The Real Lesson to be Learned from Finland

The world of education is all a flutter about Finland! Year after year, Finnish students finish at the top of international assessments. Educators from around the world are beating a path to Finland in hopes of finding the magic elixir to their success.  

Granted … Finland is a great place to visit, but we all can’t live there! The fact of the matter is … that’s what it would take to duplicate its success. There are about 5.3 million people who call Finland home; 93% are Finns and 7% are not. 100% of its population attend or have attended school and 93% graduate. It boasts a 100% literacy rate. Wow-za! Who wouldn’t want those numbers? Throw in the fact that Finland is one of the wealthiest countries per capita in the world and has the smallest gap between their lowest and highest achievers … and you have a grand slam!

Think this all happened by accident? Do the Finns possess superior genes? Is it something in the water? No. I don’t know. And no. And why would I be writing about this anyway? Finland does not provide ‘gifted’ education per se. All children are included in the same classroom with few exceptions. The simple answer is that I believe there are lessons to be learned, but that it won’t work everywhere. This last point is significant because there are countries (my own included) that seem to think imitation will bring the same results to their shores.

After weeks of research on my part, it appears the Finns have managed to create a public education system that resembles homeschooling in the U.S., but on a grand scale … the best of both worlds. Finnish children are nurtured both at home and at school. They do not start school until the age of 7 and are expected to be reading by that time. 75 minutes of each school day is dedicated to outdoor recess. They are not bombarded with high-stakes testing and the avalanche of test prep that surround these tests. How ironic that other countries currently choose an approach to surpass Finland that is the antithesis of the Finnish system?

Teachers are well-educated; an education subsidized by the government. The majority of teachers in Finland possess master’s degrees. Teachers belong to a strong union. Teachers earn the respect of the public. They receive professional development on a weekly basis. At the elementary level, teachers and students bond by staying together as a class for up to 5 years. To ensure that each child succeeds, Finnish teachers are given the freedom to control their own curriculum and methods of assessment rather than dictated to by a national policy deeply entrenched in the numbers game. When teachers are encouraged to be creative and innovative, students are the benefactors.  

In the U.S., a disturbing trend has emerged to eliminate gifted education by saying that all children should receive gifted education ala Finland. Perhaps in a perfect world where all children began life in a setting such as Finland, this could be an achievable goal; but they do not. To impose this logic on a school system without Finnish parameters is ridiculous.

This country is witnessing the loss of a generation to the lunacy of No Child Left Behind where the best and brightest were not only left behind but ignored. And we wonder where all the gifted under-achievers came from? This one piece of legislation alone is one of the greatest travesties bequeathed to our children from a system controlled by wayward politicians and the burgeoning peripheral industries that supported NCLB’s testing mania.

If the world wants to compete with the likes of Finnish students, it should look beyond the test scores to understand that the key to success is ‘mastery’ of content in the early years of education rather than ‘exposure’ to content because instructional time is reduced for test preparation. Pasi Sahlberg of Finland’s Ministry of Education and author of the book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? states that, “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test.” This is the real lesson that should be learned from Finland


  1. You summed that up very well. There would be a lot of 'ground work' to do before a school system like Finland's could work anywhere outside Scandinavia. But 'mastery' is certainly what every system should focus on. (
    One minor point - that 93% of Finn's aren't a homogenous group.)

  2. Wow. Good information. I hope people in this country wise up soon.

  3. Great post, thanks for sharing this information. I was particularly interested in the value of the early years, and also the value of nurturing which seems to be overlooked a lot.

  4. Interesting piece! Particularly the fact that they do not begin school until 7 and are expected to be reading by then. When my boy started school and I indicated that he could do all his letters and sounds and i was sure he could actually read quite a lot but wasn't prepared to do it for his mother I was told in no uncertain terms that that was their job (teacher's) job not mine and as for reading she doubted it. What a surprise when he went from zero to level 27 on their reading scale in less than a year (level 27 was 10yr up - he was 5)with 100% comprehension.He was basically left to his own devices from then on. Just another mother sticking her oar in when she had no idea about teaching.
    I would suspect that before any system like Finlands could be introduced there would need to be a marked change in attitude from the teaching profession, who I am sure would be very unwilling to admit that what they are currently doing is not the best that can be done with class numbers and the money that is available. Very difficult to change such a mindset.

    1. I DO see lots of room for educators to improve their attitudes, especially when it comes to respecting and valuing parents as partners. Too many teachers accept the myth that their training makes them experts on individual children and their learning needs. It does not.
      I also think there are many, many teachers who would quickly tell you that what they are currently doing is NOT the best.
      Sadly, they are not speaking out about this, but shrugging their shoulders and saying they "have to" do whatever someone higher up says they must do. They want to be appreciated and respected for *how hard they work* (who wouldn't?). But much of the work is neither necessary nor helpful to their students; it's just "required."

  5. A good and truthful post about the school system in Finland. It was a nice coincidence that I found this. I am a Finnish mother of four kids. The oldest one of mine is a teacher for 7-12 years old children. All the best from Finland!

  6. Thank you, Jutta! I can think of no higher praise than the words of a mother. Kindest regards, lj

  7. I am a substitute teacher and I think that mastery is a neglected concept in American schools. I was teaching a 3rd grade lesson on multiplying by 100, 1000, and 1,000,000 several weeks ago - to students, most of whom had not mastered their addition or multiplication facts and who barely understood the concept of multiplication. This lesson made very little sense to most of the students in this class. But there were also 2 or 3 students in the class for whom the lesson was completely appropriate and 1 for whom the lesson was so obvious that I am not sure she even thought it was a lesson.

    I would be interested in how the Finnish actually manage their classrooms, with the entire range of abilities in the class, but with an emphasis also on mastery. How do they support ALL students? In most of the classes I substitute in, there is little or no accommodation for slow or fast learners. The slow learners often get outside support, but that is delivered outside of the regular classroom.

    I agree with your assessment of some of the factors in the success of Finnish schools, but in most of the accounts I have read, it is still unclear to me how the Finnish schools actually function.

  8. Lisa: Great post.A couple of observations:
    1)"93% are Finns and 7% are not." This is a crucial factor providing a homogeneous base to the classroom not only of language but cultural expectation from an education. My daughter's first school had over 10 other languages as a first language impacting 68% of the population.Looking at the SD's that do the worst I think one will see a trend repeated here.
    2)"Finland is one of the wealthiest countries per capita in the world and has the smallest gap between their lowest and highest...100% of its population attend or have attended school and 93% graduate. It boasts a 100% literacy rate"
    Again I think you can see a similar trend here when you look at communities of the "haves and have nots" Our community which is the wealthiest in the PNW also boasts the highest educational level of mothers with most having a Masters. Most mothers do not work and most if not all kids are reading by 7 years old. We did not need a gifted program per se in our schools though the SD did put one in to lure back the "private school" flight.
    Many of our teachers at the high school were former college profs and most have a masters also.
    Our testing stats are similar to Finland with our students always in the top percentiles and setting the upper end without test prep...testing is a blip during the school year.
    Our recesses are long and parents are very involved and have the luxury to do this. I would be interested in knowing how many Finnish kids are in day care from day 1 or the percentage of mothers that work.

    The Waldorf model is similar to the Finnish approach in that all formal academics are delayed until 7 yo. Though children learn to read by first writing and the first books are usually chapter books. The classroom stays together for 8 years under one teacher. Many, many benefits to this approach. There is no lost time in "getting to know you"..the teacher knows what he has covered in the curriculum. One thing that Waldorf also does, that I find valuable ,is a 2 hour block on academics daily with an immersion in a subject for 3 weeks. The rest of the day is rich in nuture:lots of outdoor time, the arts, and handwork.

    Laura Pappano just wrote about Waldorf in the Harvard Newsletter: and noted that the first public high school under waldorf rubrics showed a literacy rate go from 67% far below state norms to 12% above state norms in 3 years.

    Not intending to plug Waldorf but only to point out that the models do exist to support this type of education and SD are adopting this approach though probably due to parent demand.

    1. The Finnish culture does not only consider literacy a basic given, it values education and being educated. Becoming a teacher in Finland is respected, like a doctor, and is by far not the easiest college curriculum. Finnish parents think educational enrichment at home is also important.

      However when you say "a richest nation" I think that is a bit misleading. My family in Finland is not by our standards wealthy at all, but their standard of living is good through socialized medicine, childcare, public transportation and education. Still, I send care packages to Finland, especially for the kids as things like basic iPods are an excessively expensive luxury there.

      A Finnish mother gets three years at home with her child, for up to three children at a pay rate that is about 80% of her pre-pregnancy pay. Most mothers do have to work after their time with their kids is up as two-income households are really necessary to thrive. Each pregnant woman also gets world-class health care and a "pregnancy box" that is filled with many of the basic things you will need to get by with your new baby. The box itself is an excellent starter bassinet.

      Also, the increase in refugees from several parts of the world means their ethnic mix is less homogenized. Further, Finland has regions which are more Swedish and others that are more Russian (and they do not always mix well). All of them learn to speak Swedish, Russian, Finnish, English, and probably another language, like German. In addition there are many areas that are struggling with increasing class sizes. Still, they outperform the most homogenized U.S. state.


  9. You forget that the Finns didn't start out to remake their education system as the best in the world. Their aim was to provide an equal-opportunity education system, which then became the best in the world.

    They began with an end in mind that most in the world overlooked - the opportunity for the child to have a basic learning; not the philosophy of pushing the child to their best academically only. While the rest of the world aimed for the highest academic accolades, the Finns only wanted to ensure that no child's need was left behind. In order to make education as accessible as possible, they did away with the whole idea of streaming - which removed the whole idea of special G&T students, and focussed on a collaborative learning model which ensured that everyone participated in the classroom.

    "Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

    In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

    In fact, since academic excellence wasn't a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland's students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland -- unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway -- was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity."

    Other readings:

    If any country were to only focus its lenses on the G&T, or stratify its children by how well they test, then they really miss the point of Finland's success. It's not a method, so much as a philosophy.

  10. Dear you all, I will ask my daughter to comment on these questions. Please stay tuned!


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