Teach Like Finland: What Worked, and What Didn't

Hey, y'all. If you've followed me for awhile, you probably heard bits and pieces about my finishing my master's degree this year. Now usually that's pretty boring news to everyone outside of your immediate family, but I did some research during the capstone that I thought might be of interest.

You've probably seen my posts about about hygge and lagoon by now (if not, you can find them here and here and here). If you don't remember the term, it's a Danish word that loosely translates into a feeling of coziness, warmth, and togetherness. Stumbling upon the term "hygge" has led to my fascination with all things Scandinavian--their culture, their appreciation for slowing down and enjoying things, and, most importantly for this post, their school systems. I devoured the book Teach Like Finland, and from then on, I was hooked. 

Finland has one of the best school systems in the world. They consistently out perform the United States in reading and math on the PISA exam, AND they pretty much do everything opposite of the US. They test less, nurture more, give students more autonomy, have less class time and more down time, but they perform so much better on international tests. Even without all the practice testing that US kids get. 

So I did a little research. Why do they do so much better? And can I use the instructional strategies they use in my classroom and have the same results? 

I won't bore you with all the details, but in a nutshell, we practiced goal-setting, student-centered lessons/structures, and choice time. Another aspect I wanted to research but didn't have the resources to test for (or admin support if we're going to be real here) is interdisciplinary units--meaning students have a topic and learn all about the topic within the context of each subject area. Think project-based learning on steroids. 

Anyway, we tested the Finnish teaching strategies, which are largely American strategies as well, just implemented differently, and the outcome was surprising. 

The students that showed the most growth in these units compared to other units were the students that had strong, stable home environments. The students that didn't have those strong environments at home did not to nearly as well. 

Now, I know what you're thinking. Kids from more stable homes always do better. However, these measures of growth were against themselves--how much these same kids grew in other units. The students with the stronger backgrounds grew much more in those units than in previous units. The kids from more...flexible backgrounds...would normally show more growth than they did in these units compared to previous units. 

So...I conclude that the social systems Finland has in place in their country is the major reason their students out perform ours. You see, in Finland, children get support from the government from birth. Parents receive supplies for the baby, have a lengthy maternity and paternity leave, and child care and preschool at almost no cost to parents. 

Healthcare and mental health services are provided to all citizens. Families are well supported and are encouraged to have time together, including paid time off for vacations. The students have their basic needs met before they ever walk into the school's doors. 

We could talk pedagogy all day (I literally could), but the bottom line is that their Maslow's needs are met long before they are ever asked to Bloom. (See what I did there? 😉) I would love to continue to research these teaching practices and fully implement them for the entire school year (especially interdisciplinary units), but the hard reality is that the students in our schools need more than just a school can provide. 

They need to be cared for at home with adequate healthcare, stable family situations, books, parents who don't have to worry about making ends meet and can actually enjoy spending time with their kids. (Finland's percent of families in poverty is much lower than that of the US.) Until we have a massive overhaul of our country as a whole (values, financial distribution, healthcare, stable family situations), our education reforms won't be able to fix things. 

Yes, education reform is needed (I can't tell you how many Red for Ed events I've been to), but it has to start at home and with a major government reform. I'm not saying we need to go all socialist, but we do need to move as country into investing in our kids and families. That is where true changes will have the biggest impact. 

What do you think? Let me know in the comments. If you want any book recommendations for further reading, I have tons of suggestions to offer!

Have a wonderful week and stay sweet,