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Teaching Styles: What We Can Learn From Finland

Jordan Catapano


Can you identify Finland on a map? Can you name one city in Finland? Can you describe one aspect of Finnish culture? If you’re like many Americans, Finland only exists on the periphery of your cognizance, the country having no reason to take center stage or warrant more than a passing glance in the book of nations.

But that has changed in recent years as many aspects of Finland’s domestic policies – especially its success with education – have drawn quite a few eyes.

The story of the Finnish education system and its groundbreaking teaching styles begins in 1972, when it was forced to overhaul its previous education system and make adjustments to train a new generation of students. When the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test was first administered to Finland in 2000, the joke was that no one was more surprised at Finland’s top scores than the Finns. Although they had made a number of sweeping, progressive changes to their education system, they had no idea that their scores would outrank every other nation.

Within the past decade, Finland’s ability to consistently rank within the top ten school systems in the world and its teaching styles have attracted the attention of quite a few other nations, including the United States. Reports indicate that Finland’s education department has expanded to include a division that strictly handles “educational tourists.”

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Finland has actually become known for a few peculiarities in its education system; aspects that seem rather counter to much of the educational discourse we’ve pursued in America in recent years. Here are a few components of its current education system structure and teaching styles that have piqued some international interest:

  • Culture of Respect for Teachers. The degree of respect those in the teaching profession receive varies by culture; in Finland, the combination of age-old respect for educators and the high standards demanded by training institutions confers prestige onto those entering the profession. Many define this as the key ingredient in Finland’s educational recipe.
  • Competitive Recruitment. College education programs are extremely selective, as only one in ten applicants is actually admitted. By elevating teacher training programs into universities and accepting candidates based on high academic scores and observed aptitude for teaching, only the top tier individuals are able to enter the teaching profession.
  • More Student Play Time. NCEE reports that Finnish students tend to have nearly 50 minutes more of play and recess time than their American counterparts. Some schools even encourage reasonable breaks between lessons. Finnish students also enjoy much less homework.
  • Later Starting Age. Conventional wisdom has taught that children should start schooling at early ages; however, Finland’s children don’t begin formal schooling until age seven, and preschool has normally begun at age five. This is about two years behind where American children begin.
  • Less Focus on Testing . It seems like with No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core, tests are taking a more centralized role in US academics. But Finland famously uses far fewer standardized tests.

Finnish teachers do not get paid more than American teachers. Their pay standards, however, are better when compared to other perceived prestigious occupations: Teachers in Finland have salaries comparable to Finnish doctors and lawyers. Interestingly, Finland spends less on education per student than the United States.

Some have noted that Finland has actually not performed quite as well in recent years as it did in the early 2000s, when compared internationally. Although it still ranks highly in reading, math, and science, students in Asian countries have overtaken Finland in terms of strict academic performance. Interestingly, what stands out in these Asian countries is much the same as what helped Finland stand out so prodigiously already: The high degree of respect, training, and prestige their culture affords to those in the teaching profession.

While the U.S. should by no means attempts to turn itself into a carbon copy of another nation’s educational system, it is worthy to note the cultural and political aspects that help to shape a successful national educational program. Since Finland found itself at the top of the world and has remained competitively ranked for more than a decade, there is perhaps plenty to learn from the way they inculcate their next generation.

What factors do you feel prohibit or encourage progress in American schools? What do you think Finland – or other nations – does right that we could adopt? Share your perspectives in the comments with us!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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