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A Non-Finnomenon: A Real Teacher’s Review of The Finland Phenomenon

I finally got around to watching The Finland Phenomenon, the documentary by Tony Wagner, an Innovation Education Fellow at Harvard University, about the cold Scandinavian country that has blown away worldwide education with a snowstorm of success. Like any endeavor that attempts to take on complicated international issues in just one hour, the film insufficiently gives us a proper glimpse of Finnish education and how exactly it is they are number one in the world. But Professor Wagner’s complete confidence in the wonderful aspects of their model and a so-small-as-to-be-unbelievable sample of schools and students does give the audience, when all is said and done, a head-nodding sense that Finland is doing it right, and much, much better than we are.

Now, I haven’t read a single review of this film, nor have I heard anyone talk about it. But I’m going to go out on a limb and claim here that what is going on in Finland is not only NOT revolutionary, it is oversimplified and over-glorified.

The film follows Professor Wagner as he goes to what seems to be two or three schools in Finland and we are introduced to the structure of their system. Schools are small, class sizes are small, students are rarely tested, the students are not in school for as many hours, there is no homework, they work on projects, oftentimes on their own, and almost half of secondary students can choose to take a vocational route. Teachers are well respected and paid average salaries; getting into teaching programs is competitive and once you are in, very rigorous. Technology is used in every classroom on a scale those of us in the trenches in United States public schools only dream about. And perhaps the most amazing undercurrent throughout is that every Finn interviewed is speaking English, which is not even their primary language.

Now, first I want to give props because there are some great ideas here that every country would do well to mirror. The biggest and best idea in this film is the focus on vocational education. I think first and foremost Arne Duncan should immediately put a plan into place that allows students who want a vocational education to be able to go that route as early as 8th grade. By this time students know whether they are cut out for academia or whether they are going to work for a living in a more traditional career. We talk and talk about increasing our college-going rates, but we forget that the entire philosophy behind higher education is that it is only meant for a small part of the population.

Here in California, the California Master Plan for Higher Education is very specific in this regard. The UC system was designed to educate the top 12.5% percent of the high school population. UC exclusively offers PhD programs, the idea being our top students continue on in research and continue to educate the rest of the population with their expertise. The CSU system is designed to educated the top 33% of the population from a slightly diminished theoretical standpoint and train them for other high paying jobs at the forefront of business, education, engineering and administration. The community colleges provide technical training for the next segment of workers and those with only a high school education or less will work in menial labor jobs that require no education. We know this, everyone knows this, but we continue to act like the job of all teachers is to get everyone Proficient and into college. THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN—IT ISN’T SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN.

There aren’t enough spots in college for all the really smart kids applying now. We just don’t need that many professors and PhDs. Society cannot work correctly if everyone goes to college, so why do we pretend that every kid who walks through our doors has a shot at higher ed? I had a senior last year with a 4.2 who got into St. Mary’s highly impacted Nursing program but couldn’t afford to go. Instead she is getting an LVN, which is far cheaper and easier to obtain than an RN, and will have her doing a different kind of nursing (more cleaning of bedpans, patient baths, getting supplies) for less money. And she had a 4.2—we don’t even have room in our colleges for the top 12.5%, and most of them can’t afford it anyway! The biggest takeaway for me from The Finland Phenomenon is this idea of streamlining kids into the labor force from a young age. That should be Obama’s next Acronym. First there was NCLB, then RTT; how about LGTW—Let’s Get To Work, the slogan can be this: “Training the next generation in real jobs instead of acting like everyone needs to read Hamlet.”

But aside from this, to me Finland is a Non-Phenomenon. The biggest focus of the film was this odd focus on TRUST. From top officials to administrators, many of the people interviewed in the film talk about the importance of being able to trust teachers and trust students. In one surreal scene Professor Wagner is interviewing a teacher as they both walk down the street. They are heading to school and the teacher’s class started an hour ago. He is confident that the students have been using this hour wisely, and when he arrives he finds an orderly classroom where all the students are diligently working on computers by themselves. Teachers in Finland spend almost HALF as many hours as American teachers do in the classroom, and when you see a population of students able to sit at computers without the teacher present, you understand how this is possible.

But this little anecdote leads me to my number one criticism of this film. Nothing I saw any of the teachers doing was anything American teachers don’t also do. Professor Wagner often seemed amazed that a teacher started class with a topical article from the news projected onto his screen from the Internet and used it as a way of warming up the class and introducing the day’s topic. BUT THIS ISN’T ANYTHING NEW. We all know how important this is and we are all doing this! Our problems come not from a lack of effective strategies but from the nature of our country’s size and demographics. This more than anything explains the disparity in worldwide rankings.

For me the entire film, and Finland’s success, can be summed up by the statistics that pop up onscreen every ten minutes or so. Here are some of them: Finland’s population is 5.4 million; 93% of citizens are Finn (no immigrants); 16.2% speak Finnish as a second language (very little second language learners); There are 45 languages spoken in Helsinki schools (there are 45 languages spoken at my one high school).

Finland does the best job of educating its populace not because it is doing anything differently, it is because of its homogeneous population who live in more egalitarian society. There aren’t immigrants, there are barely any students who don’t speak the language, and like all the Scandinavian countries, Finland has a more welfare-oriented state that has reduced rampant poverty. Because of all of these factors, yes, they can trust their students, and student outcomes are awesome.

Watching Professor Wagner interview Finnish students, it just looked to me like he was interviewing accelerated AP students here in the United States. These kids weren’t any smarter than our smart students, but from what the film shows, Finland doesn’t seem to have the kind of ghetto students who live in slums of fear and drugs, students we have in droves. Looking at Finland as the bastion of education and comparing it to us is like comparing an AP English Lit class to an intervention class where you have 10th graders reading at a 5th grade level. The success of the AP students versus the struggles of the sheltered students has little to do with the structure of the school or the two teachers in each class—you could switch teachers and the AP students are still going to score really high, and the sheltered students aren’t.

I’ll further argue that we could switch schools and teachers with Finland and the results wouldn’t change. I can just imagine switching classes with the teacher who lets his class work for an hour before coming to work. He can have my 10th grade English class and I’ll take that class. When he shows up to work after an hour, all the computers will be gone and the room will be empty. This idea of trust is all well and good in Finland, but in the United States all we have is doses of reality.

Look, the United States will NEVER catch up to countries like Finland and comparing us is disingenuous. A country as large as ours with immigrant populations and second language learners coming out of our ears will never have scores on PISA tests, or any other tests, like those of Finland. Hell, I bet a heaping portion of their kids even score better on English tests.

The thing about The Finland Phenomenon is that there is nothing new about it from an educational standpoint. Education in Finland is phenomenal because Finland is a phenomenally homogeneous country with a much better blend of capitalism and socialism than most other countries. Even the best ideas that can be taken from the movie—A vocational path, or paying teachers competitively, are not new concepts. We’ve been talking about these things forever. From an educator’s standpoint there aren’t any secret strategies or amazing approaches in this film. Professor Wagner often seems amazed at things like elementary students cutting out little cartoons for a project on energy efficiency—I wonder if he would have the same reaction in the thousands of American classrooms that do the same thing.

Of course, this is not to say American education is without its problems. But improving education has more to do with creating a more equal society; providing a country’s citizens with healthcare; paying educators competitively; and making sure the money in education goes into the classrooms for the students to use; more than any secret strategies being used in the classroom or blaming those doing the teaching. But I do agree that the quickest way we can start making gains towards top countries like Finland is by mandating vocational education in all our public schools, lowering class sizes, as well as paying teachers more. If anything, the film does corroborate these ideas.

Yet, at the beginning of the film, the narrator says Finland is a country with no achievement gap, and to me this empty factoid sums up The Finland Phenomenon. Being amazed that there is no achievement gap in Finland is like giving them credit for the cold weather. When we talk about the achievement gap, we are normally talking about how our Black and Latino students lag behind White and Asian students. How can there be an achievement gap if there aren’t any Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, second language learners, or Asians? An achievement gap in Finland is an impossibility—instead there is only a straight white line, like the branch of a tree after a snowfall. We might as well be just as amazed at how they make all the wonderful snow.

Reader Feedback

13 Responses to “A Non-Finnomenon: A Real Teacher’s Review of The Finland Phenomenon”

  1. Emily says:

    Hi Matt,

    I enjoy your blog and found this post in particular really interesting.

    Regarding what you said here: “… we continue to act like the job of all teachers is to get everyone Proficient and into college. THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN—IT ISN’T SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN.”

    This resonated with me because I hope to be a high school teacher one day (I’m still in college) and always thought that my goal as a teacher would be to try and encourage ALL of my students to go to college — if only for the practical reason that college graduates make more and have more opportunities than those without a degree.

    However, your arguments about how the system is set up (and especially what you said about your senior with a 4.2) make sense to me … I see why “college for all” is impractical in some cases.

    So I guess my question is — what do you think the “goal” of high school teachers should be, anyway? Since a lot of the subjects will never lead directly to a vocation, I’m at a loss for what good I’ll be doing teaching Shakespeare to someone who really wants to, and probably SHOULD (considering the thousands of more interested and talented Shakespearean students out there) end up as a car mechanic.

    P.S. One last question if you don’t mind — do you have any thoughts as to why Finland lets its kids start vocational training early, and why the US is/has been resistant?

    • Emily, good thoughts. I guess one answer that keeps me going is that even though most of them won’t go to college, in an urban school you can be the difference for those that do. In the end your percentages will always be low, but the kids you do get into college will be many, and you can truly be the defining teacher in their education. Sending one kid to college means sending their family and future family to college, because as those of us know who have gone, it changes your entire outlook on the world. This is also why the vocational route would be better for teachers as well. We get frustrated because such a high percentage of our classes don’t care about things like Shakespeare and never will. If you put those kids on their own path, that would leave the kids that are interested in Romeo and Juliet.

      As far as why we are hesitant to embrace vocational ed, I have no idea. Although it isn’t like we don’t have those programs out there, there are plenty of them. At our school it is called ROP. I’m sure there are many, many programs out there, but they are not an all encompassing part of our public schools like they should be. They should be at entirely different sites if you ask me. If you watch the film, the reason Finland has embraced it is because they lack natural resources and recognize PEOPLE are their greatest resource. They learned therefore they need to educate them, and what that means is educating the masses in labor oriented jobs, because in the history of human society that is what most people do. I’m not sure why we don’t embrace it. I think our leaders don’t see poor people as our greatest resource, for them it is oil, gas, and Wall Street.

  2. Alexandra says:

    Word. The latest NCTM had an article on Singapore math scores, and they are virtually like Beverly Hills…except all the lower class workers go home on a boat to another country where their kids are tested. So really, Singapore has a homogeneous culture where kids don’t get jobs or play sports after school. Instead, they go to cram schools to get ready for high-stakes testing in 6th grade — which essentially determines their vocational path. Seems these “high performing” countries have quite a bit in common!

  3. Pete Hokom says:

    Matt, I wish that all adults in the country would read this article. I know that is not to be, but, it would be good even if many politicians and caring parents would read the article I agree with everything you said, and with 53 years of teaching experience in high school and college, I have a basis for my opinion. This experience included a year in a highly selective Gymnasium in Germany as will as an inner city school in Cleveland Ohio, and, of course at your present school. Thanks for writing the article.

  4. Emily says:

    Can’t figure out how to reply directly to your comment Matt — but thanks for your thoughts. I wish we had more discussions like this in college … the education system would be way less messed up if we did ..

  5. Peter says:

    Poverty comes crimes. In “egalitarian” Finland, you can trust your 8 year old kid walk alone safely after school to attend sport activities. Imagine that. No soccer moms or dads juggling with their busy work schedule taking turns chauffeuring their kids to the soccer field.

    I totally agree with you. You can’t just cherry pick education from Finland and say it’s better than U.S. simply because they know better. Education is just a small part of two disparate bigger systems at play. To have an education component like Finland, you have to address other issues like income gap, crimes, public transportation, immigration, healthcare, and so forth. If you must compare education, then you should ask why universities in Finland aren’t standing out like their primary and secondary schools? Why U.S. universities are so great? Hint: immigration.

    Having lived in Finland for many years before returning to the U.S, I can ascertain that teachers in Finland are indeed very well respected. It’s a prestigious occupation despite the average pay. As to every Finn speaking English, maybe the Swedish-Finns but not all Finns. Both my nephew and niece-in-law who aren’t Swedish-Finns don’t speak English much at all. Perhaps they weren’t selected for the interview for that reason. (No, I’m not joking. Finns are very sensitive about their perceived image abroad. They’re honest people but just…patriotic.)

  6. Ellie Herman says:

    I just want to say I stumbled on this site for the first time and want to yell a hearty virtual “Hell, yeah!” to everything I’ve read here, including this piece, which is the first common sense I’ve heard on the subject. It’s beyond me why this is not obvious to Diane Ravitch and all the others who are currently holding up Finland as a model for all of us.

    I’m a fifth-year teacher at a charter high school in South Los Angeles and I just have to tell you how deeply I appreciated everything you’ve written in this blog, which resonated with me completely. Your honesty and common sense about so many issues are just incredibly refreshing and make me feel like I might possibly not be insane to think that we should not necessarily be teaching every single second of a block schedule day because relationships matter and community matters, or that English teachers actually work harder (and I am an arts teacher, so I’m relatively impartial here) or that this job as currently structured is not sustainable. Thank you for keeping it real! Okay, got to go teach…

  7. Joanna says:

    I stumbled on this article, and as a finnish High school teacher I’d like to comment & explain our system.

    First of alla, in elementary school teachers are there. You don’t leave the students alone for an hour before high school. You can’t. And the classes are not actually that small. During the first school years it’s usually around 20 kids. In the 8th grade it can be up to 30 students. In high school we teach both really small groups of 10 and big groups of 40-50.

    We have a growin number of immigrants and unlike in US, they are entitled to learn their native language too. We’ve had the Swedish speaking minority for ages, but there are Swedish speaking schools (and even universities, because officially Finland is bilingual). Just like the Same people in the north (Lapland) can study in their own language until the end of high school. In some schools the number of immigrants is over 50-60%. But in here, the immigrants are first taught in theis own small groups and as they learn the language they are integrated in normal classes, gym, music etc first and history, geography etc later.

    In Finland every teacher has a Master’s. It’s required. From 7th grade onwards, it’s only subject teachers. Our University system is different. We have to apply and only academics matter. We have to have basically good grades from A-levels at the end of high school and pass a separate entrance exam. We apply for a major from the start. So in here the English teacher has studied English as a major from the start. The number of minors is not limited, since the univerisites are free. Future teacher take pedagogical studies for a year, all the rest of the studies are the same courses that the future scientists etc are taking. We know our topic. And we have to apply separately for the pedagogical studies and pass the aptitude test too.

    As a consequence we have great autonomy in teaching. We have the common curriculum, of course, but it’s pretty broad. We can choose what to emphasize, make our own material, exams etc. We can decide freely how to teach, what methods to use etc. There’s basically no control, no standardized tests (except those at the end of high school, the European system, equivalent of the English A-levels). Especially subject teachers tend to make their own exams etc. In some subjects (e.g. in foreign languages, music) subject teachers are used in bigger schools from the 3rd grade onwards.

    The basic philosophy is to make the students work and think. We give them problems to solve, both in the classroom and at home. Yes, we do have homework. All the way through the system, every week in every subject. And we do have exams, but not standardized etc and not so much.

    In most European countries high school is not obligatory. Most countries in Europe have the same dual system as we do. But in a quite a few countries kids have to take either vocational school or academic high school.

    In Finland we have dual system also at the university level. In here, the nurses go to applied university, not university (in Finnish, we don’t even call those universities!). The guys have to go to the army around the age of 19 (usually after high school/vocational school), and since especially our universities are competitive, we usually start higher education at the age of 20-22. So most have work experience and are living on their own when starting higher education. Plus we get the student money etc, so higher education is available for everyone.

    Furthermore, we have no dead-ends despite the dual systems. One can apply to university after vocational school, but it’s a lot harder than after academic high school. We even have tracts in the vocational schools where one take enough courses in the academic one to take the A-levels and get the certificate for that. Alike, after apllied university one can apply straight to a Master’s program, but usually some mediate studies are required before one can start the master’s level studies.

    In here, school starts at the age of 7, not 5. Optional preschool starts at the age of 6.

    And to Peter: Finns are actually good in languages. But we are a bit shy and reluctant to speak if we don’t trust ourselves to speak them well. And I mean well. There’s a saying that a Finn is a good/fluent to keep silent in five languages. We have to take Swedish at school, and then another foreign language. Most take English and for most, it’s the first foreign language. Auite a few take at least a bit of German, French, Spanish…These days there are even elementary schools teaching chinese! The Swedish speaking minority is more outgoing than the rest of us in general, that might be the reason.

    • Thats for the explanation. I like the Fin system, I think you guys do a great job. I especially love the autonomy teachers have and the required Master’s. I really like that you encourage your immigrant populations to maintain and study their primary language. What a great idea.

  8. Rainier Sielaff says:

    Hi, Matt, LOVE your blog posts!!!

    I wonder what would happen if your school and other low-income schools had to share resources with schools from Beverly Hills or Aspen, CO; if such wealthy parents couldn’t just donate to their own kids’ school, but had to donate to a big pot that was distributed equally throughout the country or state, and private schools and home-schooling were illegal? It’s my understanding that Finland has such measures.

  9. Lexingtom says:

    What jumped out at me when I saw the film is that I didn’t see teachers there do anything really different than I see teachers at my school doing. But when we have teacher trainings, 90% of the time is spent in what we aren’t doing.

  10. Hello Matt,
    I am late to the party in this conversation, but I was Googling Tony Wagner and his film on Finland, which I had seen, when I found your blog. As a Canadian who travels a lot to the US, the most important difference I took away from your piece is not between the schools but between the countries. If inequality is as deeply entrenched in the US as Paul Krugman says it is, you can’t expect the school system to solve the problem.

    • Yes, that is exactly my point. Thanks John. Yes, Krugman is the man. If you go back to the beginning of the recession and read his suggestions as to how we should get out of it, decrease unemployment, etc, you see that he is right about just about everything. He said what would happen if we follow a path of austerity, and look what happened.

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