November 29, 2021

Finns beat U.S. with low-tech take on school

A Finnish classroom is pictured. | Caitlin Emma/POLITICO

HELSINKI — At the start of morning assembly in the state-of-the-art Viikki School here, students’ smartphones disappear. In math class, the teacher shuts off the Smartboard and begins drafting perfect circles on a chalkboard. The students — some of the highest-achieving in the world — cut up graphing paper while solving equations using their clunky plastic calculators.

Finnish students and teachers didn’t need laptops and iPads to get to the top of international education rankings, said Krista Kiuru, minister of education and science at the Finnish Parliament. And officials say they aren’t interested in using them to stay there.

That’s in stark contrast to what reformers in the U.S. say. From President Barack Obama on down, they have called education technology critical to improving schools. By shifting around $2 billion in existing funds and soliciting $2 billion in contributions from private companies, the Obama administration is pressing to expand schools’ access to broadband and the devices that thrive on it.

School districts nationwide have loaded up students with billions of dollars’ worth of tablets, laptops, iPads and more on the theory that, as Obama said last year, preparing American kids to compete with students around the globe will require interactive, individualized learning experiences driven by new technology.

But with little education technology in the classroom, Finnish students have repeatedly outperformed American students on international tests. In 2001, Finland’s students were the highest-achieving in the world, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment test administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The Nordic country uses innovative teaching strategies in the classroom, just generally without incorporating technology. Private schools and charter schools aren’t part of the mix, and all education is essentially free. Powerful teachers unions work hand in hand with the government, which went to great lengths to revamp teacher training. The profession is revered and respected, and government has no bearing on assessing a teacher’s performance in the classroom.

On Bear Witness Central read about the Common Core issues.

With a population roughly the size of Minnesota, Finland doesn’t have a very competitive spirit. Officials and educators said they were shocked to learn that their education system was one of the best in the world. And officials say Finnish culture is about bettering oneself instead of besting other nations, such as the Asian countries that recently pulled ahead of Finland in global rankings.

Kiuru said an education system modeled after the top-performing Asian countries isn’t right for Finland.

“Education isn’t a competition,” said Kristiina Volmari, counselor of education and head of statistics and international affairs at the Finnish National Board of Education. “This is a quality assurance mechanism, and it’s quality assurance for ourselves.”

Since being labeled the highest-achieving country in the world, Finland has fallen in the rankings, to fifth in reading, 12th in math and fifth in science. But it’s still one of the top countries out of the 14 that belong to the OECD. In the latest PISA rankings, 18 education systems — including Finland’s — outperformed the United States in reading, math and science.

Good Old-Fashioned Pencil-and-Paper Note-Taking

Finnish students, even those in the most modern schools, aren’t playing the latest learning games in the classroom. Even the upper secondary students at Viikki, who received laptops from the school two years ago, leave their computers at home unless instructed otherwise — which doesn’t happen often. The school, located on the University of Helsinki’s campus, is one of 12 teacher training schools in Finland and far more modern than schools elsewhere, such as the rural northern region of Lapland.

“I think it’s really too bad,” said senior Emmi Halmesvirta, shifting a purse full of heavy books on her shoulder. “Teachers will tell us to bring them in on certain days, but they tend to stick more to traditional methods.”

According to the latest PISA results and a study conducted by the European Commission, there’s roughly one computer per five Finnish students in schools. In the U.S., that ratio is almost one to one (but the breakdown across individual rural, urban and suburban districts might look different, depending on a district’s financial resources).

At the International School of Vantaa, just outside Helsinki’s major airport, students are ushered to a computer lab with about two dozen desktop computers after a teacher reserves the space. The lab accommodates roughly two classrooms at once. Laia Saló i Nevado, a student guidance counselor, home room and health teacher, said she brings her students to the lab about once a week for special projects, quizzes and sometimes Internet research — but that’s about it.

Finnish teachers and students use education technology significantly less than those in other European countries. At grade eight, Finnish students’ reported use of school computers is the lowest in the European Union, with only 27 percent saying they use computers at least once a week.

The average percentage of teachers using education technology for at least 25 percent of lessons in the EU is higher than in Finland for fourth and eighth grades. In grade four, overall EU usage is at 29 percent, while Finland falls at 20 percent. In grade eight, EU usage is at 32 percent while Finland is at 29 percent. For teachers using education technology in more than 25 percent of lessons, Finland ranks at the bottom in a group of countries for grade eight, at 29 percent.

Pasi Sahlberg — an educator, and unofficial ambassador of the Finnish education system — that many visitors hoping to see Finland’s high-performing schools firsthand expect to see state-of-the-art technology in classrooms.

“Instead, they see teachers teaching and pupils learning as they would in any typical good school in the United States,” he writes in his blog. “The irony of Finnish educational success is that it derives heavily from classroom innovation and school improvement research in the United States.”

Just without all the computers.

What Makes Finland Different?

Where to begin?

At 5.4 million people, Finland’s population is equivalent to 1.7 percent of the total U.S. population. And the Nordic country is extremely homogenous. The number of people living in Finland but born outside the country is the lowest in Europe at nearly 250,000 in 2010, or 4.6 percent of the total population. About 40 million people residing in the U.S. were born outside the country, comprising 12.9 percent of the total population.

The teachers unions work closely and collaboratively with government. Children attend the school closest to home unless they’re looking for something extra, like a school that teaches German. There are no standardized tests until upper secondary students have to demonstrate their knowledge on the country’s matriculation exam. Passing the exam allows a student to go on to university studies.