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Phoenix Forward

What can American schools learn from Finland?

Finland’s schools are outshining other countries’

By adopting what some would call a more creative approach to learning, Finland has surprised the world by landing near the top in international education test scores, while the United States lags well behind.

Unlike American kids, students in Finland don’t even start school until they’re 7 years old, and they usually don’t take standardized tests until they’re 15. But Connie Lorthridge, University of Phoenix College of Education assistant dean and an instructor in the undergraduate teacher education program, believes that educators in the U.S. could learn a lesson or two from their counterparts abroad.

“Finnish teachers are given autonomy to design their own lessons and materials,” says Lorthridge, from her office at the University of Phoenix Central Florida Campus. “Without the pressure of having to teach to standardized tests, they have more freedom to engage students and use more creative methods to customize an educational experience that specifically addresses their classrooms’ needs.”

Lorthridge cites  research to support her view: A tremendous amount of research on public school restructuring indicates that a teacher’s participation in developing the curriculum is highly correlated with student success.

Finnish teachers are given autonomy to design their own lessons and materials, without the pressure of having to teach to standardized tests.

Contrast Finland’s creative atmosphere with teachers’ experiences in the United States. Educators here are expected to teach to very rigid standards. And as early as second grade, schools place a heavy emphasis on yearly, standardized tests. “It creates a competitive culture where teachers fear being blamed for poor performance,” Lorthridge says.

On the other side of the globe, because of the autonomy and respect its teachers enjoy, Finland attracts its best and brightest to the teaching profession. “Getting into a teaching program in Finland is similar to getting into medical school in the U.S.,” she notes. “Additionally, teachers in Finland are required to have master’s degrees.”

Might we embrace a page from the Finnish lesson plan?

Lorthridge is quick to point out that because Finland is a country of only 5 million, with a more homogenous population than the U.S., its education model might be hard to duplicate. But she is starting to see a national backlash against standardized testing.

“I’ve been around to see the pendulum swing both ways,” says Lorthridge, who worked in public education for 36 years as both a teacher and administrator. Today, teachers are starting to place more emphasis on collaborative learning styles, where “students work cooperatively instead of competing against each other.” That’s the first step, she says, toward change.

But there are still more strides U.S. educators can take. “We haven’t heard a lot about teacher autonomy yet, and to me that's the next step,” Lorthridge adds. “I think having greater autonomy is going to encourage more people to want to teach.” And regaining respect for the world’s hardest profession, she says, is key to achieving success.

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