A U.S. teacher’s perspective on the Finnish education system

By: | December 12, 2016

Leticia Guzman Ingram, teacher at Basalt High School in Colorado and named 2016 Colorado State Teacher of the Year, shares her point of view of the education system in Finland.

We constantly hear how America’s education system is broken and performs below the level of other countries. I recently returned from a trip to Finland where I wanted to understand why its students perform at such a high level. 

I also wanted to learn how to improve our own schools. I had opportunities to visit schools and spoke with many educators, and I learned about the supports the country provides its educators. Here are a few key takeaways from Finland that inspired me—and made me proud of what we’re doing right here at home.

Educators are valued

The teacher education program is top notch in Finland and very competitive. I was surprised to find out just how hard it is to become a teacher there. Only the top 10 percent of graduating high school students can be considered a candidate for Finland’s teacher education program. 

Students must also complete a written exam on pedagogy, and only the top candidates from that exam are considered. Then they face a rigorous five-year education program during which they complete both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. You can see why teachers are valued in this country and given autonomy, trust and respect.

There are no standardized tests to hold schools and teachers accountable for the work they do. Educators in Finland are more focused on students experiencing a love of learning than thery are in the measurement of achievement.

Sometimes I find myself so focused on standardized tests that I forget about the joy I want students to feel when they are learning. I want my students to love learning not because they may get a high score, but to satisfy their thirst for knowledge.

Less is more

As I looked around the Finnish classrooms, I was surprised that there was no technology to be found. There were no smartboards, computer labs or any of the other shiny gadgets that are ubiquitous in U.S. schools. 

Educators in Finland focus more on critical thinking, and students are not so quick to turn to Google for the answers. In the past, I’ve worried that I did not have enough technology in my classroom, but this trip made clear it should not be my top concern. Rather than using technology, the Finnish focus on learning through play.

Diversity is our strength

It’s hard to compare the Finnish education system with our own because of our changing demographics. Finland is 90 percent homogenous, 90 percent of the population speaks the same language, and 90 percent of people follow the same religion. 

In the United States, our classrooms are full of many different languages, skin colors, religions and cultures. In my school, 58 percent of the student body speaks English as a second language. I’m not suggesting that diversity is an excuse for not achieving at the same level as Finland. But we must challenges ourselves to view diversity as a gift that we can leverage to educate all our students to a high level. 

We know the diversity in our classrooms represents what the real world looks like. Even Finland will not stay homogenous forever. 

What can Finland learn from us?

On the last day of my trip, a Finnish administrator asked me how to educate the growing immigrant population. He knew that, in time, Finnish schools would turn to us for advice. That really struck me. As impressed as I am with the Finnish school system, I am also struck by the humility they demonstrated in realizing they need to learn from us too.

Finnish schools are one of the top systems in the world because they know that they do not have all the answers and are constantly looking for ways to support their students.

Leticia Guzman Ingram teaches at Basalt High School in Colorado and was named 2016 Colorado State Teacher of the Year.