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February 29, 2008

Richard Florida

Real Education

« Music and Economic Development | Main | The Passionate City »

Finland top the list on a recent mulitnational study of education. Here's why, according to this Wall Street Journal report:

High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don't start school until age 7.

Yet by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries. American teens finished among the world's C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they're way ahead in math, science and reading -- on track to keeping Finns among the world's most productive ...

Visitors and teacher trainees can peek at how it's done from a viewing balcony perched over a classroom at the Norssi School in Jyväskylä, a city in central Finland. What they see is a relaxed, back-to-basics approach. The school, which is a model campus, has no sports teams, marching bands or prom ...

The Norssi School is run like a teaching hospital, with about 800 teacher trainees each year. Graduate students work with kids while instructors evaluate from the sidelines. Teachers must hold master's degrees, and the profession is highly competitive: More than 40 people may apply for a single job. Their salaries are similar to those of U.S. teachers, but they generally have more freedom. ...

Finnish teachers pick books and customize lessons as they shape students to national standards. "In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs," says Mr. Schleicher, of the Paris-based OECD, which began the international student test in 2000 ...

Finnish high-school senior Elina Lamponen saw the differences firsthand. She spent a year at Colon High School in Colon, Mich., where strict rules didn't translate into tougher lessons or dedicated students, Ms. Lamponen says. She would ask students whether they did their homework. They would reply: " 'Nah. So what'd you do last night?'" she recalls. History tests were often multiple choice. The rare essay question, she says, allowed very little space in which to write. In-class projects were largely "glue this to the poster for an hour," she says. Her Finnish high school forced Ms. Lamponen, a spiky-haired 19-year-old, to repeat the year when she returned.

No sports teams, no marching band, no prom.  A relaxed approach. Less homework. Kids can be themselves.  I'll have lots more to say on education in Who's Your City? What do you think?


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Zoe B

I'd go for all of it, except doing without a band. A good marching band is a glorious experience.

Ryan Nadel

I think the most notable aspect of the Finnish system is the freedom the teachers are given to shape their curriculum. This allows the teachers to address the individual needs of students and not be distracted by standardization.

However, I think a direct comparison between the US and Finnish systems is unfair and inherently inaccurate. Finland is a country slightly smaller than Montana in geography with a population of slightly more than 5 million. The US is a much more complicated educational beast to tame and any national picture doesn't capture the essence of the matter. Sure the inner city school in Harlem has a different standard and need than the specialty school in Finland.

Michael Wells

I have at least 3 friends who are former teachers. They all said they left because "I loved the kids and teaching. I hated the union, the mandatory testing, the bureaucracy."

My wife's sister and her husband taught at a rural California school. They're avid birders and every year as part of science would take middle schoolers to the Klamath refuge to look at migrating waterfowl, bald eagles, etc. The kids loved it. But when No Child Left Behind came along they were told to stay in the classroom and teach to the tests.

Combining the Finnish model with the City as Classroom ideas of the Remixing cities would probably do more to reform education than another decade of blue ribbon studies.

hayden fisher

When information was READILY available only in textbooks and World Book encyclopedias, proponents of the traditional classroom could make more persuasive arguments for the model. But that reality is yesterday's wikipedia. In the US, some core class review, even for the ADHD kids like me who never learned anything in the classroom and self-taught (at least we had a syllabus to direct us what to self-teach), is probably necessary to ensure threshold levels of core learning and standards, particularly since kids often move from school system to school system. But, on balance, it seems we could LEARN US A LOT from the Fins.


Hayden - You and me sound a lot alike. All school did was waste my time. 7-8 hours a day of learning nothing. Then high-school with prom and prep rally.

Here's the thing: How can kids be in school every day, for 12 years and not know math, not know history, not know a foreign language. Something else has to be eating up the time.

Virtually everyone is self-taught. Learning can only happen on your own.

Schools are a hold-over from a technologically much more limited time...

On teachers, Michael, I could not agree more. Most are dedicated and hard-working, Hemmed in by "the system". I cite the Gallup study in Who's Your City that finds that engaged teachers perform much more better than those in traditional educational environments.

Just watch the surge in home-schooling and people opting out of traditional schools and creating new alternatives in th next several years ...

Michael R. Bernstein

"How can kids be in school every day, for 12 years and not know math, not know history, not know a foreign language. Something else has to be eating up the time."

Richard, are you familiar with John Taylor Gatto and his book 'The Underground History of American Education'?:


Michael Wells

"Just watch the surge in home-schooling and people opting out of traditional schools and creating new alternatives in th next several years ..."

Not just families & kids.

I have a daughter and a son-in-law who are teachers in private schools. They make half the money they would in public schools, but have much more freedom. I suspect we'll see more of the really good teachers opting out of public schools. Either into non-public schools like my kids or like my friends in the post above who leave teaching entirely.

Actually, this is tragic, because most kids and especially low income and high need kids will be in public schools and need those teachers. What desperately needs to happen is for the public school systems to move towards the Finnish model, or learn from private schools, or..... The answer isn't going to come from Washington, regardless of who's president, because the problem isn't money and it's not solvable on a mass basis.

Yule Heibel

My son went to a one-room schoolhouse type school (K-8) in Salem, MA from Kindergarten until the end of grade 3, and my daughter (3 years younger than he) attended for Kindergarten only. After that we started homeschooling, not least because I was mortified by the "Arbeit macht frei" ethic that dictated hours of homework for these little kids. (Eg.: because my daughter could read and do math in Kindergarten, she got homework, too.)

That said, the school had tremendous potential because it had jettisoned the factory model of schooling (Taylor-esque division by grade and subject) and had begun introducing a much more "entrepreneurial" approach that included mixed-age teams that worked on projects. But too much was subsumed, it seemed, to work, work, work, with the goal of course being admission to one of the top private high schools in the area, which in turn would lead to admission to a top private college. As the first person in my family in my generation even to graduate from high school (ditto my husband), much less go to college (or go on to get a PhD from Harvard), I found myself watching the American East Coast scene with both terror and bemusement. I hadn't gone to any school until I was 7, and my experience with homework was practically nil. As an immigrant and high schooler in Victoria, BC, my favourite subject was "skipping out," a field of study that I thought greatly enriched my life.

When the one-room schoolhouse in Salem, MA, stopped working for us, we began homeschooling (this was in 2000), with the key drivers being that our kids would focus on reading and speaking (the latter being part and parcel of John Taylor Gatto's bandwagen: he insists that kids in public school don't learn to speak), and on learning in depth versus breadth. And playing. John Holt is another brilliant educator to read regarding this.

In 2002 we returned to Canada, back to the West Coast, where we found that BC has some really innovative ideas about distributed (distance) education. My now 16 and 13 (almost 17 and 14) year olds are nearly finished with high school, and no worse for not ever having gone to a traditional school.

That said, I want to add some cautionary words regarding the PISA studies and conclusions around the American system. Canada tends to score very well on PISA surveys, too, and some of this is because the peaks and valleys aren't nearly as pronounced here as they are in the US.

The Wall Street Journal article also pointed this out -- the Finnish school population is more homogenous in terms of language, class, and ethnicity, which makes finding that sweet spot for teaching and learning a bit more familiar. In Canada, we're unlike the Finns in that we have a range of ethnicities and mother tongues (even my own US-born kids spoke German as their first language), but the economic gaps here are smaller than what you can find in the US.

In part, Canadian homogeneity has to do with the educational funding model, which isn't based on property taxes (with rich districts getting the "better" schools). Hence, parents certainly shop for the better schools in their municipalities, but they don't have to move to a better district to enrol their kids in them. The linkage between what well-off-suburb or poor inner city neighbourhood you live in and the quality of your child's education is weak, not strong. I'd argue that in the US, it's strong.

Further, it's interesting to think about your excellent ideas around spikiness, Richard, and consider them in relation to the PISA study and to American education. I would argue that right now the American system is *very* spiky, with some kids performing way beyond the average, while others languish at the bottom. If you graphed the Finnish system and its population, I bet their world would look "flatter."

But just as cities -- to reference Richard Sennett's citation of Aristotle -- need all sorts of different citizens, I'd say that childhood needs to have its differences respected, and even nurtured. At present, we're telling too many kids that with enough effort, they too can be tall spikes -- and in this way we're perhaps flattening out their world. But the real beauty might be in letting them come into it when they're ready -- and then watch spikiness take off as a kind of synergy between the different talents.

hayden fisher

Thanks for your comment Richard. I think I learned more from reading the papers I delivered in the morning than I ever did in school. I would love to have all of those "hours" back to devote to museums, writing, watching, observing, checking out architecture, playing instruments, and developing my brain in all the ways I've done since, ETC.

Fortunately, I didn't pay attention, EITHER, to all of the negative comments from all the teachers who couldn't figure out why I didn't fit in their generic square-sized holes.

Hail the next generations and educational progress. Here's hoping we can reform the awful criminal justice system too.


Hayden - Amen.

I like to say I "dropped in" the whole time. I was in the desk, like a shell.

I learned in grade 1 and a little in grade 2 and somewhat in grade 3. Then nothing, absolutely nothing, but wasted time in classes. Fortunately, I had my band to keep me sane. High school was a complete joke. Pep rally, football game, track meets, dances and proms. I quickly opted out of all that. I grew my hair long, added a beard and hung out in my friend's basements playing songs. But then along came college - a place which actually encouraged learning.

How can a system that simply wastes time be tolerated? And don't tell me it socializes kids. BS. It never socialized me. If anything it un-socialized us. It taught us how to compete against one another. It channeled us into cliques and encouraged us to waste time and hide the fact we were even interested in learning and ideas. Do you want your kids socialized into a Paris Hilton/ Lindsay Lohan "mean girls", hyper-consumption, "look at my outfit", "I'm such a cool kid" kind of world? Come on now, people.

This system for essentially "institutionalizing" kids is a disastrous, cruel joke, completely out of touch with what it takes to encourage already creative people to harness and use their own gifts.

Sorry for the rant ...

Yule Heibel

Richard and Hayden, you are so right: Schools DO NOT socialize kids. Think of it this way: how would any free adult feel if she were told that for 5 to 8 hours of every day, she could only be with people her age (give or take a year), plus one person (teacher) who is out of that age range? She'd think that's just nuts. Yet that's what we do to kids in the name of "socialization." And we wonder why behavioral sinks develop in schools...

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