Friday, February 29, 2008

What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating story in today's Weekend Journal section on the Finnish education system, and "What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?"

This strange little Nordic country, whose language is very different from neighboring Norway and Sweden (or anywhere else for that matter), has posted scores at the very top of international skills comparisons. The Program for International Assessment (PISA), which tested 15-year-olds, placed Finns at the top of the heap in science. Only Taiwanese students did better in math; only the South Koreans did better in reading. American students didn't come close to their Finnish counterparts in understanding these concepts. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal tells the story of a Finnish senior, Elina Lamponen, who studied abroad at Colon High School in Michigan. When she came back to Finland, she had to repeat the grade.

International comparisons aren't particularly useful if all they inspire you to do is beat yourself up. The best thing to do is to figure out what other countries do well, and then figure out if these best practices can be implemented elsewhere. We've looked at Singapore math on this blog. What about Finnish math, science and reading? The Wall Street Journal attempts to answer these questions.

Unfortunately, The Wall Street Journal notes several times in the article that there are no gifted classes in Finland. This is misleading. There aren't "pull-out" type classes featuring Robin Hood, bugs, Egyptology, the culture of Japan, etc. But according to this report of gifted education in Europe, Finnish parents have the right to enroll their children in school early if they want. Many of the elementary schools are ungraded, which allows children to accelerate.

The WSJ offers a few other ideas about Finnish educational success. One is that kids learn to read very early because American television and movies tend to have Finnish subtitles, rather than dubbing. If you want to know what's going on, you have to learn to read. Few American kids feel so motivated.

The students are relatively homogeneous, both in terms of race and economic status (there's not much of a Finnish underclass). Some people cite the relatively relaxed educational environment as a plus. Students and teachers may call each other by their first names. There aren't a lot of rules. There also aren't any truly elite universities, so the competition to get into a good school isn't so intense (if there are any Finnish readers of this blog, I'd love to hear if that's true).

But here's what I think is the key point, from the WSJ and my other reading: The education culture in Finland is one of excellence and intense individualization. Finnish teachers are expected to customize lessons for students. As the WSJ quotes one education expert saying, "In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs." And they are good entrepreneurs. In Finland, teachers are trained extensively. They must have master's degrees, and 40 people apply for every job. They earn about the same as their American counterparts. But, through treating teachers like professionals, and only choosing the best, Finland has managed to get an excellent teaching corps capable of individualizing lessons for slow learners and quick learners alike.

Another note: Finland spends less per student than the U.S. does.

Unfortunately, I worry that people reading the WSJ article and looking to take away ideas for educational improvement in the US will only seize on the "no gifted classes" idea. That would be a shame. In an environment where the teachers are uniformly excellent, where individual lessons are customized and where acceleration is possible, you don't necessarily need specific gifted classes. But I don't see many American education reform efforts combining all these elements yet.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, the truth is not always pretty but here it is. I lived in Finland for 2 years so I do speak from some degree of knowledge. Finland has a very small underclass, as Ms. Vanderkam mentioned in her article. The U.S., in comparison, has a huge underclass and these folks generally have lower IQ's. One can argue that having a low IQ lands you in the underclass or can argue that growing up in the underclass leaves you with a low IQ. Whatever the cause, our huge underclass does tend to, by and large, have the lowest IQs.

These members or our society effect our educational standing in two ways. First tend to drag down overall scores. Second, they slow down education for everyone because they exist in such numbers that teachers have to slow down an entire class to allow them to catch up.

Another factor is NCLB which compounds the problem of our large class of low performers. NCLB creates huge incentives to get everyone to mediocre and no incentive to strive for excellence. Once everyone is mediocre, the teacher's job is done. Most of the teacher's time must be spent on getting the low achievers to mediocre. Very little of her time is left to promoting excellence.
No such system exists in Finland.

Finally, we have race issues and civil rights issues here that do not exist in Finland. Low achievement exists in all races. However, civil rights laws and norms effect how low achievement is handled with regard to minorities. Because we have significant numbers of minorities in the underclass, we cannot track classes so that groups of children learn according to their abilities because lower level classes have historically had an over-representation of minorities. Segregating children in any way that results in racial segregation is a civil rights problem. Hence, the movement to de-tracking.

A lot of folks are going to flame me on this and think I am racist. I am not. I embrace the diversity that we have here in the U.S. and would rather have our system than the very sterile system that exists in Finland. However, with our current philosophy and demographics, we will never be in the top ranks educationally.

That is fine with me. I prefer the upward mobility and tolerance of our system to what exists in many of these "high performing" countries. I think we'd be a lot better off if we quit comparing ourselves to countries who have very different demographics and ways of doing things.

Knittermom in SF Bay Area said...

Intense Individualization? Hmm, sounds like the perfect definition of homeschooling to me (smile) and describes what I am striving for in homeschooling my 3 boys. I would be interested in some first hand descriptions of how exceptionally and profoundly gifted kids are accommodated in Finnish schools, since they are are so difficult to keep challenged in a school environment.

Queen of Shake-Shake said...

I want to move to Finland!

I think the intense individualized lessons plays a big part in the success, but I also don't underestimate the role of a relaxed and less rule environment plays too.

white cornerback said...

Homogenous demographics is probably the reason.

Anonymous said...

Homogeneous demographics can't be the sole reason, as there are homogeneous places that do very badly, and diverse places (like Singapore) that do very well.

I suspect that dedicated, highly-trained teachers who want to teach well are a big part of the equation.

Blue&white said...

Interesting article & blog entry about the finnish education system.

Being a finn and having lived here in Finland my whole life (30y+), I do recognize most of the findings in the article.

There few things I'd like to point out however.

There is some competition for "better" schools out here. While high-schools in general do have relatively similar level of education, there are some high-schools that have better reputation than others. Most of this is because some schools require a higher level of grade average to get accepted. The grade average required varies each year, depending on how many students apply for each particular high-school.

To get in to any high-school at all, you need to have a certain grade average. For example, when I applied for my high-school, the grade average required was 7.8 (on a grade scale of 4 to 10). I had 7.9 so I got there. The next year there were more applicants to my school so the grade average requirement rose to 8.2. Those who didn't make the cut, had to go to some other high-school.

The differences between high-schools are pretty small though so most 15y olds apply for the high-school nearest to them.

I think the best part of finnish schooling system is the fact that money/social status doesn't play any role when people apply for place in high-school or university. It's all about grades and entry-tests, you can't buy your way in. People who have been studying hard and/or are gifted naturally, are rewarded no matter what social background they come from. Education is "free" from elementary school to high-school and all the way even to doctoral degrees. With "free" I mean only nominal annual fees which are pretty much the same in each school (roughly 500€ per year).

The biggest problem finnish education system is currently facing is the fact that post-highschool education takes too long. The average is roughly 5-6 years for those with Masters degrees meaning academic people enter labor markets usually at the age of of 24-26. The fact that finnish men have to complete a mandatory military duty (6 to 12 months) doesn't help either. That's something that politicians are currently trying to fix.

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Anonymous said...

I don't think the difference between average grades in Finland and the US has a lot to do with the actual schools at all.

I think your problem in the States is the fact that you have such an economically segmented society. I can imagine that if you compared a public school in a poor neighbourhood to a school in a rich one you would find the difference is as big as when comparing an average western school to a 3rd world one.

The key thing in finnish education is equality. No matter where you come from, in school you're all equal. Not only that, but all the schools are by and large interchangeable - it doesn't matter what school you go to as far as the quality of education is concerned.

Zimbadi said...

I must say that our (Finland's) schools are very relaxing places to be in. Teachers treat students equally and they don't underestimate students abilities. Teachers are normally really helpful and patient in teaching. In addition, we get free meals every day that helps to keep students blood sugar stable the whole day. We don't see food like french fries in our schools, but instead very healthy food (low fat & slow carbohydrates).

Our schools are not very homogenius and they can differ quite a lot on the teaching methods. Some schools are conservative and others are really liberal. I was myself in a extremely liberal elementary school. I'll tell a bit how our school week normally was in there. At every monday morning we had a briefing conserning about that weeks tasks and objectives. Then we had couple of lessons where we got all the theory needed in performing the tasks given to us. After that we started doing our tasks on our own and we did not need to be in the classroom to do the work, but we were able to do the work wherever on the school area we wanted. (it could be outside or inside the school). When we got some problems in our tasks, then we went to ask help from the teachers or from the other students. The best part in this system was that when we got our weekly tasks done, we were free to do whatever we wanted. If you were able to get all the weekly work done on tuesday, that ment that you were able to do sports, arts etc. the rest of the week. You were not able to go home though, there was a static school time everyday. Luckily there were a lot of hobby possibilies to do in the school. So, normally we did a lot of movies, computer animations, sports etc. on the school time then.

Aaah, good memories... i wish i could be 7 again :)

J. M. Korhonen said...

As a Finn, and with only 8 years since I left high school, I think the article was relatively accurate.

As someone already pointed out, there are "better" high schools (and very few special grade schools, where, for example, much of the teaching is in French, German or English) and in some cases, you'd need to have a pretty solid academic record and maybe face an admission test to enter.

As far as universities go, they are indeed "free" and we even get an allowance. However, to enter the university, one has to pass the entrance exam.

Some study tracks can be very easy to get into - for example, some mathematics programs are so unpopular that you can score C on maths in high school and gain admission based simply on that (of course, entering to study mathematics with a C is somewhat stupid, but some people do so anyway).

Others are extremely difficult. At the premier business college, the Helsinki School of Economics, the admission rate is something like 10-11%. Even smaller percentages are not uncommon - I think the record-low intake was 1.8%. Incidentally, teaching studies are constantly among the most difficult to get in, right there with the medical and law schools.

The entrance exams are usually based on certain books on the subject, and often are designed to really weed out the applicants. Especially in some more popular programs, it's very much about your ability to memorize the books by heart, although this has been criticized heavily and is slowly changing. However, it's not uncommon at all to see young people reading for a year for that one exam, especially if they're trying to get into medical, law, or teaching studies.

Sometimes this results to a rather sad situation where people try to get into their "dream" studies for several years - I know some who spent four or more years, working in odd jobs at the meantime, before either getting in or giving up.

As far as "gifted" education goes, classes can be skipped and accelerated but I don't know how often that really happens. I finished reading (on my own) 12th grade history courses when I was about 12 and at 13 was about three years ahead the schedule in maths, physics and chemistry (these are separate subjects starting from junior high), but as I didn't want to get separated from my classmates I didn't even talk about the subject of skipping classes. At the high school, many of my classmates had had similar experiences.

In my experience, parents are often pretty laissez-faire and usually it's up to the the kids themselves to make the initiative, although there are exceptions in almost every class.

However, this is usually considered rather bad form and the parents who make too loud noises about their kid(s) tend to be regarded by other parents as overbearing and too demanding. In smaller towns, there can be pretty substantial community pressure towards them - maybe for that reason the "American style" (yes, we do sometimes call them that) parents can be usually found from larger cities.

The problem here is that often the relatively "gifted" students can get by far too easily, especially when, like me, they don't have any idea about what they want.

About the only time when students can select more demanding education is in high school, ie. grades 10, 11 and 12. There one must choose between "long" and "short" mathematics (in the former, the last year is about equivalent to average U.S. engineering college freshman maths, and is considered a requirement for most science and practically all engineering placements in Finnish universities). In addition to that, there's a required minimum number of courses in other subjects and a total minimum of courses one must have in order to graduate, but there's no definitive limit on how much one can study, provided that s/he can fit those courses in a 2-4 year curriculum. (In my understanding, spending 3.5 or even 4 years in high school is becoming more and more popular - when I was in high school, those who took over 3 years were either heavily involved in sports, had been on exchange, or were considered lazy and/or stupid.)

Although in high school I took practically every science-related course I could, with the regrettable exception of basic astronomy, between ages 11 and 18 I didn't do any homework apart from some very light reading for exams and some projects. (I was far busier with writing for a local newspaper than I was for the school.)

I got pretty good if not stellar grades nevertheless and entered engineering college without any difficulty (much to my own surprise actually), but then the problems started - when they dropped the 1200+ pages of "entry level course" advanced mathematics on me it hit like the proverbial hammer.

I can honestly say that the lack of expertise in doing homework cost me about 1,5 extra years in college, and I'm far from the only one having similar problems...but on the other hand, I wouldn't now be a partner in a design company had I passed all those courses in my first year. As they say, life's full of surprises...

The Final Thing: can the university education in a system such as this be any good - a hot topic here in recent years given the fact that we do lack recent Nobel graduates. Personally, I've been involved in programs where students participate in project-based courses with students from Stanford and MIT. While there's much to learn from the best institutions in the world, and I do envy the resources and the atmosphere at these places, the consistent feedback has been that our (admittedly, relatively select) students tend to be very good performers. I have seen similar results firsthand at CERN and at other places.

The one thing we've been suspecting - as I cannot claim that we can come close to these superb universities in teaching resources per student, or in selectiveness of students and staff - is that our students usually have the edge of working before graduation. Practically every engineering student and most other students have actual and relevant work experience in their fields before graduation, with many working part-time while finishing their studies.

For example, at my university, everyone is required to get at least four months of work experience in their field of study before they can graduate, and most do much, much more - typical cases have been working part- and full time for three or four years by the time they graduate with their Master's degrees. (It used to be that university intake was directly from high school to Master's programs - a relic from early 20th century German universities that was changed only in 2005 to anglo-american two part system)

At least in the engineering field, working really does wonders to student's practical skills and outlook in general. It also helps directly their studies: when you have actually seen how things work in the industry, it's much easier to follow and understand the lectures on organizational theory, for example. And if you're working while finishing your studies, you can focus on the courses most relevant to your line of work.

Sadly, not everyone understands this and now we're hearing some relatively good and some completely inane ideas on how to cut the time people spend in the higher education. But if someone is enrolled for seven years in the university yet is actually working for five of those years - well, what's the problem?

Anonymous said...

The simple reason: Small study groups, in Finland a common study group is is less than 18 students. It has been studied even in Finland that big cities with big schools and studygropus never do so well as kids who live in the countryside and study in small schools and studygroups. But this is also becoming rare in Finland, they are shutting down all the small schools and ruining the kids future.

Anonymous said...

I am a Finn, and I'm currently studying for a master's degree.

The main reason I think the Finnish system is so successful is not that the system itself would be so ingenious, but rather the fact that there isn't much difference between the best and the worst students in the class. I am confident that were the US distribution of students similar, their results would reflect this and be correspondingly better.

The fact that gifted children are not given the opportunity to shine is a real problem, though. Because the results are rather good on the whole, it is only a marginal problem, albeit very real and off-putting for the gifted students themselves. I think even Finland needs a few elite schools and universities, and I would very much like to see the introduction of special classes for gifted students (or something similar) into the Finnish education system.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Finland has a great educational system, but it has forgotten the sociable aspect of the schooling. I am personally very jealous of the vivid social life in the US high schools and colleges. It seems like the Americans have fun and enjoy life much more than the Finns do. I have lived in both countries and felt more alive in the US. The Finnish children are still quite shy (although this is slowly changing) and they spend a lot of time online after school. Depression rates are quite high.
I think because of the more quiet social life, the Finns focus on the academics to put a meaning to their lives. Similar success can be seen in Japan for example, which is said to have a similar social culture to Finland.

Engineer said...

Opportunity to accelerate does not constitute "gifted" class. So the statement "there are no gifted classes in Finland" seems to be accurate.
I think it is important that teachers are concentrating on actual teaching instead on trying to determine "abilities" and separate kids into different classes with different "abilities".

Dale said...

I'm an American and educational trends, particularly those in the realm of gifted education, are of great interest to me. Therefore, I extend my thanks to the people who contributed to this posting.
I have never been to Finland and I have only just begun to study it. However, I have been studying my own country for some years now and would like to amend two things other commenters said, regarding America.
One: Although I can't speak on the social environment of our universities (having earned my degree through correspondence), I can say, that in my experience, the high school social experience is negative. Most of the students have little, if any, interest in academics and often torment the people who do. As a general rule, adolescents are absorbed in popular culture and feel that conforming to the romanticized norm, is the only ideal. I was very "bookish" and a non-conformist and some of my classmates seemed to think that meant I should be the target of theft and slander. Perhaps things are different in other metropolitan areas and/or in schools with stronger academics, but I haven't seen any evidence to that effect. We do have lots of athletics and musical opportunities (compared to what I have heard about other nations), but it should be noted that in many sub-urban schools and even some urban schools, the students are not afforded these options.
Two: Someone said that low IQ's and lower-class status go hand in hand. High IQ's are found in low-income communities and low IQ's are found in upper-class areas. Intelligence, is, at least to some degree, innate. What IS true, is that it is difficult to nurture and cultivate intelligence in lower-income places. There isn't a direct correspondence between intelligence and income, at least not in modern America. Young men who play professional football, for example, are quite wealthy and some of them have no grasp of proper English grammar. On the other hand, I have a friend who's IQ is well above 145 and is very knowledgeable, and she only makes enough money to pay the bills and buy groceries. In all fairness though, it seems that the residents in many of our rural regions are incredibly ignorant. (Although, again, they lack the resources of people who have dozens of universities and museums at their disposal.)
Anyway, this discussion was quite informative. Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

Lower IQ? Do you really believe our students have lower IQ's because they come from a lower class? There is little physiological data to prove that people in America have a large lower class with inferior IQ's. That is just class/racist rhetoric.

The real reason is that our schools are large bureaucratic organizations that have evolved under a big-brother mentality, rather than being organized and motivated by education. We have school boards that want to negate evolution, science, and astronomy rather than promote learning.

I agree that NCSB is a big mind-numbing load of refuse, and should be eliminated. NCLB only holds students back while trying to teach all students a set of mediocre standards that most people would be ashamed to admit to.

If our teachers had even Bachelors degrees in the fields they teach (not education, but math, english, literature, science, and art), we would see a HUGE HUGE difference.
Having teachers customize the curriculum per student is VERY effective and needed.

Public schools need to be re-build from the ground up, to be excellent in education. We dont need to destroy public education to do it, but re-cycle it.

Anonymous said...

From the subject story: "Finnish educators believe they get better overall results by concentrating on weaker students rather than by pushing gifted students ahead of everyone else. The idea is that bright students can help average ones without harming their own progress."

From anonymous poster (see below)
"These members or our society effect our educational standing in two ways...Second, they slow down education for everyone because they exist in such numbers that teachers have to slow down an entire class to allow them to catch up."

Anonymous said...

I like that the WSJ says that part of this is because we have 8% non-English speaking and they all speak Finnish. Actually 6% speak Swedish and they all speak English too. Many of them are taught in other languages.