Lessons from Finland

What Can South Carolina Schools Learn from Finland?
Posted on 01/08/2019
This is the image for the news article titled What Can South Carolina Schools Learn from Finland?On January 15th at 6:30 p.m. at Liberty High School, Dr. Danny Merck will be presenting "Finnish Strong," a discussion of lessons learned from a recent trip to Finland to study the country's education system. Parents, teachers, and community stakeholders are invited to attend.

What Can South Carolina’s Schools Learn from Finland?

This fall, I had the pleasure of joining a group of educators and leaders on a trip to Finland led by Public Education Partners, Furman University’s Department of Education, and the Riley Institute at Furman. Our goal was to learn about what makes Finland’s public school system one of the best in the world, and how we could put some of their strategies to work here in South Carolina. On the way home, the lessons I learned there began to form in my mind into a simple rhyme:

Build more.

Feed all.

Test less.

Play ball!

One of the first differences I noticed at Finnish elementary schools, was how much the students worked with their hands. They were constantly making, crafting, and building! Finland is not afraid to put simple tools in the hands of a second grader. Their students not only use their hands for creative things like art projects, they learn basic life skills. This sort of hands-on practical learning keeps students—especially boys—engaged in what they’re doing in the classroom. I’m proud of what our students learn at our Career & Technology Center in high school, but career and technical education should begin early, and working with our hands should not be reserved for students who have been told they cannot compete academically.

Another difference that stands out in Finland’s schools is that they place a priority on feeding all students. I was fascinated to learn America’s role in the history of that practice. In 1948, Finland was paying the steep price of siding with Germany in World War II, being forced to pay reparations to the Soviet Union. As the country’s economy and morale was fading, the U.S. saw an opportunity to create an ally in the Cold War and offered to fund breakfast and lunch at school for every child in Finland. With their children’s most basic needs met, their economy stabilized and soon recovered. The Finns continued the practice of feeding all children at school long after the U.S. stopped paying for it, and America’s gesture of friendship has never been forgotten. I believe the lesson for our schools is that learning and growth are only possible when our students’ basic physical and emotional needs are fulfilled. Without that foundation, even the most innovative teaching practices will fail.

Nothing in Finland’s schools stood in starker contrast to America than their approach to testing. Finland’s reputation for outstanding education stems from their consistent performance near the top of the world on the PISA Test (Programme for International Student Assessment), which is given to 15-year-old students worldwide. In the U.S., Federal law requires multiple high-stakes tests every year from 3rd-8th grade. In Finland, the number of high-stakes tests students take in 3rd-8th grade is zero. The only high stakes test in Finland is the Finnish Matriculation Exam, which students take at the end of high school to determine college eligibility. Even the PISA test is only administered every three years to a random selection of students.

The Finnish approach to testing reflects their overall views on child development. Finns place little-to-no emphasis on academic achievement in early childhood; they focus on early social and physical development, and only begin to teach reading at age 7. From age 7 until students finish 9th grade, very little homework is given, and teachers are given respect and freedom to develop their curriculum under a broad national framework. At the beginning of high school, the transition begins from “child” to “student.” High school students begin to take responsibility for 2-3 hours of homework per week (still less than many American students), and they are given a choice to pursue a trade certification at a vocational school or to pursue an academic degree on the path to attending a university. With a mindset that they are learning for life, not just for a test, students in Finland retain what they learn in elementary much better than American students.

The last lesson from Finland is that you can’t stay in a school for long—45 minutes to be exact--without seeing students play ball. The Finns consider physical activity to be essential to learning, and its value is reflected in their buildings and in their schedule. Each class hour in Finland consists of 45 minutes of class and 15 minutes of play. They understand that it is impossible to keep all students engaged for more than 45 minutes at a time and that physical play is key to every child’s mental development. The first time I walked into an elementary school gym in Finland, my jaw dropped: three full-sized basketball courts, side-by-side! Vigorous sports like floor hockey, soccer, and basketball are the norm for students of both genders at recess, allowing students to burn off energy and focus when they get back to class. Also, while competitive club sports have a significant presence in Finland, at school, sports are for fun, helping students develop a joy for physical activity that lasts into adulthood.

Build more. Feed all. Test less. Play ball. Finland’s recipe for success is not complicated. In fact, many Finnish educators say they got their ideas from America, or from the way American schools used to operate. However, their success is not easy; it requires buy-in from parents, from leaders, and from a national culture that is far more unified than ours. Some changes, like less testing, will require a change of thinking all the way up in Washington D.C.  But fortunately, some of their methods—like the 45/15 schedule and their emphasis on hands-on learning in elementary—are changes that I can work toward making at the district-level as a superintendent. I look forward to making our schools Finnish strong this year.

Dr. Merck has 28 years of experience as an educator in South Carolina public schools. He is a former member of the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee and is in his fifth year as Superintendent of the School District of Pickens County.