I’ve worked as an elementary and primary school teacher here in Finland for more than a decade, and spent five years as a vice principal as well. Our education system is widely considered one of the best, if not the best, in the world. Some might assume that this is because we pay our teachers the most, but according to recent figures, Finland is not among the top 10 when it comes to teachers’ salaries.
So, what makes Finnish schools consistently excellent? A curriculum reform adopted by the Finnish National Agency for Education in 2016 set key goals that I think are clear reflections of the Finnish approach to education: enhancing pupil participation, increasing the meaningfulness of learning and enabling every pupil to feel successful in their academic and social-emotional learning. The students set goals, solve problems and assess their learning based on set targets. The principles that guide the development of Finland’s national educational system emphasize the school as a learning community. These principles include the following:
The new core curriculum places an emphasis on transversal competencies within instruction. What are transversal skills? They’re things like learning how to learn, cultural competence, interaction and self-expression. They focus on taking care of oneself and managing daily life, but also on competence with both technology and working life. There’s also an emphasis on building active skills students will need for the rest of their lives, such as entrepreneurship, participation, involvement and creating a sustainable future.
A changing society demands more and more transversal skills and competencies, so teachers in each subject promote them. When I was a teacher, I did this by assigning very open tasks for students, with the idea that there will probably be more than one right answer.
To promote its curriculum in schools, the Finnish National Agency of Education is always seeking new tools that support teaching in the best possible way. The agency has identified augmented reality (AR) as a powerful emerging technology, and has helped develop an AR and 3D printing program (where I work) specifically created to support the new curriculum and develop a positive school culture.
Another success is the University of Turku and its company, Finland University, which has sold its research-based anti-bullying educational program KiVa to 17 countries around the world. The fact that the government has a hand in these projects from the beginning means that the technology it designed to support the national educational mission, so teachers don’t have to look at a tech tool they’ve been given and ask themselves, “How am I going to use this?”
Each academic year, every school must have at least one clearly defined theme, project or course that combines the content of different subjects and deals with the selected theme from the perspective of several subjects. These are called multidisciplinary learning modules. Schools plan and implement the multidisciplinary learning modules, and the topics and duration may vary based on local needs and interests. Pupils participate in planning the modules, and teachers make sure that, throughout this process, students from varying grade levels work together.
Students are all individuals, so we can’t teach them all in the same way. Teachers have to differentiate their lessons, which means that there are usually at least five different levels of assignment in the same class at the same time.
It also means that every student has their own specific goals that are considered every year together with the teacher, pupil and parents. We make a point of having students from different backgrounds work together. As a teacher, I believe that there's always something that you can learn from someone who is different than you.
Diversity in Students’ Assessment
Where American teachers have to deal with punitive high-stakes testing, the new Finnish curriculum emphasizes diversity in assessment methods as well as assessment that guides and promotes learning. Information on each student’s academic progress must be given to the student and guardians on a sufficiently frequent basis. Feedback is also given in ways other than reports or certificates. Self-assessment and peer assessment play an important role in evaluating and “learning to learn” skills.
In elementary schools, we don’t have templates for evaluation. We have assessment discussions with parents and students at least once a year, but many have the habit of having them twice. We set goals and discuss the learning process, and the evaluation is always based on the students’ strengths.
An Active Role for Students
The simple idea here is that teachers should talk less and let the student do more. Teachers facilitate teaching, while students set targets, reflect, and solve real-life problems. We also stimulate students’ curiosity by studying in environments outside of the classroom such as the schoolyard, the forest, a library, or even a shopping center.
All of these principles are key to Finnish education, but the most important thing is that our national system is dedicated to helping every student grow as a human being.