Education in the United States and Finland: What is and what can be

This week, I’m happy to have my colleague David Bosso guest blog, inspired by his recent travels to Finland.

Whenever I’ve taught Anthropology or Sociology courses, I’ve used examples of values and norms from other societies so that students are better positioned to analyze the similarities and differences that exist across cultures.  For the Gabra, a nomadic society of northern Kenya, ensuring that all members are taken care of is vital to the welfare of the entire group.  The cultural expectation of providing hospitality and support to those in need is epitomized by the expression, “a poor man shames us all.”  In fact, those who refuse to help others are stigmatized, often for multiple generations.  Similarly, for some countries, policy shifts and cultural transformations have established a solid foundation for support, well-being, and growth.

Having recently returned from a trip to Finland and Switzerland with a group of American educators, organized by EF Education First, I feel no closer to unlocking the “secret” of Finnish educational success than I did prior to embarking on the journey – largely because there is no secret.  The simple answer is this: Finland’s cultural values and priorities are manifested in its system of education: “to guarantee all people…equal opportunities and rights to culture, free quality education, and prerequisites for full citizenship.”  Like the Gabra, Finland aims to uplift everyone in society; in Finland’s case, this vision can be achieved by providing equitable access to education and other social benefits.  To be fair, there are plenty of aspects of American society and education that mirror such ideals – most notably encapsulated in schools’ mission statements.  Regrettably, however, there is a wide discrepancy between what our institution of education claims as its grander purpose and the policies, norms, and structures that commonly exist.  Despite our any claims to the contrary, we have yet to find the will and wherewithal to commit to education as a civil right for everyone, and our realities do not match our ideals.

Rethinking our Social and Educational Priorities

Throughout Helsinki, there are a number of bicycle and pedestrian paths.  Notably, the pedestrian pathway is designated with a stark white silhouette of a child and parent holding hands.  In and of itself, perhaps this is not significant, but coupled with robust governmental support for child rearing – expectant mothers are given a maternity package and strong maternity (and paternity) leave policies – it becomes clearer that Finland’s policies and cultural values are relatively aligned.  Moreover, Finnish students do not begin their formalized education until the age of 7, standardized testing is unheard of in the formative years, and autonomy and play are encouraged throughout the curriculum.  Contrast such norms to what is common in the United States, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s observation cuts deeper: “We spend the first years of our children’s lives teaching them how to walk and talk, and the rest of their lives telling them to shut up and sit down.”  Our system seems intent on control and compliance, rewards and punishments, and a warped sense of rugged individualism that forsakes the value and power of collective responsibility.

Trust and Equity

At the foundation of Finnish educational success are two core values: trust and equity.  Educators, businesses, government, and community entities, guided by the emphasis on equity, trust one another’s expertise, values, input, and intentions.  By the 1970s and 1980s, Finland’s educational system had become more decentralized and decision-making occurred at the local level. Concurrently, the inspection of schools and textbooks was abolished, and funding reforms allowed for local autonomy.  Constraints on control and standardization facilitated greater flexibility, freedom, and the teaching profession became more supported, trusted, and respected. Finland had embarked on a multi-decade initiative to transform its society through educational transformation, with teacher professionalism and authentic learning experiences as powerful drivers.

Love of Learning

In other words, as external forces diminished, stakeholders have been able to concentrate their time, energy, and resources on personalized learning, relationships, and growth.  In such a climate, adult stakeholders ostensibly trust one another, causing classroom environments to be less controlling and more collaborative in nature.  Teaching is a highly attractive (and highly exclusive) profession, with more opportunities for meaningful interaction, voice, and agency than one finds in other educational systems.  These conditions necessarily impact teacher motivation and morale, with a trickle-down effect on classroom environments and student learning. With trust and equity as twin pillars of the educational system, it is unsurprising that Finland is able to focus on learning processes for civic engagement and development rather than on expending unnecessary energy for checklists, data, and oversight.  As one presenter stated, “learning for life and learning for a test are two different things.  Tests come and go.”

Emphasizing Extrinsic Motivators

It is ironic that as much as American education is heavily criticized domestically, we are looked upon favorably abroad.  On numerous occasions, I have been asked by teachers in other countries what our “secret” is – how do we foster creativity, innovation, independence, and critical thinking?  While American cultural values and its system of education provide a strong foundation for such skills and dispositions, we have yet to see this realized on a larger scale for all children.  Too many of our communities, schools, and students remain constrained and marginalized by poverty, lack of access, and limited opportunities.  Too many of us are focused on extrinsic motivators that inevitably lead to competition, compliance, expediency, sanctions, disengagement, and a diminished love of learning.  Too often, we devolve into an “us versus them” mentality rather than thinking and speaking in terms of “we.”  Tim Walker, who blogs about his experiences as an American teaching in Finland, had met with a group of Finnish and American students the day before meeting with us at Ressu Comprehensive School.  He told us about the high level of stress the American student visitors conveyed regarding performance outcomes, standardized tests, class rank, and myriad other factors that shape their educational experience and feelings about school.  It is little wonder that we are often a nation divided, bent on winning at all costs and often neglecting the greater good – unwittingly or not, we encourage such behaviors and attitudes throughout a child’s education.

Surviving or Thriving?

Several days later, in Davos, Switzerland, we attended the Global Student Leadership Summit on Education, where well over a thousand students worked collaboratively to develop solutions to the many challenges we face in education today.  The keynote speaker was Sir Ken Robinson, and he was as engaging, funny, philosophical, and inspiring as one might expect.  Avowing that everybody has talents, though often latent, he asked rhetorically, “does the student fail the system or does the system fail the student?”  Reflecting on his assertions, one student from Boston – wise beyond her years – remarked that “the world is much bigger than a report card.”  Sir Ken seemed pleased.  Similarly, Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education, said, “we’re measuring a lot of things in education today,” and wondered, “how are we measuring care?”  To Busteed, and bolstered by Gallup polling data, purposeful well-being is directly connected to enjoying our work and thriving in life.  It seems that other countries are much closer to this ideal than the United States.  According to the Gross National Happiness index, anyway, Finland certainly is.

Collective Responsibility

Another society my students and I examine is the Weyewa, from eastern Indonesia. To the Weyewa, social relations are the basis of wealth, not material possessions.  These social connections are crucial for, among other activities, completing a stone dragging ritual to honor one’s ancestors.  Such an important undertaking requires communal effort, one rooted in the relationships that have been established.  Likewise, education cannot change in a vacuum without all of us committed to its value and importance. There seem to be too many variables working against the good work of schools that prevent education from becoming paramount in our society.  Teaching and learning today should not feel like such a Sisyphean task – working hard to cultivate student growth in the face of so many forces that preclude true learning from taking place in a meaningful, transformative, and sustainable way.

While Finland’s educational system is not without its flaws and challenges, one might fairly and understandably speculate as to why American educators continue to study Finnish education without actually implementing some of the very elements that have undoubtedly led to its success.  To this end, perhaps we should be focusing less on Finnish education and more on the cultural values and conditions that make it possible. Together, we can move the often intransigent “stone of education,” if you will.  As Shiza Shahid, founder and CEO of the Malala Fund, inspirationally affirmed on the last day of the Summit, “There are no superheroes, only us.  We are the people we keep waiting for.”

Dr. David Bosso is the 2012 Connecticut Teacher of the Year and 2012 National Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year. Over the course of his teaching career, Bosso has traveled to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe as part of educational delegations for global understanding. Bosso currently serves as the President of the Connecticut Teacher of the Year Council and the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies, and he was a 2014 fellow at the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes in Fort Scott, Kansas. Bosso has written a number of articles and blogs on educational policy, cross-cultural comparisons, teacher leadership, and social studies education. He holds a Masters of Education degree from the University of Hartford in Educational Technology and a Masters of Arts in History from Central Connecticut State University. Bosso earned his Doctor of Education degree from American International College.

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  • Gerhard Fischer

    Systematic Change Necessary


    I could not agree more. There is nothing magical or mysterious in Finnish education at the classroom level. The system and culturally shared assumptions make all the difference. What if all our children could come to school not having to worry about nutrition and health care? What if all our teachers were fully prepared and valued? And what if "quality control" did not mean endless testing but reliance on teacher judgment? 

    Thank you for posting these reflections.


    • David Bosso

      Thank you for your comment,

      Thank you for your comment, Gerhard. One of the comments made from a Finnish educator was that "it is not the pedagogy, but the structure." I think this is true from a cultural standpoint as well. When policy is supportive of cultural values, change transpires – especially when it comes to taking care of ALL children. Also, you hit the nail on the head regarding "quality control." The shift that Finland's educational system made from compliance to trust does not negate accountability; it creates and sustains an environment of collaboration and respect that is good for everyone involved.

  • Andy Calkins

    cutting deep

    Such a wise blog, David. I hadn't heard this quote from Tyson:

    Contrast such norms to what is common in the United States, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s observation cuts deeper: “We spend the first years of our children’s lives teaching them how to walk and talk, and the rest of their lives telling them to shut up and sit down.” 

    Ouch. The truth hurts, often — doesn't it? Those of us working at the transformational edge of reform in the US can point to wonderful examples where that observation is not true. But that makes it hurt all the more that many and probably most American schoolchildren are still growing up in the world Tyson describes.

    Thanks for writing.

    • David Bosso

      “Sit and Get”

      Thank you, Andy – FYI – I've also seen a version of the quote attributed to Phyllis Diller. We certainly need to better support inquiry and student autonomy. Teachers often complain of "sit and get" professional development; too often, classrooms are "sit and get" environments. I know there are a number of variables and challenges, but we can certainly begin to shift to more authentic learning environments that better engage students, spark interest, and lead to empowerment and deeper learning. Unfortunately, much of our system (pre-K to higher ed) is sanctions-based and the result is more important than the process. When policies and attitudes change, we will certainly see change happen on a much wider scale rather than isolated pockets that benefit the few.

  • SandyMerz

    Very interesting

    Thanks for this post. I recenlty heard Pasi Sahlberg talk and was impressed by how much recess time elementary kids have in Finland. At my school (K-8) we’re in a major slump. In working our way out, I’ve been saying over and over – and everyone agrees – that our school isn’t fun like it use to be and that too many students on the brink of being marginalized see nothing in the school that competes with outside temptations. 

    • David Bosso

      Engagement = Fun = Empowerment

      Thank you for your comment, Sandy. While in Finland, we had the opportunity to meet with and hear from Lauri Jarvilehto from Rovio, who wrote a book called "Learning as Fun." It's fascinating how much he referred to the importance and role of intrinsic motivation in learning. Anyone who knows the basics of human motivation understands that "outside temptations" and forces create stress and pressures that often encourage compliance, fear, expediency, and other behaviors just to complete an activity – this is not sustainable, and it certainly isn't fun. I wish you the best as your school works its way out of its slump, and I hope you are able to find ways that encourage it for all students.

  • EllenRitchford

    Rise of Online Education

    With rise in online education and programs like Accredited Life Experience Degree which can registered from any part of the world. Would the education standards of countries matter then?

  • liamdavid

    To be reasonable, there are a

    To be reasonable, there are a lot of parts of American culture and instruction that mirror such goals most prominently embodied in schools’ statements of purpose. Educating and adapting today ought not feel like such a Sisyphean errand – endeavoring to develop understudy development despite such a large number of strengths that block genuine gaining from occurring in a significant, transformative, and reasonable way. Cas-002 Practice Test