What I Learned from the Finnish Education System

The Bookbag crew with the Finnish teachers, enjoying an afternoon at the lake.
As I type, I’m on the plane (one of several!) heading home from 14 days spent mainly in Helsinki, Finland.  I was fortunate to lead a group of 25 educators to Finland so that we could both experience the culture and immerse ourselves in their educational system.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I travel with a company called Bookbag Tours.  Last year, I spent time in Peru, teaching, learning, and living with a Peruvian family.  The experiences are truly one of a kind and I do not take a day of each trip for granted.  It’s a completely unique experience to not only travel with teachers but to also spend time in schools, receiving professional development.

Our first few days were spent in Helsinki, as we acclimated to things like public transportation and the sun not setting until 11 at night (and then rising again by 3am). 
 
Petteri led us in HOURS of professional development.
We also met up with our in-country host, Petteri Elo, a Finnish elementary school teacher and presenter.  For four days, we headed to the Finnish Educational Center where Petteri presented on a variety of topics that make their educational system unique and successful.  We absorbed all of it but also really valued the ability to just ask him questions about his school and the way schools are run.

To me, the biggest takeaway is that teachers are the policy makers.  The teachers are the voice of change, of curriculum, and of standards.  The teachers are given autonomy because they are trusted to implement the curriculum in the way he/she sees best.
 
We visited a preschool; no shoes (or house shoes only) are allowed inside.
Also, their curriculum is set up in a “no dead ends” fashion, meaning that there are many choices and many paths for students.  By age 15, students may select to either go the university route, the vocational school route, or they can drop out entirely.  Even within those paths, they loop around in case a student changes his/her mind.  They put heavy emphasis on vocational school and it is still a respectable choice; it is NOT all about universities.

In Finland, it is a requirement that teachers have their Masters degrees, and they must do so right at the start of their career.  The teacher training program is rigorous and focuses more on reflection of one’s own practices.  Because of this, there really is an early growth mindset instilled in teachers. 
 
The teachers we were able to spend an afternoon with.
Another big “wow” moment is that their teaching system is built on trust and because of that, there are no teacher evaluations.  The principal’s job is to create innovation and teamwork opportunities and stays interested in the daily happenings…without evaluations.

We also got to spend several hours with Finnish high school students.  They explained that they begin to learn English in first grade but as the years progress, they can also add in Swedish and French.  Many of the students spoke three, if not more, languages quite fluently.  In fact, when we asked how they knew so many idioms or sarcasm, they said it’s because they love to watch American television shows and movies.
 
We loved being able to ask the Finnish students questions and education and life!
The students all had a common thread: they were happy and well-prepared for the future.  They didn’t necessarily know what they wanted to “be” but they had a path and chosen a high school accordingly.  One was at a high school for art and graphic design while another was at one for sciences and medicine.  There are MANY options so that students can begin specializing and gaining knowledge.

They all said that, during their school career, they had never done more than ten minutes of homework each night and that usually, they were done after five.  They said their favorite teachers were the ones that were funny or exceptionally kind.

The next day, we got to do the same system of chatting but this time it was with Finnish teachers.  I think they were as equally interested in our schools as we were in theirs.  Some big takeaways (for me):
One of the playgrounds available to students at the preschool.
-They do not spend money on their classrooms.  The school provides everything, including supplies for students.  The only thing students need to purchase or bring is a backpack.
-Children are HIGHLY independent.  Starting in first grade, they walk themselves to school and they walk themselves home.  Parents do not accompany them, even if they are taking a city bus.
-They do not work 7:30-3:30 everyday; their schedules are unique and set in blocks of 45 minutes.  Some days, they may not start until 12:30!
I loved that student work was framed at the end of the stairs.
-In elementary school, students get a 15 minute break after every 45 minutes of class learning time.
-Their goal is to spark curiosity, encourage critical thinking, teach appreciation of both cultural heritage and human rights, and to help students think positively about their future.
Our afternoon with Petteri, enjoying the lake, the sauna, and smoked salmon.
It was SUCH a unique experience and I know that it has already changed who I as a teacher, challenging me to think outside the box for both my teaching and for my students.  Bookbag Tours is an awesome company and they’re constantly releasing new trips.  You can click HERE to check them out!  

Also, for video blogs about our experience, I'd recommend my friend, SmartieStyle for her vlogs!


Have you ever taught abroad or visited schools in another country?  I’d love to hear from you.

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