Comparing Schools in Finland and in the United States

The title is silly, but well… this is a blog anyway.

Comparing schools in Finland and in US is bit like comparing carrot to all the fruits. Carrots are good, but there are many great fruits, too. We also know that some fruits are just non-eatable, even poisonous. Anyway, in the following I will make some comparisons, which shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

To write about this was partly inspired by the Wall Street Journal article, What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?. Stephen Down, from whom I got the link, wrote already the main point:

“Smarter? Hardly. Just better educated”.

Right, the average in Finland is higher than the average in some other countries.

Some weeks ago I was visiting a school in Palo Alto, California. I was having the chance to observe some sessions of a science class running a study project on nanoscale science. The project was part of the nanosense project developing “curriculum units to help high school students understand science concepts that account for nanoscale phenomena”. So, in practice in those lessons, I was in, they were testing one unit designed in the project.

The school was a good public school. The science classroom was like science classes everywhere where there are resources to have laboratory space and equipment. Most high schools in Finland have these facilities, and so does most schools I have visit in number of countries. I may summarise that there aren’t many differences in the facilities.

The teachers, in the school I was visiting, were obviously highly educated, smart and reasonable people: all qualities that make a great educator. Also, the instructional and pedagogical strategies used in the class were similar to those used in Finland. Students were doing study work with a connections to real life, and this way anchoring the science in their own everyday experiences. I would say that in the pedagogy there isn’t any great differences, either, except that this kind of project-based learning is probably even more common in the US than in Finnish schools.

Where I see differences is the more general “school culture”. The Wall Street Journal article was also pointing out these differences. These issues are very little related to anything that is taking place inside classrooms. They are much more, well cultura, structural and organizational. These are things that are probably making the Finnish schools and the American schools different. I’ll try to list here some concrete examples.

In Finland, at least in some high schools, teachers of different study subject are working together to have integrated project where students are studying some large topic from several perspectives. This is not common, but I think (and hope) that it is a growing trend in Finnish high schools. Teachers in the school in California told that collaboration with teachers of other subjects would be great but hard to arrange. The curriculum and lesson plans seem to be so tight that there is very little space to plan and implement things differently. Even in the class I was visiting they were testing a “unit”, something that could be then maybe replicated in other schools. Why is this? Is this some kind of attempt to have Taylorism in schools?

In Finland students have a lot of freedom of expression. The youth culture is rather integrated to the curriculum than isolated from is. This kind of openness brings the topics current in youth cultures under consideration among adults, too. A funny example of this comes from some years back when we were organizing European conference in a high school in Järvenpää, Finland. One of the ideas in the conference was to bring the participants in a middle of a school in a normal school day. The pupils didn’t know (and obviously didn’t care) that there were visitors. All the lessons took place just like in a normal day when the actual conference took place in the auditorium of the school. When I then arrived to the lobby of the school (it is a beautiful, new school building with a large round lobby in the middle) at 9:30 AM with a group of educational researchers around Europe there was a rock band in the middle playing Soundgarden’s – Black Hole Sun. It was not a show organized for us. The pupils playing in the band were actually in their music class. Some of my Italian collagues were a bit afraid to follow me.

In Finland students also work with rather large “units”, like “History of American Rock Music” (not really, but they could).

Like everywhere, also in Finland teachers are naturally preparing their students to the national exams, know as the abitur exam. The beauty of the exam is that it is actually asking students to write relatively long essays. The exams take 4-8 days (6 hours per day) depending on how many exams in what study subjects you’ll take. To make your students to write good essays you better teach and study the topics on holistic way. Here is an example of essay question in the science exam (just translated it from a document available online – all the old exam questions are online):

“How cells are producing enzymes? In your essay explain the structure of enzymes, their tasks and function in the cells”.

Another example of a question from history and social science exam:

“Here is an image of William Roberts’ painting of women during the World War II. Analyze the role of women during the World War II by using the image as a starting point. Analyze the War’s influence on women’s role and status in a society in the Western world. You may write your essay also from the perspective of the history of Finland.”

The idea behind the Finnish high school exams is simple, and actually based on very classical (American) management “truth”: you get what you measure. If you measure route learning and route memory that’s what teachers will teach in schools. If you’ll stress understanding the big picture, general knowledge and higher-level concepts, that is what the people in the system will try to do.

There is another simple “management truth” we may use when thinking about education. I think I heard this the first time in context of architecture. It goes like this. When a customer is asking for more, better, faster and cheaper, the architects’ standard answer is: there are three factors of which you may choose only two. These are “good”, “fast”, and “cheap”. So your building can be either:

  • Good and finnished fast, but this becomes expensive
  • Good and cheap but will take very long to build
  • Cheap and made fast, but not very good

In Finland the educational system, as it is today, was build slowly. It is still strongly relying on the work of Uno Cygnaeus ( 1810-1888 ) who was influenced by the early European “constructivist” Pestalozzi ( 1746–1827 ) and Froebel ( 1782 –1852 ). The idea that children learn the best when they areactive and build things was not really invented by John Dewey or Piaget – they only were able to present the idea in a language of positivist science, when the earlier thinkers thought themselves as “pedagogues” or educational philosophers.

On top of the good, cheap or fast factors there is still one factor we “customers” must take very seriously. The questions is: How is the architect offering the service? Is he any good?

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