Shannon Frank, an English II teacher at Sharpstown International School in Houston, TX, (a member of Asia Society’s International Studies School Network) was exhausted from teaching and almost quit—until she was inspired by education in Finland.
It was June 2015, and I was about to become a statistic, a cliché—I was about to become a burned-out teacher. Throughout the 2014-2015 school year, my fourth year of teaching, I had put in more hours than I could count grading persuasive essays late into the night, coming before school for extra-credit literature circles, staying after school for intervention. I was tired. Then, my school got back student scores from the state standardized test, and the results were not as good as I expected. After all of my exhaustive work, I expected better of myself.
It was a crucial moment for me as an educator. I was so disillusioned with the system. Despite all my hard work, and all my students’ hard work, some of them were just not where they needed to be according to the exam—I felt like I had failed them. I began to look for jobs outside of the classroom.
That summer, I had been awarded a scholarship from Asia Society to take a trip to Finland and Switzerland with EF Tours. The focus of this trip was “Innovation in Education,” which sounded rather lofty and ambiguous. So I traveled all the way to Europe to learn how the Finns have shaken up the international education scene. I knew very little about Finland, other than the fact that the country has outstanding PISA scores. Because of my disheartening experience as a teacher in America, I was looking forward to seeing a new approach to education.
On the trip, I met teachers, principals, superintendents, and professors from all across America who are passionate about improving education for the better. The level of discourse was invigorating for me, a relatively young and inexperienced teacher. I was able to hear about perspectives from all different kinds of education, from huge urban schools, to elite private schools, to rural, small schools. This was enlightening because I began to realize that no matter the type of school, many American educators were experiencing many of the same issues that I was facing.
As we visited Finnish schools and met with Finnish educators, I saw some stark differences between their system and the American system. It must be noted that Finland is much smaller and more homogenous than the United States, and due to their social safety net, they do not have as much poverty. This, however, does not mean that American teachers should disregard any lessons we can learn from the Finns.
Surprisingly, the word “trust” was something we heard repeated so many times that it became an inside joke among our group. The Finnish education system is founded on the concept of trust, with a national curriculum much broader than Common Core or our state standards. When I first saw the Finnish standard: “Students will develop their reading and writing skills,” I thought, ‘how can one possibly measure this standard?’ Measurement, however, is not the goal of the Finnish educational system according to the Finnish educators we spoke with.
They do not wish to gather data points for every student’s success on a certain skill, they told us, because they trust their educators to know their students. They trust that, as a professional, teachers can track students learning through knowing them and their skills on a very deep level.
In my teaching experience, the state has very specific, detailed standards that are measured by the state end-of-course exam, which begets a system of implicit distrust. The standards and exams imply that the state does not trust districts to do an adequate job educating students and relies on the state test to ensure compliance. The district then provides mandatory benchmarks, implying that they do not trust that the students will have success on the state exam or that the principals can run their schools adequately. This results in the teachers being hounded by their principals over data analysis from the benchmarks.
The Finns eliminated the yearly standardized testing because they truly trust their educators to be effective. With a highly qualified, passionate teacher in every classroom, they do not have to obsess over data from 20 different exams. This, in turn, reduces teachers’ stress levels and makes the teachers in Finland feel respected. The teachers, in turn are able to empower their students to succeed, regardless of performance on exams. Students who are not successful on traditional standardized tests can be celebrated for their strengths, rather than beat down for their weaknesses. This is what good teachers everywhere want to do, and in Finland they are able to do so effortlessly.
The Whole Child
The Finnish educational system focuses much more on the non-cognitive skills of their students, as opposed to the content knowledge. The attitude of America is much more competitive than Finland, and this is deeply ingrained in our culture. Teaching in Finland is not about creating the best students with the best SAT scores who know the most about history, physics, or algebra. It is about creating globally competent, critical thinkers who are ready to be successful in their post-graduation life. In my mind, the Finns grow their children as if they were plants in a garden. In order to produce well-rounded students, they focus on many disciplines that will help them become well-rounded adults.
Folklore is a mandatory class every year, because the Finns want their students to have imaginative thinking and a sense of national cultural identity. They have cooking class every year (for all students), because being able to cook and knowing about nutrition is essential to a happy, healthy adult life.
Finnish schools encourage unstructured playtime, inside and outside of the classroom. For every hour of class, the students are told to go outside and engage in physical play. Can you imagine how my administration might react if I said 25 percent of the school day should be playtime for my American high school students? This playtime not only enables students to focus, but it also allows them to “flex” their social skills and learn how to organically interact with their peers. This is starkly different from the limited American recess time and the organized, and often ultra-competitive team sports.
In Finland, the system is not set up for the kids to be the best, but to be the best version of themselves. Art and music have been proven to increase student performance and help engage students on an intellectual level, as well as an emotional level. In America however, the arts often take a backseat to more “rigorous” content courses. The Finns in contrast, are using this research to devote more time to the arts in the school, not less. This well-rounded outlook toward education allows teachers to nurture the students instead of focusing on a culminating success or failure at the end of the year.
While the Finns have gotten a great deal of what they do right, it made me feel relieved to see that American schools are not behind in all aspects of education. In the U.S., there has been an increasing investment of time and money to prepare our students for the global market by teaching them how to use technology. Here, teachers go to trainings to learn the most innovative new ways to use laptops, discussion boards, and digital learning to engage their students. At my school, in which 93 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, every student is issued a laptop. Teachers post e-books, the students do research, and they use digital tools to create interesting products for projects.
In comparison, the Finnish schools seem to be way behind in both access to technology and investment in training teachers in it. In the classrooms we visited, each had one teacher computer, no SmartBoard, no document camera, no flip cams, no iPads, all of which my school has had for years. The Finnish teachers make it work with what they have, but I can’t help but think that the presence of technology in our schools is helping our students for their futures.
How I’m Changing as a Teacher
Overall, my trip abroad was an enlightening experience. I can honestly say it changed my outlook on my profession, and this school year has been exponentially less stressful for me. Not because my school changed or my students are smarter, but because I have changed. I rearranged my classroom to foster more cooperative learning and organic communication. I added more art and music to the environment of my classroom and in my lessons, which make the day more enjoyable for teacher and student alike.
Most importantly, I no longer stay up late worrying about and obsessing over data points for each of my 150 students. Data and test scores are not what inspired me to become a teacher. So I decided to not make it my obsession, and I am better for it. I am going back to focusing on what really matters, “growing” children into successful people, just like the Finns. And for that I am grateful.
Image is of author in Finland. Courtesy of the author.
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