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Education Trends   |   Mar 12, 2013

12 “myths” about education in Finland debunked

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

12 “myths” about education in Finland debunked

By Angela Watson

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The success of public schooling in Finland has been a huge topic of discussion in the education community over the past year. I’ve read a few good articles about it, including Why Are Finland’s Schools So Successful?, and was impressed with what I learned. So when the image to the left started circulating on social media, I shared it along with a link to 26 Amazing Facts About Education in Finland.

The image and the article weren’t in total agreement about the state of Finnish education, and neither were commenters on Facebook. That made me even more curious about what Finnish education is all about.

A Finland native named Nina Smith had recently offered to guest blog for me, and I was thrilled when she was receptive to my request for her to respond to the rumors floating around about Finnish education. Nina is a pedagogical consultant who earned her M.Ed. and teaching credentials from the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland. She’s an experienced educator who provides teachers with personalized tools that help them promote deep learning and create more effective and emotionally safe classrooms.

Obviously, Nina can’t speak on the experiences of all students and teachers in Finland, but having received her own education there as well as having taught there for several years, I feel she has some important experiences and insights to share with us. For each statement I provided, Nina responded with Fact, Fiction, or A Little of Both. 

1) Teachers in Finland are paid like doctors.

Fiction.  Starting salary for a teacher is not huge (around $40k-$50k), but when in a permanent contract they get paid for the summer, too. Doctors are paid more, but generally the salary gap between professionals is smaller in Finland. (Source)

2) Professional development is strongly emphasized in Finland and teachers are viewed as respected professionals.

Fact. This is a two-fold question. Professional growth is viewed necessary for teachers, but usually they have much independence in deciding about their PD.  Elementary teachers must have a M.Ed. with major in education and a minor in multi-disciplinary school subjects and another minor in a chosen subject. Teachers are part of the academia, and their professional opinion about learning is respected. Usually teaching is the chosen career, not a stepping stone to something else.

3) Teachers in Finland get a great deal of freedom to meet students’ needs: the national curriculum is very short and non-prescriptive.

Fact. The national curriculum includes the objectives and core contents for different school subjects, but schools and districts create their own curricula within the framework of the national core curriculum. Teachers get to decide how they help their students to reach the objectives. (Source)

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4) Students in Finland get more than one hour of recess a day.

Fact. The basic model in K-12 is to have 45 minutes of instruction/learning and then a 15 minute break. First and second grade students go to school for four hours per day and from that time they have 75 minutes of recess. During recess students go outside to play – and they are encouraged to be physically active.

5) There is no mandatory testing in Finland.

Fact. Teachers are trusted to provide assessments they see best benefit their students’ learning. Feedback of individual learning process is emphasized over standardized testing. (Source)

6) School doesn’t start for Finnish children until age 7.

Fact. The year before school starts is called pre-school, and it is free for all students but not mandatory for 6-year-olds. Students are not expected to learn how to read in pre-school. They are learning how to learn and how to take part in group activities.

7) High quality early childhood education is free in Finland.

Fact, and A Little of Both.  Pre-school (the year before school starts) belongs to formal education system, and is free. The same requirements that regulate the teaching of 6-year-olds in schools also are valid in daycare centers for 6-year-olds, and enrolling is parents’ choice, often depending on their employment. Every child has a subjective right for high quality early childhood education, but whether it is free depends on the income level of parents. ECE is heavily subsidized, so the highest monthly payment for childcare is 264 euros ($350) per child at a daycare center.

8) There are no private schools in Finland.

A Little of Both.  Finland has common legislation for both private (state subsidized) and public (city or state owned) schools.  Last year there were 85 private schools in Finland serving approximately 3% of the whole student population.

9) Parental involvement is required.

Fiction. Parents are encouraged to be involved in their children’s education, but it is not a requirement. Students are very independent, including getting to school and back home when the distance is less than 5 km (~3miles). They walk or ride a bike, or parents transport them.

10) There are no teacher’s unions in Finland, and that makes for a better education for students.

Fiction. In fact more that 95% of teachers belong to the teachers’ union (OAJ) which is a member of the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff in Finland (AKAVA). But, the relationship between schools, education policy makers and union is constructive. (Source)

11) Finnish children do better in school than American students simply because the poverty rate is so much lower.

Fiction. The poverty rate in Finland is certainly lower, but what makes the difference in education is equity combined with quality. Instead of highlighting individual performance and competition of students in Finland the focus is on schools’ ability to provide equally good education for different learners. Basic education is completely free including instruction, school materials, school meals, health care, dental care, special needs education and remedial teaching. One Finnish specialty is the free hot lunch served to everyone every day. Hungry students cannot learn well. (Source)

12) The Finnish way of teaching could never be replicated in the United States because our population is so much more heterogeneous.

A Little of Both. No educational system should ever be replicated in another culture as it is – just like no information should be accepted as it is, but must be assimilated and/or accommodated to become a perfect fit. The way of facilitating individual students’ learning by promoting cooperation and cognition with constructive practices could easily be replicated. (Source)

Nina Smith is a pedagogical consultant who helps teachers to thrive in their profession. She also mentors teachers pursuing their master’s degrees, and is a mother of four successful children. Originally Nina comes from Finland where she earned her M.Ed. and teaching credentials from the University of Jyvaskyla. Today Nina provides teachers with personalized tools that help them promote deep learning and create more effective and emotionally safe classrooms. To learn more about meaningful learning, please visit Notes From Nina.   To contact Nina, please visit www.ninacsmith.com

Any questions for Nina? What do you find most interesting about the differences between Finnish schools and schools in your country?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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Discussion


  1. How did Finland’s post WWII relationship with Russia impact the development of its education system?
    Having young people forcibly sent to another country at a certain age must have hugely impacted how the system was developed, and its goals would it not?

    1. Hi James,
      I am not the best person to answer your question, because my own interests are focused on how learning happens. Dr. Sahlberg discusses also post-war situation in his book, Finnish Lessons, and here is the table of content: http://www.tcpress.com/pdfs/9780807752579_toc.pdf

      I know, though, that the current educational system (the comprehensive school) was sketched already in early 1930’s, but was implemented in 1970’s and has been under constant evaluation and improvement ever since. Wikipedia also provides some insight to the Finnish system: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Finland.

      ~Nina

    2. Having a great education system is not the answer, America does have one (Iy League, etc). There are millions of hyper-educated baristas and wait staff. Without a functioning economy, and with no opportunities for anyone not born rich and entitled, you can be as smart as you want. You’ll still be kicking a can around the ‘hood……

      1. I really struggled to get an education. Years later, I found out I have ADHD. Still, I earned my BA & even took several grad courses. I’ve been homeless & broke, out of work, & insufficiently employed; however, I will never ever EVER bemoan my decision to earn an education.
        Jobs are about training. We can train animals. We cannot educate them.

    3. What do you mean by “Having young people forcibly sent to another country”? Finland did not send their youth to another country. After WW2 Russian border was iron curtain, there was not much influence from Russia to education.

  2. Nina – Thank you for taking the time to stop by and clear up some of these myths. I find Finland’s educational system to be extremely interesting, and I really appreciate you taking the time to share this information with all of us!

    1. Hi Heather,

      It is my pleasure, indeed. Good quality education is so important to me, and while I know there are many things that are not transferable from one culture to another, I still would like to encourage each and every teacher to reflect upon things that are in their control. Choosing to emphasize learning over teaching is one of these things, and keeping that idea alive in the classroom vocabulary helps students become more accountable for their own learning. Please visit my website and/or blog http://notesfromnina.wordpress.com/ for more information!

      ~Nina

  3. Good evening, Nina…I love all things Scandinavian being of nearly half Norwegian ethnicity myself. My questions are: What is the typical class size at the different grade levels? When students have difficulty, how is that addressed (i.e., what interventions)? Small group, specialists, or? Do all the grade levels have different teachers for the different subjects as they do in Norway? Thanks in advance for your insight! I sure wish our students could have 15 minute breaks every hour! I am sure discipline issues would plummet drastically in our system if this were the case. They’re just kids! Even in college we get those 10 minute breaks to walk to class. Why not them?

    1. Hi DeeAnn,

      Class size is usually around 16 students for preschool (6-year olds), 20 students for elementary (grades 1-6), and 18 for middle school age students (grades 7-9) says a report from ministry of education at 2010. There are bigger classes, too, up to 25-30 students, depending on the location (17 % of total classes are these “oversized” ones).
      Mainstream classrooms are inclusive, special education services are planned around the students’ weekly schedule during school hours. Special education teachers and school psychologists are on-site in bigger schools and visit smaller schools regularly or when needed.
      In elementary the class teacher usually teaches most subjects, but music, crafts, shop, PE and English are sometimes taught by another teacher (depends on faculty interests and specializations). Often students have the same teacher for two or more years.
      Recess really makes a difference and is very much fun for students – but I also remember spending repeatedly the whole recess helping 20 first and second graders to get their skates on…. and then packing snowy clothes to dry during the next lesson. 🙂

      ~Nina

  4. Hi Angela, thanks for this article. Really appreciate it!

    hi Nina,
    Thanks for taking the time to share your insights into the Finnish system.
    I’m writing from Singapore. Over here, we have highly subsidized education and professionalism for teachers. I love that there’s less pressure on the kids to perform at a young age (you ought to see the kind of worksheets our kindergartners have to tackle) and that the teachers have so much autonomy over kids learning. We have mandatory tests here and they determine whether a child moves on to the next grade or which “stream” (arts or science at age 14) a child goes into. Very stressful.

    My question actually is regarding teacher’s workloads. What would be the typical no. Of hours a Finnish teacher have in the classroom, other teacher related work (marking, lesson planning, etc.) and how many for school level meetings and committee work? For example, what time does a teach clock in to school and what time do they typically clock out? Do they bring work home? Commonly, teachers in Singapore work up to 9-12 hours in school and still bring work home and sleep at 2 am.

    1. Hi Sue,

      Finnish education certainly is much less about performing than emphasizing the learning process. Rushing learning doesn’t yield good results.
      When I taught in Finland, my contact hours were 24 or 26 hours per week, and one staff meeting per week. Occasional meetings maybe once or twice a month. Sometimes meetings or retreats on weekend. And it was up to me whether I wanted to plan at school or at home. Sometimes I left school at 3 pm, some nights I stayed late. We did collaborative projects which was nice, and those took more time, but otherwise the workload was reasonable.

      ~Nina

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