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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. I would be interested in knowing if students are held accountable for their own achievement. How is advancement for grade to grade determined? If their scores are not high enough, are students held back? Is there social promotion as there is is the US?

    1. Hi Mary,

      Learning is seen as students’ primary “work” and students are very independent, and also accountable for their own learning, even though the word itself doesn’t have a perfect Finnish equivalent. Also, learning objectives are open ended, so often students aim higher (and get there, too).

      As there is no scoring system in Finland, and the teachers get to create their own tests, the main emphasis is in students’ learning process. Grades (in report card) reflect student’s own advancement and compares her/his own achievements and growth during the time period between assessments. Social promotion doesn’t exactly fit into this individualized view of student assessment, but is not unheard of, either.

      At the time I was moving abroad there was lots of discussion of creating more developmentally appropriate practices for starting school, and the idea was to have a flexible age range (6-8 years) for first graders. There is no reason to hold back a 6-year old student who reads and writes fluently, but it is more beneficial for a 7-year old student to have one more year in preschool to mature and create interest (and maybe fine motor skills) for reading and writing. I am not sure if that idea was pursued – I wish it was!

      ~Nina

  2. Thank you both for your thoughtful questions and responses. I have 2 questions.

    1) You mention that about 95% of Finland’s teachers belong to a union. Does this union focus on contract negotiations, legal representation and political pull as in the US or is it one that is involved with training or helping educators keep up to speed on teaching techniques?

    2) Does Finland have teacher colleges – colleges that focus on the educating of teachers specifically? Do you think that a singular approach to educating educators would be more helpful than a set of common expectations for all students in a particular grade level?

    1. Hi Alicia,

      The teachers’ union website is actually in the source link under the question number 10, and provides information in English, too. It is the speaker and negotiator for legal issues, but also involved in training: “Trade Union of Education in Finland, is involved in promoting teacher education by influencing decisions concerning educational policy and the development of the educational and pedagogical system.”

      Finland doesn’t have colleges (well, except the Police College), but universities and polytechnics. Teachers are trained in 7 universities. My own thought is that deep knowledge and understanding about education, psychology and instruction is necessary, especially with the amount of freedom teachers are enjoying in Finland. I believe the same recipe would be beneficial everywhere – but then again I am hopelessly hooked into learning.

      I definitely think that education can be improved by emphasizing individual learning instead of following any given prescribed curricula. We need teachers who know how to choose, and who can help our students to learn how to make good choices, too. http://notesfromnina.wordpress.com/teaching-how-to-teach-teaching-how-to-choose-using-the-3cs-to-improve-learning/

      ~Nina

      1. Thank you Nina – I appreciate your response. Very generous of your time. Have a great weekend.

  3. Brilliant analysis until # 11. Not only does Finland have a better system because there is less poverty, when disaggregating data based on poverty, every system across the spectrum can be viewed as better when poverty decreases – even within systems (including Finland) themselves. When analyzing data from Helsinki, we see big time issues within a stellar system. Why? Well of course, there is more poverty centralized in this area.

    You are denying one of the foremost, if not THE foremost, cause of educational outcomes – the income level of a student’s parent(s). The relationship is so steadfast across multiple measures (ACT, SAT, PISA, TIMSS, NAEP, and every state standardized test I’ve ever seen), that to deny this cause-effect relationship should be likened to denying that when dropped, an object would accelerate towards the earth.

    Equity in funding, although a step in the right direction, will not solve the ills of American education, which like in Finland (along with everywhere else), are centralized in our high poverty urban and rural areas. The better route is to solve the crises tied to wage inequity among classes and a decreasing trend in social and class mobility. The more stable, middle-class families, the more high quality educational outcomes. Our middle class families are in ruin, and have been progressively ruined by 30 years of legislation that favors the elite and creates a feudal system. Long story short, we have many things we need to work on in America, that if fixed, could exponentially increase educational outcomes – the quality of schools and students are largely dependent upon the quality of society and parents – both of which are lacking in our present day.

    1. Hi Daniel,

      You obviously have researched the topic well. My problem in the question is the word “simply”, because correlations between school success and the social-economic status of the family is anything but simple. And while Finnish education is among the most equitable ones, the studies I have read describe how mothers’ education level correlates with school success explaining up to 38% of the variance, especially in High School and beyond. The explaining factor has been thought to be the positive attitude towards education and formal schooling.

      Not being an expert in poverty I have no good answers for you, but I did some interesting searches: Median income in the poorest area of Helsinki is 19k euros/year, but 100 poorest municipalities in Finland (with median income 14k euros/year or less) are all located in eastern and northern areas of the country. I am not sure how this finding fits into the picture?

      What I DO know, however, is that the meaningfulness of education and school well-being (both as perceived by the student) are contributing factors in good educational outcomes. And that is something we all can work on and impact on grassroot level (in the classroom) while getting the poverty problem fixed.

      ~Nina

  4. You mention the benefits of play, especially outside play. Here in England we have such an emphasis on safety it make outside play sometimes boring in my opinion. No climbing trees, only limited, safe play equipment, constant supervision, the limits of a school playground in space, and a constant stream of children who have bumped into each other complaining they are hurt and need a sticky plaster or an ice pack make for a challenge-less time, with little opportunity to be creative. What activities are on offer in your playtimes, for primary aged children? ( 5 to 11 years old)

    1. Hi Judith,

      Safety is important, of course, but it is sad when kids’ play is too limited because of that. I have taught in schools that had forest on their backyard, so that was were students were playing – and going skating and skiing at winter. In city schools things were different, of course, as they only had asphalt and gravel on the yard, so it depends entirely of the school what activities are offered. I think the usual age appropriate play equipment like skipping ropes, balls, swings etc are used in many schools, and cooperative play is encouraged. Playing different types of tag, football, basketball, hide-and-seek, as well as games like duck-duck-goose are things my own kids listed to me when I asked what they remember to have had as recess activities.

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