A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 01 2011

The Finland Phenomenon

One of the beauties of teaching and living in DC is that education is “big” here. The average person here “cares” about education. This is not to say that people elsewhere don’t “care.” But if we measure how much people care about education by tallying the number of education-related events, then one might rightly believe that DC is education central.

Last week, I attended a documentary film premiere for “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System” at the National Press Club. The doc was produced by Bob Compton, a venture capitalist and education filmmaker. I happened to have met him at another education-related event and he invited me to watch his new movie. Of course, I was excited to attend.

I sought to view the film with the goal of gleaning as much information as I could about Finland’s education system. Finland, after all, is the only western country that has maintained its place in the top five list of high scores–alongside Asian powerhouses, China, South Korea and Singapore–on the PISA. And, as I’ve documented in the past, Finland spends far less than we do on education. What could explain this? Something teachable, right? Certainly.

Before the screening began, Finland’s Ambassador to the United States gave opening remarks. The Ambassador caught my attention when, referring to Finland’s unusual success, he said, “the path to excellence can be one of doing things differently.” Could, or even should, the US (or another country, for that matter) attempt to replicate the style of education delivery that Finland uses? Implicit in the Ambassador’s statement was the idea that one does not have to conform in order to succeed; pushing forward on a solitary path can be just as effective.

Indeed, we might be inclined to think that Finland has a set of circumstances that is completely unique and therefore non-translatable.

Can we in the US–a relatively, diverse and unequal country–really learn anything from Finland? As Bob Compton pointed out, Finland is a small country (population: 5.4 million); Finland is culturally very homogeneous; and Finland has little economic inequality. A skeptic might argue that it must be these blessed characteristics that guarantee Finland’s success.

Yet, Bob Compton used the counterexample of Sweden to show that the story is not that simple. Sweden has many of the same blessed characteristics and, yet, placed 19th on the list of OECD countries. Demographics alone don’t explain everything, Compton seemed to be implying. If it did, Sweden should be alongside Finland in the top 5.

There must be something else behind the “phenomenon.”

With that prefatory note, we began the movie.


The narrative structure of The Finland Phenomenon was peculiar. Prof. Tony Wagner of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, an expert on the global achievement gap, served as both narrator and field researcher for the movie. Prof. Wagner visited a number of schools and interviewed various sources in an effort to paint a picture of the primary characteristics of the Finnish education system. I don’t feel the need to rehash everything that was described, since others have already done a pretty good job of it.

What I would like to focus on are two concepts that stood out about the Finland phenomenon:

(1) Trust – The Finnish education system is fundamentally focused around the concept of trust. We can see this concept most clearly when we think about their approach to teacher training. The teacher education system sets an extremely high bar for entry into the profession and then, once trained, teachers are free to work at their schools unencumbered by evaluations and observations and other types of monitoring. They are free to grow and develop as trusted professionals.

Here in the US, we have the complete opposite. The bar for entry into the profession is unreasonably low. To make up for this, principals and school districts monitor the behavior of teachers by using performance evaluations and all the other “teacher quality” tools that are out there. The trust that exists in Finland seems to be nowhere in our system.

(Here’s a little analogy drawn from my knowledge of retirement accounts:  Finland : Roth IRA :: USA : traditional IRA. One of the big stresses about living in the US is the IRS. They like to take your $$$ away from you. Until you’re taxed, you feel stressed (because you are still waiting to see your money get taken away). But, in Finland, just like with a Roth IRA, you get taxed on your way into the profession. Up-front, you lose a good amount, but once you’ve contributed to the account, you can grow what you’ve invested for the rest of your life, tax-free. At this point, you are trusted and relatively stress-free. In the US, as with a traditional IRA, you get taxed on your way out of the profession. As you are contributing to the account, you pay no tax. The trade-off is that you have to pay later. There is always the tax that is on the not-too-distant horizon–one that zaps your energy and, perhaps, makes you want to leave the profession (disclosure: I like Roth IRAs and have one myself).)

Trust permeates all aspects of education in Finland. Teachers trust the students to do what they need to do in order to learn (e.g. they are given 2-week long independent projects). It seems like trust is a critical element in Finnish society.

(2) Equality – Throughout the film, I got the sense that Finland truly lived up to the ideal of equality, particularly in the realm of education. One interviewed administrator made a comment about how schooling in Finland is about providing everybody the “same possibility,” the “same opportunity,” the “equality of opportunity.” The movie made clear that Finland truly lives up to these words.

Finland made big steps towards fulfilling equality by forming comprehensive schools beginning in the 1970s. The idea, similar to those of the Common School Movement, was to provide the same sort of education to all. In Finland, there is no ability-based tracking. Yet, there is a differentiated curriculum that allows students to choose a more traditional “academic” program of study alongside a vocational one. These are not tracks, however, because they both equip students with the same basic set of thinking skills; they are, rather, applied to different ends.  To address the diversity of learners in a classroom–particularly those with special needs–the primary focus in early education is to ensure that those with cognitive, social, or emotional gaps get the extra help they need to close those gaps before they become canyon-esque.

In other words, I get the sense that, in Finland, everyone is in it together, helping to ensure that all children get valued equally. They are each given the opportunity to succeed in life.  The Finnish truly “get” equality and equity.

Sadly, despite all the talking we do here, I’m not sure we “get” it as well.


After the film there was a panel discussion featuring Cisco’s Annmarie Neal, CCSSO’s Gene Wilhoit, NYT’s Tom Friedman and NEA’s John Wilson. It was an interesting conversation that got each panelist giving their own views about the causes and consequences of the global achievement gap. At the end of the panel, I approached Prof. Wagner and got an autograph in my copy of his book.

Given that this took place on a school-night, I quickly zipped home and prepared for the following day’s lessons. But I was glad to have been exposed to this phenomenon.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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