A Practical and Effective Approach to Education

Finland is a nation of quiet values, of people who appreciate a peaceful society, and a culture that protects the rights of her children.

I moved to the small Finnish city of Joensuu in the middle of winter just a week after the shortest day of the year; I would be working with my new colleagues at the University of Eastern Finland to investigate how Finnish teachers teach scientific problem-solving skills to students aged 6-18.  The children in Finland are generally successful in school and they are exceptional at exhibiting scientific problem-solving skills.* My hope was that by observing teachers and learning their teaching methods from the perspective of a teacher, we could  gain insights to help improve the U.S. education system. Thus far, I have not been disappointed by what I've learned in Finland; however, I have been surprised.

I arrived from southern California, a culture that offers a multitude of activities and entertainment, museums, intellectual seminars, sports and clubs to meet every interest.  It is a very busy place for the more than eleven million people living in the Los Angeles/Orange County area.  I teach 160 10th-12th grade science students daily at a public  school that is committed to helping youth of all demographics and abilities succeed in school. My teaching days are hectic; there  is very little time to sit quietly for a moment of peace, much less to engage in an intellectual discussion with another adult. I return home from work exhausted - satisfied engaging in a job worth doing - but completely spent.

The contrast between the cultures of southern California and Joensuu  could not be any more distinct; it is quiet here in Joensuu, stunningly quiet. It is also peaceful.

I live in Aavaranta, a small community of Joensuu, and here I rediscovered the beauty of walking in a pine-tree forest so dense it was difficult to see the Sun or sky - and to feel the deep peace that only a forest can provide.

I learned how sunlight looks within the Finnish landscape near the shortest day of the year; to see how humidity and the low angle of Sun “interact” to create magical images of whites and pastels, and to appreciate ice crystals and how their different configurations change their visual impact.

There is a walking trail between my flat and the university that goes through a towering pine tree forest and there are many days I walk the 2.5 km to and from work. I visit schools and observe teachers during the day and reflect on those interactions during long walks home through the forest at night. I engage Finnish teachers in illuminating, insightful conversations about how best to educate children, followed by prolonged opportunities for quiet reflection and thought.  I experience daily cycles of inspiration and solitude. My insights come from Finnish school children, from classroom visitations, from interviews with teachers, and long talks with science-education colleagues at the university.  My apartment by a lake is my place for reflecting on what I am learning - and how this relates to the U.S. educational system back home.

Perhaps this Finnish landscape only 50 km from the border of Russia enables me to understand some of Finland's most precious values - and how these values help shape its educational system. The Finns have a deep desire for peace and this is partly due to Finland's physical proximity between Sweden and Russia and the Finnish desire to maintain a peaceful coexistence.  To put it in context, the Finns have more than fifteen words that include the word  "peace," which, when translated, implies respect -  respect for others, respect for one another in their chosen activity, and respect for families and their time together.  

Not surprisingly, this foundational value of respect extends to the classroom environment -  respect for the child, respect for how each child learns, and respect for teachers and the freedom they need to help students learn. I was interested to see how this would be reflected in their daily teaching and learning.

What I've learned in my first three months in Joensuu is that great teaching in Finland is also great teaching in the U.S.; the teachers who make significant impacts with students are doing so because they're engaging students in thought-provoking lessons.  On both sides of the Atlantic, science teachers give lectures, students read books, and students still do experiments. Most Finnish and American classes look superficially similar, except for the fact that Finnish classrooms have far fewer students than we do, and Finnish students come to class with better manners. 

There are pronounced differences in the Finnish science lessons, however. The Finnish National Board of Education assigns Standards for the educational content and grade level, but those Standards are guidelines; teachers are given the freedom to decide how to engage their students within those guidelines …based upon the needs of the children. This is a key component of the Finnish educational system.  The children and their education are at the center of the curriculum and teachers are given the freedom to teach. Finnish teachers know how important it is to connect their students to their learning, so teachers evoke real-world learning contexts whenever possible. 

In the United States, we have very little time to teach anything other than facts to students because we are burdened with so much mandated information to teach. We have very little time to address each student’s needs or to engage students in meaningful problem solving activities, because it's imperative to always move on to the next topic. The U.S. system has become geared to testing, rather than to learning.

In Finland I observed more "meaningful education" where the students apply what they are learning into real world contexts. I observed a first/second grade crafts class where students used hand saws to shape plastic boomerangs and electric drills to add weight to the wings so the boomerangs could fly. When the students were finished they went outside to test their design. In third grade art class the students had to figure out how to mix their own brown paint so they could paint the bark on a picture of a pine tree forest.  In fifth grade, students used iPads to build virtual bridges using triangles and then designed and built chairs using life-size plastic construction sets. It seemed to me that problem solving was being incorporated into every class lesson. Could I be wrong?



I continued on.... I visited a Finnish secondary school classroom where the teacher lectured for two class periods on acidification and carbon balance and students had to compare and contrast more than thirteen different charts and graphs relating human behavior to environmental changes.  A third grade teacher had students collaborate to make PowerPoint presentations about animals in the Finnish forest. A secondary school special education teacher worked individually with students on projects - but the students weren't limited by learning disabilities - these were children who struggled because a parent was out of work or a sibling was sick, for example; these children are candidates for special education simply because they have trouble learning in a traditional classroom and they aren't currently successful in school.

I think it was the Finnish secondary school special-education class that meant the most to me because it was here I could really see the individual child's needs being met and because in the eyes of these students I could see my own students - students who want to learn but in a typical classroom environment they struggle to become successful.  In Finland, such students can be given the option for individual help during class time, assigned individual projects and tutoring, and a quiet place where they can work.  In such an environment, these students are working, they are learning, and they are thriving.  The students have the option to transfer back to their regular class any time they think they are ready, but as long as students need the extra help and as long as they are working, they have permission to stay.

In visiting many schools, and talking with teacher after teacher, it became apparent that I needed to ask, “Is it true that teachers incorporate problem-solving into everything they do with their students?”

One teacher’s response: “I don't think we think about it; it's just the way we do things."

So not only do Finnish teachers approach each student as an individual with individualized learning needs, but the lessons include problem-solving lessons that relate to real world contexts. The Finnish curriculum is not about learning vast quantities of information and memorizing it, as is too common in the U.S.; in Finland, it’s about learning information and applying it to solve problems. It certainly isn’t about preparing for any big test, or pressuring students to prepare for testing, or worrying about what will happen if students fail the test.

I was told by three, highly-engaged teachers from three different Finnish cities that they credit their teaching strategies in part to educational research conducted in the U.S. during the 1960's - 1990's.  This surprised me at first, but then it made sense.  When I first began teaching in 1992 there were many training opportunities for teachers to learn how to engage students in critical thinking and problem solving and these strategies made for engaging and thought-provoking classrooms. 

In the 1990's the focus on education in the United States shifted and annual standardized tests for all grade levels were implemented; schools were to be judged on how well their students restated large amounts of information rather than how well students applied their knowledge to solve problems.

In comparison to the Finnish system of schooling, education in the United States can be like having a diet delivering very little nutrition - a lot of food but very few fruits and vegetables. The American system is filled with committed professionals, but the system is out of balance - the mandates we are given as teachers do not align with what we know students need to learn.  As teachers we know we can create classroom environments that are "alive" with learning, but the opposite happens when we are required to "teach to the test" and ask students to memorize information rather than process and apply ideas to real world contexts; classrooms can become boring and students respond by slumping in their seats, talking, and getting discouraged. The more society fears we are falling behind the rest of the world in education, the more mandates we are given. The more mandates we are given, the faster we have to “run” to push our students toward facts and memorization and the worse the education becomes for students.  American educators are caught in the middle of the American value of, "We must win!” and mandates that keep us from getting there.  In the eyes of our nation and of the world, our teachers and schools are failing - but it is not for lack of our teachers trying; our mandates are preventing us from doing our best work with students.

I recall a discussion with Leena Semi last year, a Finnish Fulbright teacher who was visiting the United States when she asked me, “Don’t you find it interesting that America prides itself on the value of the individual, but all your children are educated the same?"

There is something elegantly beautiful, stimulating and inspiring about being in a classroom where students are engaged and excited about learning; this does not happen in a classroom where memorization is both the process and the goal.  Is it possible that in America, where we're always trying to be "the greatest," that we're forgetting how to help each child become their very best?  Perhaps we have something to learn (or re-learn) from these practical, respectful Finns.

Janet English
El Toro High School, Lake Forest, CA
University of Eastern Finland, January - June 2013
Distinguished Fulbright Award in Teaching


Web article of the Fulbright Center News 1/2013