When Finland was recently crowned happiest country again in 2020, we reached out to our Finnish colleague to check in and see how he and his country were faring. Two and a half years ago , we had an opportunity to co-design and take a tour of Finnish schools with Educational Leadership Consultant Mikko Salonen. We recently corresponded with him and he wrote:
At the moment, we are making plans of opening the society after the pandemic, and how to repair the damages on learning and how to mend the learning deficit. We have gone through a very hard period of remote teaching and learning in basic education, high schools and universities. Also we have a big concern about how to help those who are suffering with mental problems, loneliness and other problems caused by the pandemic.
The political decision makers are working on these issues in close cooperation with the professionals (education, health, etc). I believe that we will be able to tackle this challenge by doing multi-professional cooperation, but it will not be easy and there is no quick way out. We are very proud of our country and the achievements we have reached as a society. Our society functions well, is safe, clean and sustainable, and we can trust both each other and those who have responsible positions in the society.
As Mikko suggests, Finland’s story continues to be one of reckoning, resilience, and future-forward thinking. To be clear, Finland hit the reset button beginning in the 1970’s when their education system and economy was struggling. Their education saga has been nothing short of extraordinary (aka the Finland Phenomona). As we continue to be responsive to what our right now learners need and how we can become more agile in our curricular and structural choices, we reflected on lessons that could help fuel fresh possibilities for any school around the world.
- Teachers work in teams with the same group of students over several years providing not only community but increased opportunity to know each child and apply consistent support for growth. Research on long-term grouping points to the benefits of sustained continuity with a group of teachers in contrast to the loss that occurs when student continuity is broken each school year with a new teacher and a new group of students.
- Teaching teams have a sizeable degree of autonomy on managing daily and weekly schedules which allows for highly responsive instructional approaches to student learning. Flex-time is key in order to take a deeper dive with learners who need support and to explore questions and possibilities with learners.
- Phenomenon-based learning is an integrated part of the curriculum. The national guidelines ask that each learner have at least one substantial learning experience based on emergent and relevant real-world applications. These are definitely interdisciplinary in design and fully engage learners in the process of relevant inquiry.
- Teachers and teaching are highly valued in the country. Teaching is one of the hardest professions to enter given requisite high standards. Statistically out of 8000 applicants for teacher education certification programs offered at the university level, only 10% are accepted (according to the Kantor Education Policy Group ). Highly educated and highly capable teachers collaborate throughout their professional careers are central to the success of the Finnish education system.
- Universal pre-K is essential to school readiness. With a system that supports families with one year of maternity/paternity leave and universal pre-K in a rich environment supporting social and academic development. Formal school begins at age 7 buttressed by this national commitment to support families providing equitable learning experiences. Children are ready for school.
- Every teacher is entrusted to support every learner. Whether it is working with new immigrants or students with special needs, each teacher has both the training and expectations to work with every child. There is an emphasis on working with students through both early prevention and detection to identify needs and attend to them. In addition, mental and emotional health and wellbeing is tended to through curricular programs as well as part of the tiered levels of support.
- The intentional use of formative assessments to grow the learning and the learner. There are limited pressures to finish work at the end of the class period. Encouraging learning — drafting an idea, making mistakes, and growing from feedback — is the dominant a way of thinking and working. This becomes the basis of the feedback cycle with teachers and students as they regularly conference to examine progression and determine next steps.
- Relaxed environment to grow autonomous learning. When students are at ease and feel supported they step up and take increased responsibility for their own learning. Finnish students are expected to be accountable for their own actions, demonstrate their learning, and share how they feel about their learning. The physical learning spaces provide outlets and opportunities for interaction such as ping pong tables, comfortable seating. Students and teachers enjoying spending time together as they are working. This relaxed environment is also anchored by student self-directed tasks (e.g., cleaning the tables in the cafeteria, focusing on assignments).
- The leader’s role is to grow the capacity of the staff through strategic and compassionate approaches. Instead of taking a more aggressive approach through formal evaluations, building leaders acknowledge teacher emotions but work to change or grow their pedagogy. Cultivating the relationship of teams is grounded on the concept of the circle of trust and is central to the leader purpose. Teachers are committed to using their freedom wisely as they interpret National Curriculum and design learning experiences. Leaders observe and consider how professional pedagogy and emotional support can be enriched through coteaching, flexible scheduling, or focus on a building-wide narrative (e.g., flipped learning, cultural competence).
- Clear national goals that commit to preparing every learner for the world we live in right now. The goals of the national curriculum are: growth as a human being and membership in society; knowledge of requisite skills; promotion of knowledge and ability, equality and lifelong learning. Every child is important to the society.
The shifts and decisions that Finland began to make over 50 years ago were compelled by a national commitment to the care and wellbeing of their students by aspiring to an equitable teaching and learning system for all. Finnish leaders continue to seek inspiration around the globe for fresh ideas to consider ways of thoughtful innovation while trusting slow growth to build expertise as they engage with complex problems, challenges, and ideas that are central to a creative economy.
Right now we are facing both the challenge and the opportunity to reset. Rather than simply admiring the Finnish system and their response to the pandemic, might we inform our decisions with insights from their extensive experience? Our learners need us to step up and take purposeful action in contrast to going back to school. They need us to move forward.