What Could RI Educators Learn From Scandinavian Thinking?

Finland’s education system is consistently ranked among the best in the world. How could we apply their approach here?


Finland’s education system is consistently ranked among the best in the world. Earlier this year, the country was named the World’s Most Literate Nation in a report published by researchers at Central Connecticut State University.

Finnish students perform well on standardized tests across a variety of subjects, and they do well on almost every other international measure of educational quality. One of the most interesting things about Finland’s students is that there is little performance variation; in other words, they don’t have the “achievement gap” that American schools have.

Recently, Finnish schools made headlines because they are phasing out all academic subjects. By the year 2020, students will no longer study math, science, history or literature. Rather, they will learn about the world through an interdisciplinary curriculum developed by teams of teachers. Studying events and topics like World War II will require students to learn about geography, politics, history and economics. Teachers will collaborate to create units that engage students in multiple disciplines, and pupils will work together to complete their assignments.

The Head of Finland’s Department of Education, Marjo Kyllonen, explained the reasons for the shift: “We really need a rethinking of education and a redesigning of our system, so it prepares our children for the future with the skills that are needed for today and tomorrow.” This desire to prepare children for careers in the new global economy is prevalent in the US, as well, since our education system has changed little since the 1800s.

American schools differ from Finnish schools in other ways. Fulbright Scholar and  New York Times best-selling author William Doyle analyzed some of the unique aspects of the Finnish system. Finland’s teachers are respected professionals who develop their own curriculum and constantly experiment; in fact, no teacher in Finland can lead a classroom without a master’s degree.

Since 1990, Finland has offered free universal daycare for children from eight months to five years of age. Ninety percent of all children attend preschool (the equivalent of our kindergarten) at age six, where they learn through play. Formal primary school (and reading instruction) does not begin until age seven. Family literacy is encouraged from birth, though, since all new parents receive books in their government-provided “baby box,” filled with essentials for raising a healthy newborn.

Primary school students laugh and move about the classroom, and they generally have multiple outdoor recess breaks every day – 15 minutes after every 45 minutes of academic time. Like most child psychologists the world over, Finland’s educators believe that these opportunities for free play promote concentration, executive functioning, self-regulation, physical health and overall well-being.

There are no mandated standardized tests, and neither schools nor students are ranked or compared to one another. Every school is publicly funded, and all students attend their neighborhood schools. This reflects the Finnish value of equality and egalitarianism.

Many critics believe that we cannot replicate the achievements of Finnish schools, since the country is much smaller than the United States. After all, it has roughly 42,000 educators in its 3,300 schools. These figures, though, are equal to or greater than those of many states in America, where education policies are often made and carried out.

In a small state like Rhode Island or in a small city like Providence, we have an opportunity to implement grand reforms. Rhode Island has almost 16,000 teachers in just over 300 schools; Providence has 2,080 teachers in 41 schools. While some aspects of our schools may be working well, we certainly have room for improvement. It would be easy to incorporate some of the lessons learned from Finnish schools, and to measure their effectiveness, in a small area like ours. Perhaps we can lead the way.