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Finnish Line: Teaching in Finland

The country known for having the best teachers doesn’t pay them at premium levels but makes sure it hires the right people, focuses them on subject-area competency rather than pedagogy and doesn’t micromanage them.

On Monday mornings in March, with the temperature below freezing in Oulu, a seaside city in Finland equidistant between Helsinki and the Artic Circle, Milla Lehtinen starts the school day leading her students 325 yards from school for two hours of P.E. The students ice skate or ski, depending on the Monday. “It was minus-19 this morning,” Lehtinen says in an interview via Skype. “We enjoy the winter.” After P.E., the 10-year-olds return to school for their school-provided hot lunch and one period of Finnish language studies and a math lesson. Then the day is done.

Among developed countries, Finland ranks low for instruction hours, according to Finland’s National Agency for Education. U.S. elementary school students spend 331 more hours in class a year than their Finnish counterparts. Most days, only half of Lehtinen’s 20 students even have to come to the day’s first 45-minute period. A 15-minute recess follows. Then comes another 45-minute period, this time with the whole class in attendance, followed by lunch and recess. After one more 45-minute lesson with all there and another recess, the early arrivers go home. The late arrivers have one final period before they are dismissed.

After-school programs, focused on play and fun but not academics, are provided for the youngest children. Older children usually get home between 12 and 2 p.m. They are alone or with friends until their parents get home. Homework is negligible by American standards, especially in lower grades, as is testing.

Knowing their limits

The appeal for the children is obvious. But the light hours and frequent recesses serve an educational purpose. The human brain, whether student or teacher, can handle only just so much work before it needs a break. “Children like to behave,” Lehtinen says, but “it’s almost impossible to sit the whole day. I have thought I could never, ever get them to sit the whole day in their places.” In math, when it’s time to do problems, one student goes behind a barrel, some take to the floor under their desks and others lie on beanbag chairs in the school lobby. “Their legs are going like this,” Lehtinen says, flopping her hands up and down rapidly, “but they are doing it.”

It all squares with the country’s ranking in March by a UN agency as the happiest on earth. But as nations worried about global competitiveness race to see who can keep children’s noses closest to the grindstone, it’s striking how well Finland does with a different approach. Student achievement is above average for the developed world. Finland devotes less of its GDP to elementary education than the U.S. does, though it devotes more for secondary education — a function of the country’s heavy emphasis on vocational education.

Finland draws educators and media from Malaysia to France looking for the keys to Finland’s educational success.

One of the reasons most cited: Finland has — as a government brochure boasts and exhorts — the “world’s most competent teachers.” In the 1970s, Finland moved teacher education from teacher colleges to universities. The Finnish approach: Find the right people and train them well. Aside from instructors in pre-schools — compulsory education doesn’t start until age 7 — essentially all teachers must hold master’s degrees.

Selective

In 2017, according to a European Commission report, only 13% of students who wanted to be elementary school teachers like Lehtinen — generalists who teach all subjects plus P.E., music, arts and handicrafts in first through sixth grades — won admission to universities in Finland. They must score well on the country’s high-stakes, national high school exit exams and university entrance exams and then pass a gauntlet of evaluations, including teaching a class, to screen for aptitude and personality. Lehtinen spent a year as a classroom helper to get the extra “points” that put her over the top for admission.

In the equivalent of our seventh through 12th grades, teachers are subject specialists who first must win university admission in their field. Admittance rates run 10% to 53% depending on the subject. As they work toward degrees in their subjects, they take courses and practical training in how to teach.

Antti Piiroinen, who speaks excellent English, failed to get one of the 50 slots in English studies that were sought by some 500 prospective university students. He instead gained university admission in German and Swedish and now teaches both languages at a public school — Finland has very few private schools — in Espoo, a Helsinki suburb near Nokia’s headquarters.

In Finland, aside from their native tongue, students must take English and whichever of Finland’s two official languages (Finnish and Swedish) they don’t speak at home. “You need to know languages in this country,” Piiroinen says. “I have great students. I like my work.”

Finnish teachers work on average 32 hours a week, below the 38-hour average in the developed world. But while total work hours are short, Finnish teachers are second only to Canadian teachers in the time they spend actually teaching, as opposed to doing paperwork, grading, counseling students or individual planning. (Teachers interviewed for this article spent 15 to 25 hours a week in class teaching.)

The teacher workforce skews older. Fewer than 10% of teachers are under 30. As in the rest of the developed world, the ranks of teachers are overwhelmingly female. Class size averages 20 students in elementary grades and 16 in what would be junior high in the U.S., according to Finnish authorities, but the addition of special-ed teachers and classroom assistants takes the student- teacher ratio lower.

Small and homogeneous

Finnish teachers don’t have to contend with students from diverse backgrounds. Immigrants make up just 6% of the population, compared to 20% of Florida’s population, for example. Finland also is small. The country’s population is less than the combined population of the three Southeast Florida counties, each of which has a school system ranking among America’s 10 largest.

According to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, even after adjusting for purchasing power and currency, U.S. teachers get paid considerably better than teachers in Finland. But teachers in Finland feel better about their jobs. An OECD survey found 90% of Finnish teachers were satisfied in their jobs. Some 60% felt valued by society, a percentage bested only in South Korea and a share considerably higher than what U.S. teachers scored.

Social equality is a factor. In the U.S., elementary school teachers earn 55% and high school teachers earn 58% of the pay of similarly educated workers. In Finland, elementary school teachers earn 77% and upper high school teachers earn 94% of the pay of those with similar educations.

Another factor: Autonomy. Finland says it must have the best teachers because it pushes control down to the school and individual teacher level. There is a national curriculum but local decision-making. “We are very free to do what we do, how we do,” says Tiina Karjalainen, an upper secondary teacher and vice head of her school. “The freedom of the individual teacher is rather high in Finland.”

Teacher accountability — except to their individual selves — seems an alien concept. Finland abolished school inspections in the 1990s, and teacher pay isn’t tied to student performance. Reflecting Finland’s belief in finding the right people to teach in the first place, the top method of evaluating teachers, according to a government publication, is self-evaluation.

The country and its teachers have challenges. Karjalainen, who teaches in Kuopio in a lake-covered region of eastern Finland, says schools need more classroom assistants and special-needs teachers — principals agreed in a recent survey. She and other teachers complain about class sizes.

“It’s not so glorious anymore,” says Karjalainen, who is president of the 150-member teachers union council, a union legislative body. “In Finland, the profession is appreciated, but it’s coming down because the profession is getting harder all the time,” she says. Children with learning issues, demands for reporting and documentation, and international cooperation efforts with teachers and schools in other nations all take more and more time. “We all feel too much is required,” Karjalainen says.

According to national reports, achievement by boys and immigrants lags. The country scores low in mentoring among teachers and also in professional development, even though teachers must have three days a year of continuing education. The Ministry of Education and Culture worries that competence acquired at the beginning of a teaching career isn’t being updated and isn’t flexible over time. While still strong, Finland’s performance on the benchmark international standards test — the Programme for International Student Assessment — has declined.

But both Lehtinen — excited by team-teaching with a colleague — and her third-graders are optimistic. “Today’s students are so eager to learn and also have the capacity for it,” she says. “They are more open-minded and confident to do different tasks.”

Education in Finland

The national government provides funding, direction and information but leaves implementation and spending decisions to local governments. There’s a national curriculum, but teachers have the freedom to choose their own methods and materials to follow it. Because it gives teachers so much autonomy, Finland requires teachers to have at least a master’s. Principals hire teachers. Class size is up to locals. There are no national assessments (tests) in primary education. Teachers are supposed to give students daily feedback and inculcate self-assessment in pupils. There is a national graduation exam for upper secondary students.

 

Read more in the June issue.

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