Whatever It Takes
October 4, 2017 12:33 PM   Subscribe

“The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. ” — Why Are Finland’s Schools So Successful? The Smithsonian
posted by The Whelk (41 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
A homogeneous population unconcerned about "freeloading others" is willing to devote significant dollars to supporting public education?

Our history of slavery continues to screw us as a country.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:47 PM on October 4 [13 favorites]


I mean, just comparing us to Canada highlights the differences even more starkly.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:50 PM on October 4


As I recall, they've found that if you break apart American schools by socioeconomic status, such as percentage of students receiving free/reduced cost lunch, and then compare PISA scores of those tranches against countries in comparable socioeconomic status, US students are competitive within their tranche.

Which goes to show that we have a poverty problem, not an education one.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:57 PM on October 4 [32 favorites]


Which goes to show that we have a poverty problem, not an education one.

One of the main points, though, is that the difference in performance between poor and rich kids is very small in Finland... in my opinion it's mostly because:

It’s almost unheard of for a child to show up hungry or homeless. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. In addition, the state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17. Ninety-seven percent of 6-year-olds attend public preschool, where children begin some academics. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.
posted by Huck500 at 1:03 PM on October 4 [48 favorites]


Every Finnish teacher I've met has impressed me: humble, thoughtful, reflective, quietly passionate about teaching and students.
posted by doctornemo at 1:16 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


While I think her book is only in Japanese yet (will translate if given time...), Erika Takahashi writes eloquently about how welcoming and nurturing, both emotionally and academically, she found Finland's schools as a high schooler coming on her own initiative from Japan. Enviable.
posted by huimangm at 1:37 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


As a finn and having gone through whole system I can confirm the following: original design principle of finnish mandatory schooling was not "great success". Instead it was "equal opportunity for every student". This has been about kept and my feeling is that it still works ok. Surely there are outliers in both ends, there are students who don't meet the goals and in the other end the very talented individuals do get frustrated due to slow pace in studies. Regardless of the outliers, it still might be good for the whole society as whole - a repeating retrospective wouldn't be a bad idea in this area at all?
posted by costello at 1:55 PM on October 4 [6 favorites]


Yeah, looking at the list of supports all students and their families receive outside of school tells a big part of the story.

There's also a deep streak of, for want of a better word, parochialism in US K-12 education. I went to six schools, all located in one U.S. state, and they were all so different I might as well have been an Army brat. I always get annoyed whenever anyone mentions Eli G.D. Whitney and his egg-sucking cotton gin, because e v e r y new school I went to decided that was going to be the year we would be “introduced" to Eli F.U. Whitney and the glory of his coffin jig…

Anyway, what it came down to is that if I hadn't been an autodidact I'd have been up a creek. As it stands, I still don't really know how to learn anything I can't figure out for myself, and boy, has that turned out to be a lot.

(I delivered a longer version of that Eli Whitney rant once to a woman at work who turned out to be one of his proud direct descendants. Awkward AF.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:55 PM on October 4 [15 favorites]


Apologies to Army brats. I'm sure there's a better simile out there somewhere.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:59 PM on October 4


Note: as the design principle of finnish mandatory schooling is "equal opportunity for every student", this is in stark contrast with american private schooling design principle where "great success" is considered important. The important observation here is that designing for "great success" does not lead to desired output.

As a finn, I slightly also disagree with the goals of the PISA test - they do not measure really important aspects of life - but observations in languages+math+science is not a bad starting point. There is still more in "real life" besides reading+writing.
posted by costello at 2:03 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


previously! :P
posted by kliuless at 2:06 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


Great article. Thanks for posting this, Whelk!

For all that politicians, talking heads, religious leaders, etc. in the US like to yammer on about Our Children Are Precious And Our Future yadda yadda, we do a terrible job of actually nurturing and valuing our children, especially children of color and poor children. Meanwhile, Finland puts its money where its mouth is and actually demonstrates to children that they are valued. Looking at the quality education the special-needs kids in the poor school in Helsinki receive, and comparing it to what special-needs kids in poor schools in the US receive, makes me want to be Queen of the World and change all school systems to be more like what Finland has.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 2:08 PM on October 4 [3 favorites]


costello: As a finn and having gone through whole system I can confirm the following: original design principle of finnish mandatory schooling was not "great success". Instead it was "equal opportunity for every student".

In a Metafilter thread a while back, somebody said, "All I want is the best for my own children." I think they meant it as a morally inarguable statement. It stuck with me, though, as maybe part of the problem.
posted by clawsoon at 2:15 PM on October 4 [18 favorites]


This was a part of Where to Invade Next.
Looks like they're doing a great job.
Too bad we can't afford anything that doesn't increase the wealth of the 1%
posted by MtDewd at 3:15 PM on October 4


It seems that trying to turn education into an industrialized process, with interchangeable parts and stock creating identically successful product, is a bad idea....

It's funny how only administrators and policy makers, who avoid contact with actual children, think this is a good idea.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:15 PM on October 4 [3 favorites]


When I was a kid in Finland, children didn't learn how to read until they started school at age seven. I presume some learned at home but as I recall (and this was a long time ago and I was little) it was discouraged. I can't imagine that catching on here in the US.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:30 PM on October 4


Wha? How was it discouraged?
posted by haapsane at 4:38 PM on October 4


Wha? How was it discouraged?

Probably with swamp soccer, competitive hobby-horsing, and the World Mobile Phone Throwing Championships.
posted by clawsoon at 4:47 PM on October 4


It's funny how only administrators and policy makers, who avoid contact with actual children, think this is a good idea.

I think, in keeping of what clawsoon said, that the main problem in the US is the number of people who think it sounds like a perfectly fine thing as long as this factory education is given to all of the Lesser Children and not to THEIR children. Other children, the actually-poor (usually, in their heads, black and city-dwelling) children, don't need access to all those opportunities because they're just going to waste them, and the Really Good Ones will somehow rise above it--they always manage to do that on TV, don't they? Therefore, it's for the best that urban school districts be modeled after prisons and factories, because those Other kids primarily need discipline and a work ethic, but in the suburbs everybody should have laptops and smart boards and Mandarin and watercolor painting.
posted by Sequence at 4:54 PM on October 4 [19 favorites]


> Wha? How was it discouraged?

I don't remember; this is the impression I have, but we're talking about 40 years ago.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:00 PM on October 4


>A homogeneous population...

It kind of bothers me when people paint Finland as having a "homogenous population" because it erases the experience of Sami and Swede-Finns and all the smaller ethnic groups that ended up in Finland due to it being on sea trade route at one end of the Russian empire for a hundred years or so. Sure, most of them are "white" but that only emphasizes the fact that, as you point out, it's not some vague "ethnic diversity" that America has to grapple with, it's the legacy of slavery and the genocide of native peoples and the institutions of racism and white supremacy that were necessary to enact both.
posted by Zalzidrax at 5:17 PM on October 4 [17 favorites]


Other kids primarily need discipline and a work ethic, but in the suburbs everybody should have laptops and smart boards and Mandarin and watercolor painting.

The US basically has 3 parallel school systems: urban schools which are struggling just to basically be safe for the students and keep the lights on, suburban schools which are well funded and are probably comparable with the Finnish ones, and ultra-coddling private schools which educate a tiny percentage of the students but most of the kids of politicians and business leaders. It's not surprising that this leads to enormous education disparities.
posted by miyabo at 5:56 PM on October 4 [4 favorites]


In a Metafilter thread a while back, somebody said, "All I want is the best for my own children." I think they meant it as a morally inarguable statement. It stuck with me, though, as maybe part of the problem.

Some know-nothing "my girlfriend is a teacher and I went to school so I am an expert" fresh grad programmer once proclaimed that it was wrong to prevent a parent from doing their utmost to improve their children's lives, and I just couldn't even respond. Oh, Tommy will be better off if I conquer Poland you say? okily-dokily!
posted by the agents of KAOS at 6:17 PM on October 4


the goal of us education is to justify and recreate for each generation a known informal but powerful class system masquerading as a meritocracy. Its why people move based on the local schools... i.e. there is no equality, better buy yourself an advantage. Its sad and counterproductive.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 6:29 PM on October 4 [2 favorites]


e v e r y new school I went to decided that was going to be the year we would be “introduced" to Eli F.U. Whitney and the glory of his coffin jig…

Haha! In 7th grade my English class studied 'Romeo and Juliet'...but every other year? For some reason I ended up in the class studying 'Macbeth'. Boy howdy did I learn a lot about Macbeth. It ended up coming in handy for senior year when we had to do our final term paper comparing and contrasting two characters from fiction. I picked Lady Macbeth and the alien from 'Alien' (God I wish I still had that paper). Anyway, in conclusion, Finland is a land of contrasts.
posted by sexyrobot at 6:30 PM on October 4 [3 favorites]


It kind of bothers me when people paint Finland as having a "homogenous population" because it erases the experience of Sami and Swede-Finns and all the smaller ethnic groups that ended up in Finland due to it being on sea trade route at one end of the Russian empire for a hundred years or so.

Was coming to say this. Also, the "well, Finland's homogenous [read, white], of course their schools are good" thing kind of blames people of color for the state of American education.
posted by hoyland at 6:36 PM on October 4 [3 favorites]


Was coming to say this. Also, the "well, Finland's homogenous [read, white], of course their schools are good" thing kind of blames people of color for the state of American education.

Uh, no. It blames the racist white people who don't want to fund schools because it might help a black kid. I thought that was clear.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:41 PM on October 4 [10 favorites]


TFA deals with the whole "homogenous population" bugaboo with all that discussion about how Finnish-as-a-second-language students are brought up to speed, and discussing schools in areas with higher immigrant populations.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:48 PM on October 4 [2 favorites]


Note the ~10% acceptance rate for Finnish teacher education. Ivy League-tier.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 7:46 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


I thought private schools were illegal in Finland, but I misremembered - but Wikipedia's article on Education in Finland says
There are few private schools. ... When founded, private schools are given a state grant comparable to that given to a municipal school of the same size. However, even in private schools, the use of tuition fees is strictly prohibited, and selective admission is prohibited, as well: private schools must admit all its pupils on the same basis as the corresponding municipal school. In addition, private schools are required to give their students all the education and social benefits that are offered to the students of municipal schools.
This makes it impossible for Finnish parents to sacrifice other kids' education in favor of their own kids'.
posted by kristi at 8:32 PM on October 4 [7 favorites]


"In a Metafilter thread a while back, somebody said, "All I want is the best for my own children." I think they meant it as a morally inarguable statement."

My rebuttal to these sorts usually is, "If it's not good enough for my child, it's not good enough for any child."

"Wha? How was it discouraged?"

Probably early educators and pediatricians and the like discouraged parents from drilling their children in reading early, because it's useless and can be counterproductive in making them want to AVOID reading. (There's no difference in achievement or fluency, at age 10, between children who start reading at 2, and children who start reading at 7, and it's pretty useless to get worked up about it before kids are 7 (absent compelling evidence there's a problem beyond "not reading yet") ... but try telling high-achieving American parents that, and try telling American education policy-makers that.) Reading to your kids for snuggles and stories, great! Singing cute teaching songs, fine! But if you're getting into flashcard territory or freaking out that your four-year-old doesn't read yet, you have a problem. Your four-year-old is fine. You have a problem!

(This is why every now and then you meet someone crazy high achieving, like a valedictorian from Harvard, who says, "Oh, yeah, in grade school I was in the slow class because I couldn't read" and it's inevitably because the school took all the kids who weren't reading in kindergarten and dumped them into the remedial track on the theory they were stupid, rather than realizing the school was stupid and the kids were well within the normal range of variation, and any school that is putting kids in enrichment or remedial tracks before second grade is doing a bad thing and you should not be excited that little Janie is in the gifted program in first grade -- it is a bad program that is not going to provide the quality of enrichment you're hoping for as they are not even aware of super-basic research on gifted children. That's not a rigorous gifted program, that's a sop to helicopter parents to make them shut up about wanting their precious angels in a gifted program. Anyway, you meet these incredibly gifted high-achievers who spent years and years in the "slow" class because they were late-but-normal readers, and the school did tracking too early, and once you're in the remedial track it's hard to get out.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:13 PM on October 4 [11 favorites]


Note the ~10% acceptance rate for Finnish teacher education. Ivy League-tier.

It makes sense to me that it would be competitive, since primary/secondary school teaching in Finland seems like a much more pleasant work environment: there seems to be much more autonomy, work-life balance, and social respect for teachers there.

My guess is that those first two factors are pretty important in retaining good, creative teachers. If in your profession you typically get administered and metricked and micromanaged to death, the most motivated people will be encouraged to leave for jobs where they either have more latitude or get paid more to put up with all that, while enriching for burned-out jobsworths.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:59 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


. (There's no difference in achievement or fluency, at age 10, between children who start reading at 2, and children who start reading at 7, and it's pretty useless to get worked up about it before kids are 7

Just please stop making kids who learned at two endure the torture of being assigned to a reading group where others are just starting to grasp it at ten. That's just mean to all the kids. Once I'd read the entire selection, my coping strategy was to count and memorize the next sentence that would fall to me, enough of the line before that so I wouldn't miss my cue, and then it was off to Dreamland for another halh-hour or so.

I had one wonderful teacher who realized what was going on and let me out of Reading Group if I'd take over Story Hour the Kindergarten class. I hope she's had a great career and been recognized for her wor for her work.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:59 PM on October 4 [4 favorites]


(Also there's the Finnish safety net, so teachers' low pay isn't as big of a deal because they can still afford e.g. childcare, and their kids aren't as distracted by the effects of crashing untreated poverty. That probably makes schools much more pleasant places to work as well.)
posted by en forme de poire at 10:01 PM on October 4 [2 favorites]


Wha? How was it discouraged?
That happened to my sister-in-law, in the 50's, in the US. (Central PA)
She was reading at 5 and the teachers thought that was too early.
Not sure of the reason. Maybe they wanted to keep everyone at the same level.
posted by MtDewd at 7:20 AM on October 5


There's also a deep streak of, for want of a better word, parochialism in US K-12 education. I went to six schools, all located in one U.S. state, and they were all so different I might as well have been an Army brat. I always get annoyed whenever anyone mentions Eli G.D. Whitney and his egg-sucking cotton gin, because e v e r y new school I went to decided that was going to be the year we would be “introduced" to Eli F.U. Whitney and the glory of his coffin jig…

To resolve this, you'd want some sort of Common Center (or maybe Core Consensus) around what should be taught and when.
posted by Jpfed at 8:58 AM on October 5 [2 favorites]


That happened to my sister-in-law, in the 50's, in the US. (Central PA)
She was reading at 5 and the teachers thought that was too early.
Not sure of the reason. Maybe they wanted to keep everyone at the same level.


I can't speak for the Finns, but in the US:

In the late Florence King's autobiography, Miss King* recalled the dismay of her teachers when she turned up at school already knowing how to read. Miss King said that she just absorbed reading from growing up with a father who loved to read.

I already knew how to read by kindergarten (1970-ish), like Miss King, I learned by osmosis from parents and grandparents who loved to read and always read to me. It was treated as a little odd, but not to be discouraged.

I surmise there were a couple factors at work: the concern for Scientific Methods of Everything that prevailed from post-Depression through the mid-70s or so, that there was One True Right And Scientific Way to teach kids to read and if they learned wrong it could screw their skills up for life. Second, applying mostly to girls, the idea that intelligence was wasted on a girl because "bookish" girls would never marry. Florence King's grandmother explicitly told her that reading was unfeminine (Grandmother was an old-fashioned Southerner) and would ruin her reproductive organs (!!!). By the time I was in first grade we were thankfully past that nonsense, but even then, cute, sunny and bubbly girls were more popular and well-liked and well-treated than introverted nerdy ones.

I can't imagine parents in Finland told not to read to their children - perhaps they're told not to drill their children in the kind of academic pursuits and "academic oriented" preschools so popular with affluent US parents.

*Her preferred form of address.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:58 AM on October 5 [1 favorite]


> Florence King's grandmother explicitly told her that reading was unfeminine (Grandmother was an old-fashioned Southerner) and would ruin her reproductive organs (!!!)

I can't find my copy, but wasn't it that her eyes would just POP out and roll down the sidewalk? Maybe both.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:25 AM on October 5


Nearly 30 percent of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school.

There's the magic key: the idea that education isn't a one-size-fits all proposition, and that a whole lot of kids are going to need specific guidance no matter what overall system is in use.

A system willing to focus on on the kids and ask, "what does this child need in order to learn the things we believe a healthy, productive adult needs?" can teach pretty much all of them effectively. A system that looks at children not getting passing grades and asks, "how can we change the process so that we have one system and every child can succeed with it?" will not.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:00 PM on October 5 [3 favorites]


any school that is putting kids in enrichment or remedial tracks before second grade is doing a bad thing and you should not be excited that little Janie is in the gifted program in first grade -- it is a bad program that is not going to provide the quality of enrichment you're hoping for as they are not even aware of super-basic research on gifted children

I can certainly believe tracking is inappropriate. But I was pulled out of class for a reading group starting in the first grade and it's orders of magnitude better than having a kid sit in a corner reading the newspaper, which is what one of my friends did for the first half of kindergarten--he spent the second half in the first grade, or coming home crying every day because they're bored, which was early first grade for me.

This is a sore point for me, but people discount the absolute hell that is school when you're exceptionally bright or just a kid who's maybe not exceptionally bright, but happened to be an early reader. You're grateful when you get sent to sit in a corner or the library (and in my brother's case, literally forgotten in the library for hours) because you're doing something at least mildly interesting. But your educational needs aren't being met.
posted by hoyland at 6:48 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


Reading groups aren't tracking, they're fine, and the watchword for modern American schools is "differentiation," where each student should be receiving material appropriate to their level. I had two very early readers in (badly underfunded) public schools who were engaged in group lessons when appropriate and given individual or small-group work when appropriate, and they were not bored. (One of my kids actually got sent to the ESL class to learn in Spanish because he was so far ahead in reading in English, but stumbling through Spanish-language material provided a robust challenge! He frequently worked with a partner, also very bright but entirely educated in Spanish, working in both languages to help each other through a reading section and thereby tutoring each other in their native languages. So even very under-resourced schools can be creative about providing engaging material.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:20 PM on October 6 [5 favorites]


« Older In Nethack, kraken releases you   |   Let This Sin Be Upon My Neck: Yezidi Songs... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments