Dispatches from Finland: Lessons Learned by American Educators

Join us in this blog for a short, but powerful visit to observe the Finnish educational system.  We invited EdD students and faculty from the Lurie College of Education at San José State University to write about their recent visit to Finland. 

In 2003, Finland drew international attention when it posted top scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  In that year, Finland scored first among all OECD countries in mathematical literacy, reading literacy, and scientific literacy, and second to South Korea in problem solving (Välijärvi, et al, 2003).  In the years since, Finland’s top spot PISA status has been challenged by Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and a handful of other countries, but Finland remains in the top tier of international comparisons in education as well as happiness (Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. 2019).  

In June 2019, a team of graduate students and professors from San José State University (SJSU) had the opportunity to visit Finland.  The graduate students, all candidates for the Doctorate of Educational Leadership (EdD) degree, are teachers, principals, community college and university administrators, community-based organization leaders, and school district officials in the Silicon Valley region of Northern California.  We traveled to Finland to better understand the country’s impressive rankings in international comparisons.  

Coming from the U.S., a country that tends to perform quite poorly in these international comparisons, we were eager to learn more about Finland’s success and to consider how the Finnish experience might inform our own work.  During the two week trip, our group visited with education faculty and graduate students at the University of Jyväskyläand the University of Helsinki, heard presentations from researchers at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, and toured a wide range of primary and secondary schools including a comprehensive secondary school with a strong entrepreneurial emphasis, a rural school serving only thirty students in grades 1-6, a junior secondary school (grades 7-9) in Helsinki where 40% of the students are refugees and recent immigrants, and a vocational secondary school serving students with special needs.  

Below you will find a collection of dispatches from the trip that highlight some of the “lessons learned” by the diverse group of U.S. educators included among our EdD students and faculty.  These dispatches are snapshots based on limited observation.  They are not intended to represent a complete understanding of the Finnish system and often reveal more about our own systems than they do about the Finnish system we were observing.  We offer them in the hope that some of our reflections might resonate with readers’ experiences as we all seek to improve educational opportunities within our local contexts.  

Dispatch #1:  Valuing our Teachers

By Heather Lattimer, Professor and Dean, Connie L. Lurie College of Education, San José State University

The statistic that jumped out at me most prominently during our visit was the 15% acceptance rate into teacher preparation programs in Finland.  The Director of the Department of Teacher Training at the University of Jyväskylä reported that across the country,only 15% of applicants are accepted into teacher training programs.  This stands in stark contrast to conditions in the United States where we are facing a teacher pipeline crisis and fears that we will not have enough teachers to staff our schools.  In the state of California, for example, we’ve seen a nearly 70% decline over the past fifteen years of individuals pursuing teaching credentials (Darling-Hammond, L., Sutcher, L., & Carver-Thomas, D., 2018).  

As a Dean of a public College of Education in the U.S. charged with preparing the next generation of teachers, I spend a great deal of time, energy, and resources working to recruit more candidates into the teaching profession.  We hold outreach events, recognize promising future educators, offer scholarships, host community forums with speakers who promote education as a career pathway, and have launched social media campaigns to recruit individuals who want to make a difference to become educators.  What a difference my experience is to the experience of a Dean of the Faculty of Education in Finland, where the concern is who, among the many qualified applicants, should be selected for entry into their programs.

A 2018 analysis by the Learning Policy Institute at Stanford University highlighted multiple reasons for the teacher shortages we see in the U.S., including low salaries and perceived limited compensation potential, lack of administrative support, and standardized testing pressures (Learning Policy Institute, 2018).  My observations in Finland often indicated the converse of these conditions — teachers indicated that their salaries afforded a comfortable living, principals positioned themselves as collaborators and supporters of teachers, and – perhaps most noteworthy to our group of observers – there is no annual standardized testing.  All Finnish teachers have master’s degrees – many, including the principal of the rural school we visited – have more than one advanced degree, and university training is free.

This is not to say that things are perfect for teachers in Finland.  We did hear concerns about stress levels among teachers and questions about the long-term trajectory of enrollment in teacher preparation programs (applications numbers have declined slightly over the past decade with the acceptance rate ticking up from 10% to 15%).  However, overall the impression that was created throughout our visit was that teachers are valued and teaching is a respected profession.  

Valuing teachers and respecting the profession of teaching is a concept that holds across the many differences that characterize the nations that score at the top of the PISA and TIMSS comparison studies (Stigler & Hibert, 1999).  Though Japan, Singapore, and Finland, for example, may have very different schooling structures and testing requirements, each of these nations has a culture that values and respects educators and education.  Unfortunately, in the U.S. over the past four decades, we have not only underfunded our schools and created conditions that too often fail to support teachers in schools, we also have allowed a discourse that diminishes and stigmatizes the education profession.  Educators and non-educators alike too often use “just” and “only” when describing teachers and individuals who seek to become teachers are seen as either “saints” who are willing to sacrifice themselves or “slackers” who just want summers off.  

One lesson I took away from our visit to Finland was that we need to do more to honor and value our teachers — both in the resources we invest in our schools and in the way in which we characterize the work of education.  At San José State University we are not “just” training teachers; we are preparing future educators who will offer transformative leadership in their classrooms, schools, and communities.

Dispatch #2: Caring for our Children

By Fr. Gerald Nwafor, EdD Candidate SJSU; Associate Pastor, Catholic Diocese of San Jose; former Pastor and School Administrator, Catholic Diocese of Awka, Anambra State, Nigeria

I currently reside and attend school in Northern California, but my home is in Eastern Nigeria.  As a doctoral student, the focus of my research is on the use of corporal punishment in schools, a practice common in my home country.  Traveling to Finland provided me with a view of a very different approach to education.  I was repeatedly struck by the emphasis on care and respect for children that was demonstrated by our Finnish hosts.  

The Finnish emphasis on care for children was given a theoretical frame by Prof. Mikael Risku, the head of the Institute of Educational Leadership at the University of Jyväskylä.  He expounded on the reason for the success of the Finnish system of education, placing particular importance on the independence of the schools and municipalities in the day-to-day running of the school. In his presentation he stated, “Every individual is created by God to be good, therefore if there is a bad individual, it means there is something wrong with the society. There should be changes in the way the society is raising the individual.”  

This approach contradicted the view on society and the individual, which I have more frequently witnessed, in which the individual is expected to conform to societal norms and, if he or she fails to do so, it is the individual who is blamed.  In Finland, this professor explained, if there is a problem for a child, schools and communities are expected to change the conditions to better support the child.  

We visited a high school near the university, which also housed a primary and middle school. The principal of the high school gave us lunch and a tour during which he described how the school was able to maintain good standards so that it has merited various awards. He stressed the importance of continuing his own learning and listening to his students, emphasizing how the curriculum has been adapted during his tenure to respond to students’ interests and priorities.  He then asked some school kids to give us a tour of the school. As the students toured us around the school, it was easy to see their pride in their work and their ownership of their school community.  I could see how powerful and excellent the child-centered education was, at its best.

During a visit to a small elementary school in a rural community, the school principal proudly showed us the school’s music room and wood shop.  Children as young as first grade have regular lessons where they engage creatively with their hands and hearts.  This was a constant through all the schools that we visited.  Practical and creative arts are emphasized right alongside academic subjects, responding to the needs of the whole child and providing each child with the opportunity to demonstrate their strengths.

In Helsinki, we visited a technical high school where we met kids with special needs. The care and attention given to these kids was amazing, and all the kids were special and happy. Everyone in our group was touched by the behavior of these kids and their ability to answer our questions with a great sense of humor. One of the kids observed, “New York seems too noisy and busy, while Finland is too quiet and lonely, I don’t know where I want to live.” They really made our day special.  The resources provided to these children with special needs made this a very interesting school, filled with light, color, and love for students.  Further, the director explained that the government provides about U.S.$38,000 USD per pupil, which demonstrates the commitment to caring for children that permeated all levels of society.

Another interesting visit was to a junior secondary school in a community on the outskirts of Helsinki.  At this school, serving grades 7-9, approximately 40% of the students had immigrated from outside Finland.  Many of these students were refugees from Syria, East Africa, and other parts of the world that had experienced conflict and instability in recent decades. Our group repeatedly asked the head school counselor who was leading our tour questions about concerns that we assumed the students might have.  We asked about bullying, discrimination, teen pregnancy, and absenteeism.  These questions revealed far more about our prior experiences than the realities of schools in Finland.  Over and over again, the counselor shook her head and said “no, that is not a concern here.” Instead, she explained, the teachers and staff of the school focus on proactively building community, checking in with students to address any potential concerns early on, anticipating children’s needs and continuously cultivating an “ethic of care” (Noddings, 2005).  

The primacy placed on cultivating an ethic of care was a consistent priority for the school leaders we met.  One of the members of our group routinely asked our hosts, “What is your primary responsibility?”  In the U.S., asking this open-ended question to education leaders would likely result in a job description focused on curriculum and instruction, academic standards, discipline, assessment and accountability. In Nigeria, the answer would focus on keeping a quiet and orderly classroom, building character and teaching respect, and student instruction.  In Finland, by contrast, the answer we heard repeatedly was “to care for children.”  From the rural elementary school principal to the director of the technical high school to the junior secondary school counselor to the university faculty, educators in Finland reported that their primary role is to care for children.  This approach is both simple and complex.  Maintaining a focus on caring for children requires us to know and understand children’s strengths, interests, and needs; to adapt conditions to respond to children; and to relentlessly place children at the center of the work of education.  Our visit to Finland suggests that such an approach can yield powerful results.  

Dispatch #3:  Reflecting on Our Learning 

A brief note on informal learning and cohort norms during the global experience 

By Dr. Arnie Danzig, Professor and Founding Director, EdD Program, San José State University; Professor Emeritus, Arizona State University

One of the leadership components of the global experience comes from the travel experience itself and putting a group of adults in close proximity to one another, as they share transportation, hotel rooms, meals together, in unfamiliar and sometimes stressful situations.  From my experience, people learn to get along together and bond with one another. 

One issue that comes up has to do with the cohort factions.  In my experience, factions can be based on multiple criteria and are related to circumstances and contexts.  These groupings may be related conversations among groups of students that occurred in previous classes and during the field experience itself. 

In planning the Scandinavian global experience, readings were selected to allow students to learn about differences across class, ethnicity, gender, diversity and equity, as applied to the global settings being experienced.  These readings, however, are not necessarily applied to the micro-interactions among cohort members and how they negotiate individual and cohort norms with one another during the field experience.

During the global field experience, sessions are scheduled to allow the cohort to check-in with one another, and share feelings, both positive and negative.  These sessions are structured to allow a safe space to communicate both hopes and frustrations. Everyone is given an opportunity to speak and individuals are encouraged to talk about themselves rather than others.  Depending on the stress levels and need to unpack particular experiences, sessions can be added as needed.

My experience is that cohort members also need opportunities to work things out through group processes that require that they work with one another or work together, rather than only through these check-in sessions.   While the inclination may be to use one’s position of authority to confront exclusion of individuals and biases of group members, I have found that it is often better for people to work through processes based on the need to work with and enjoy the company of the others in the cohort.  At the University of Jyväskylä, students were required to work together in newly formed groups that presented their doctoral research projects.  At the Haltia Nature Center, they participated in a different group process concerning outdoor education. And in the focus groups, students were also divided into separate groups working with others that were not in proximity.    

This view of encouraging adult cohort members to work things out with one another does not minimize the importance of structured group check-ins. It suggests, however, a benefit to allowing people to work through differences and concerns by providing opportunities for cohort members to work with different group members on required tasks and events. The hope is that this informal learning will continue as cohort members reflect on their 24/7 global experience and apply this learning to their subsequent classes and individual workplaces.  

Citations:

Darling-Hammond, L., Sutcher, L., & Carver-Thomas, D. (2018). Teacher Shortages in California: Status, Sources, and Potential Solutions(research brief). Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2019). World Happiness Report 2019.New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Learning Policy Institute. (2018). Understanding Teacher Shortages: 2018 Update. A State-by-State Analysis of the Factors Influencing Teacher Supply, Demand, and Equity.  Downloaded July 14, 2019 from https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/understanding-teacher-shortages-interactive

Noddings, N. (2005). The Challenge to Care in Schools.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Stigler, J., & Hiebert, J., (1999). The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas for Improving Education in the Classroom.  New York: Free Press.  

Välijärvi, J., Kupari, P., Linnakylä, P., Reinikainenl, P., Sulkunen, S., Törnroos, J., & Arffman, I. (2003). The Finnish Success in PISA — And Some Reasons Behind It.  Jyväskylä, Finland: Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyväskylä.

Meet Heather Lattimer: https://globaledleadership.org/heather-lattimer-ed-d/