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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


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)


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 is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. Are there special schools for deaf students? If so which sign language do you use? What is the class size like?

  2. As background, I’ll let you know that I’ve taught in public elementary schools for 25 years. I appreciate the interesting information about Finland’s education, and I found it to be closely aligned with my own research I conducted some 10 years ago for my education blog (no longer up). Over all well done.

    I feel your article title is misleading. You didn’t debunk the myths, you fact checked them, for, indeed, you found most of them to have merit, if not completely true.

    Also, “myth” 11 should be marked as true (as Daniel Wydo in an earlier comment points out). American children don’t get free medical and dental care, and although we do have free breakfast and lunch programs, the conservative political party here is constantly trying to get rid of that (one of our politicians actually said we should hand poor kids a broom so they can earn their food). I’ve worked in schools were more than half the students lived below the poverty level, and I can tell you it can have a devastating effect on a child’s success in school.

    1. The title has “myths” in quotes…alluding to the fact that they may or may not be true. I’m sorry if you felt that was misleading.

      Regarding #11…the “myth” says, “Finnish children do better in school than American students simply because the poverty rate is so much lower.” That’s marked as fiction because the low poverty rate is not the only contributing factor to Finnish children’s success, it’s one of many complex reasons.

      1. No worries – I totally missed the quotation marks when I read the title. However, I didn’t feel you were intentionally trying to be misleading.

        I agree that the issue is extremely complex, and it drives me crazy when politicians think they have all the answers (or should I say, a single answer that will solve everything) when they don’t really understand the problems. In fact, in political and education circles it’s popular to claim that we should use only research based methods in the classroom, yet, more often than not (in my experience), if the methodology doesn’t fit the powers that be’s ideology it is rejected even if it’s back by solid research.

  3. Good evening. Does Finland have “social promotion” policies similar to those of American public schools?

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