding to the fact that they may or may not be true. I’m sorry if you felt that was misleading.

Regarding #11…the “myth” says, “Finnish children do better in school than American students simply because the poverty rate is so much lower.” That’s marked as fiction because the low poverty rate is not the only contributing factor to Finnish children’s success, it’s one of many complex reasons.

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23 Jared Graham February 26, 2016 at 6:52 pm

No worries – I totally missed the quotation marks when I read the title. However, I didn’t feel you were intentionally trying to be misleading.

I agree that the issue is extremely complex, and it drives me crazy when politicians think they have all the answers (or should I say, a single answer that will solve everything) when they don’t really understand the problems. In fact, in political and education circles it’s popular to claim that we should use only research based methods in the classroom, yet, more often than not (in my experience), if the methodology doesn’t fit the powers that be’s ideology it is rejected even if it’s back by solid research.

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24 Angela Watson February 29, 2016 at 9:55 am

Well said re: the research and people in charge not really understanding the problems before creating “solutions”! Boy, I could write a whole other post on that. :)

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25 MOD March 10, 2016 at 7:03 pm

Good evening. Does Finland have “social promotion” policies similar to those of American public schools?

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26 Miffy August 31, 2016 at 7:49 pm

Hello, I was wondering with summers being that long and kids going less time to school, How do parents manage to take care of them on vacations? Do people work less hours in Finland or they have after-school programs and summer camps?

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