Across many fronts, Finland is an international leader in education policy and student achievement. Selena Taylor, Kingsbury Middle School Math Teacher, recently returned from three months in Jyväskylä, Finland as a part of Kingsbury’s Annual Educational and Cultural Exchange Program with The Niilo Mäki Institute. During her time in Finland, Ms. Taylor visited the local schools to observe and learn from teachers, staff and specialists about Finland’s successful approach to teaching children with learning disabilities. Here are some of her observations:
Upon landing in Helsinki, I knew that my nonverbal skills would be put to the test. Like many of the students I encounter, my ability to utilize receptive and verbal language would be limited. Unable to neither speak nor read Finnish, my compensation strategies kicked into high gear as I observed people and symbols to help me navigate the airport. Train stations, grocery stores, restaurants, and street signs were all challenging. In fact, it was only after cycling for 3.8 kilometers to my first school did I sense any familiarity. Although I couldn’t understand the language, I was in a room that looked much like any classroom in America.
The first grade students were seated and the teacher was giving directions. Some students were attentively looking at the teacher, others reached in their desks, one or two tried to communicate with a friend. The familiarity of the setting allowed me to easily begin making a list of similarities and differences. The most glaring difference between a typical American 1st grade class and the Finnish 1st grade class is the 45-minute class period and 15-minute outdoor breaks following each class period. Students eagerly exited the room for their break and returned at the appointed time with the same eagerness!
During my three months in Finland, I spent time in most of the educational settings available to students. In an effort to implement an inclusive model, most students who require special education services receive support in a regular classroom from a special education teacher. After observing this system, it appears comparable to the services that special education resource teachers provide to students in the United States. Those students whose needs require more intense services are educated in a separate classroom within a regular school.
There are six regional centers that offer consultation for day care centers and schools, evaluation and rehabilitation services for children, training for professional personnel and specialized schools. Finland’s approach to educating students with disabilities appears structured similarly to the way students in the United States are educated under the protection of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) of 2012, Finland ranked fifth in math in European countries and first in reading and science. The Finns are proud of their standing in this ranking system and the international community looks to model the Finnish educational system in hopes of producing similar results.
I found that the most noticeable difference between the American and Finnish schools was in the education of young children. Finnish children begin their formal compulsory education at age 7, which is perhaps why they appeared more mature and better able to absorb first grade material. This led me to wonder if 7-year-olds are developmentally more prepared for formal instruction than they would be at age 5.
Teachers in Finland do not take a certification test, but are required to have a master’s degree. The culture holds them in high regard, and as a result, parents have confidence in the quality of their children’s education. They serve as a model across the globe, and they remind us that the education of our children is one of the country’s most valuable assets.