Monday, August 19, 2013

Lessons from Finland

I spent a year in Lukio (the Finnish equivalent of the German Gymnasium) as a Rotary Exchange student as an 18-year-old in 1979. I have kept in touch with my three host families from Ilmajoki throughout the years and went back to visit in 2005. There are some interesting and constructive ideas that come from the Finnish education system, but to say that the Finnish system produces “innovation-ready” students without any background of how this is accomplished is rather misleading.
  • Finland is a land of 5.3 million people in an area of 130,000 square miles (bigger than New Mexico, smaller than Montana.) It has an incredibly homogeneous population.
  • The Finnish education system tracks students after middle school. The academic track goes to Lukio and the vocational track goes to either some kind of ammattikoulu or goes to work. Typically less than 50% of the students move on to Lukio and application to some Lukios is competitive; this is especially true in the city centers of Helsinki, Turku, and Tampere.
  •   In Lukio, the entire goal is to prepare for the national matriculation exams. (Here is the great Finnish word for these exams: Ylioppilastutkintotodistus.) I knew many students who would opt to repeat 11th grade to be ready for these exams. To secure a spot in the university, a student would have to earn high scores on these exams.
  • Teaching programs are especially competitive: only 10% of applicants are accepted to some elementary programs.
  • Teaching programs are designed around content, as opposed to pedagogy. Teachers, being masters of their subjects, are given a great deal of autonomy in the classroom. 
So are the students “innovation-ready” because they are the best students in this small country and have had to jump over many hurdles in pursuit of a coveted spot in the universities? Are they “innovation-ready” because they have had teachers all along the way who are experts in their subject area and who have also had to jump over the same hurdles?
I am not sure where Thomas Friedman and Tony Wagner get the idea that students in Finland “learn concepts and creativity more than facts,” and with “almost no testing.” This may be true in the lower grades but the academic/Lukio track in secondary school is fact and content-driven and grounded in competition between students with very high stakes culminating examinations. I contend that it is this competition that inspires the innovation and drives the educational success of the Suomi people. That, and a healthy dose of Finnish Sisu thrown in!
(This post was originally written as a response to a Thomas Friedman NY Times op-ed that was shared with our faculty by our school’s professional development director.) 
With my second Finnish Father/Isä,
Yrjö Hirsimäki, in front of Ilmajoen Lukio in 2005.
(Isä Hirsimäki died within a year of this picture being taken.)