I was recently fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit several Finnish schools. Maybe I expected to see something really enlightening in Finland; some amazingly creative teaching method or a particularly innovative model, but I didn’t. I was not disappointed at all though. We were able to confirm that much of what we are doing in Vermont is moving in the right direction.
The good news is that Vermont may actually be further along than the Finn’s in terms of innovative teaching practices in schools. We are an extremely innovative state in terms of education. The Finnish culture seems to be the driving force in their educational achievement.
The pervasive theme for me during this visit was trust. It is prevalent in every part of the school and throughout the education system and it truly changes the way students access learning. Every teacher we talked to and every principal who spoke to us shared proudly that teachers are trusted to implement the national curriculum in whatever way they see fit. They proudly used the word autonomy over and over again (I was reminded of how I feel the Rowland foundation treats their Fellows).
Principals collaborate with teachers but they are confident that their teachers will get to know the student needs and either address them or get help in addressing them. Teaching is a highly respected profession, although not necessarily highly compensated. Teachers are expected to do whatever it takes to help students succeed. If a student is struggling to get to school, teachers will call home and work with families to figure it out. They are expected to work with students on their coffee breaks if a student needs it. While there are plenty of teachers in the U.S. that do this, there is an expectation in Finland. This is a duty that is part of the profession and a reason why it is so respected.
There is a culture of taking care of others rather than a fend for yourself attitude that makes these extra duties not seem like extra duties at all; it is the right thing to do and everyone will benefit from a society where people are well educated. The Finn’s are very proud to teach their children this as well.
When looking at the bigger picture, it is noticeable that outside the school system, there is a culture of taking care of everyone with the intention of creating a better overall society. The social democracy that is central to Finland’s economic system has a great impact on the reason why the Finnish school system reflects these cultural values.
Because there is such a focus on this issue of trust as a cultural expectation, teachers have a high degree of trust for students. Teachers shared that they don’t worry if a student doesn’t learn to read right away; they trust that it will happen. The idea of growth mindset that has gained traction in the United States in recent years is an unknown term in Finland. The idea that all students can achieve though, is taken for granted.
I can imagine how different that must feel from a student’s perspective because I had an early reading experience that illustrated exactly this issue. I didn’t make the connection until one teacher mentioned this attitude toward reading. When I was learning to read, I was attending a Montessori school and I remember being taught to read but it was because I showed an interest. I didn’t think about whether I was good at it or not. I didn’t compare myself to anyone else. I just read when I wanted to and they taught me how to decode words when I appeared to be ready and willing. When I moved to a public school, I knew on the first day what the teacher thought of my reading skills. I knew that I was in the lowest reading group and I knew who were the “smart” ones.
There is a high degree of equality and homogeneity that exists in Finland and this helps lessen the gaps that were so apparent to me in an American public school. Kids are also trusted to be in the hallways; even the youngest students go to the bathroom on their own without asking the teacher; we observed 1st grade students getting on city buses by themselves to go to and from school. While they are supervised on the playground, the adults see this as a time that students can work out problems on their own. They do not intervene but rather wait for students to come to them for help if they need it. They trust students to do this. There were about sixty students on the playground that I observed with only one teacher supervising. We visited a 1st grade classroom that had a system for making classroom decisions. Any student could request a meeting to discuss an issue and the class works out the problem, votes on various solutions and that’s that, without the teacher’s control. They feel empowered in their learning environment and have a high degree of autonomy as do their teachers.
It would be easy to take these reflections and decide that we can’t change the economic system in the United States, becoming disillusioned with the possibility of change, but I have seen cultural changes happen on a smaller scale. Enosburg middle and high school has been working on mindset for several years and we have seen cultural changes. Bernie Sander’s recent run for president is a timely reminder of his impact on the culture of Burlington Vermont during the early eighties that I witnessed and benefited form as a teenager. We may not be able to change the culture of our country in one shot but could we begin changing it from the bottom up having an impact on the students who are in our immediate vicinity?
Gabrielle Marquette, Special Educator/ Consulting Teacher, received her M.Ed. from Saint Michael’s College in 2003 and her C.A.G.S. through Southern New Hampshire University with a focus on collaborative leadership.
She was awarded a Rowland fellowship in 2015 to pursue research on implementing personal learning.