Early Finns coming to America in the twentieth century had limited educations, but nearly all had had a basic education, which had taught them to read the Catechism and write simple messages. What was that schooling like? How did these, our illustrious parents and grandparents, learn to read and write?
A former pastor’s wife and teacher in Finland and the USA, Anja Vincent, guided the listeners at the Finnish Heritage Museum in Fairport Harbor, Ohio to a fascinating expose of Finland’s glorious struggle to educate a country of hard working, determined (sisukas) people that was growing into a nation that has become one of the top-of-the-world’s educational systems.
“To understand the present, you need to understand the past,” instructed Anja. Finland was a country without a written language until 1543 when Michael Agricola published his ABC book and translated the New Testament into Finnish. Previous to this time, those who received an education did so in Swedish. Those were mainly people of the Swedish gentry that ruled Finland. Education was centered in the Catholic Church.
By 1620 the Lutheran faith had been established in Sweden. Controlling Finland, the Swedish church officials ordered that the Finns must be able to read the Catechism before confirmation and marriage, thereby improving literacy skills among the common people. Church law in 1686 included required public readings and hearings on Christian doctrine. These sessions were called kinkerit. Paid teachers traveled around the country from village to village, lodging in people’s homes for several weeks at a time. Finding an available site in which to meet, these kiertokoulut in Finnish language continued until the 20th century. For most country Finns this was the only schooling they received. Some of our forefathers may relate to these traveling schools.
The establishment of folk-school s (kansakoulut) was declared in 1858, and the first seminary to train teachers began. The folk-school regulation was passed in 1869, and the responsibility for education was passed from the church to the state. Not until 1921 was the free and compulsory 6-year education act written into law. A second tier of schools called oppikoulu or yhteiskoulu became available. Students had to take and pass an entrance exam to qualify for this, and application was made sometime during grades 4-6. Most of these schools charged tuition and students had to purchase their schoolbooks. Poorer families didn’t apply; this continued late into 1960.
A new comprehensive 9-year school act was passed in 1968 by Parliament with an accompanying national curriculum written in 1969. All the children age 7 through ages 17 were to receive the same education. This was a thirty year maturing process until The Comprehensive School Act replaced the 1968 one. This new act in 1998 brought about “Centralized steering with local implementation,” making for more emphasis on flexibility, individuality, and options in education’s building blocks of success.
PISA, (The Programme for International Student Assessment, Office of Economic Co-Operation and Development) show results placing 15 year olds among the first three of the participating 57 countries in the areas of reading, math, science and problem solving. PISA assessment tests are done every three years, focusing on one of the three areas each year. In 2000 Finnish students placed second in reading after Taiwan. In 2003 they were rated first in mathematics, and in 2006 they were first in science. Over 4,000 students participated in these tests.
Why do Finnish students perform so well? Are they smarter than others? Are they more motivated? Is the size of the population a factor? Is more money spent on education? Is it a more heterogeneous society? Do students like school more? These questions are asked. Research has revealed one outstanding factor, educational equality. Every person residing in Finland regardless of age, domicile, economic status, gender, or mother tongue has equal opportunity for education. There are no separate gifted classes, and special needs students are integrated into regular classrooms whenever possible. PISA testing in various parts of the country shows little variation in scores. There are no poor or wealthy schools, and schools are not rated on the basis of the children’s successes. No national standardized tests are given. The national core curriculum is the only control schools have.
Teacher training is a factor in a student’s educational success. Class and subject teachers are required to have a Master’s degree in their subject area of expertise. Teachers are held in high regard. The populace has a high regard toward education, with 2/3 of the 25-64 age group are high school graduates and 1/3 of the group have a college degree.
Anja relates that Finnish homes subscribe to several newspapers and magazines yearly and most homes have a bookshelf in the living room. Young people are readers, about 2/3 of them say they read the papers and cartoons regularly.
In regard to PISA assessment of all students, the Minister of Education once said, “The participation of special needs students was quite natural because they are integrated into regular education whenever it is possible. Everyone living in Finland is entitled to basic education free of charge.”
When does a child’s compulsory education begin? “ It begins at the age of 7,” said Anja, “ and lasts until the child has passed the curriculum syllabus or turns 17. Most children attend municipal preschool for 6 year olds. This prepares children for the comprehensive school by developing his self-image and learning to-learn skills through play-based methods where the child investigates his living environment experientially.”
Anja then related the life of two children, Satu and Okko. They have turned 7 and school is starting August 12. Satu has attended an English language preschool for a year and Okko has been at a free municipal childcare center since his infancy. Satu has to walk as she lives 3 miles from the school. Okko rides public transportation as he lives 3 ½ miles from the school. He does not have to pay the fare as the municipality pays the fare. Some children use “school taxies” since there is no regular bus route close enough for them. “There are no school buses in Finland like we have here,” Anja explained.
During the nine years of Comprehensive School the children do not pay for their books or school sup- plies, and a daily school lunch is provided free to all students. School attendance is not compulsory, although the Comprehensive School national core curriculum syllabus for the child of 7-17 must either be completed before the child becomes 17. This allows for parents to home school their children if they so desire. The child must show annual progress on the basic core curriculum. There are few private schools in Finland, but friends of Okko attend one of them. They are not charged tuition for this, as they are entitled to the same services as other public school children. These schools receive a state grant at the same per student rate as the municipal schools in the area.
Satu and Okko will get to know their first teacher well as they will have the same teacher for the next 6 years. The teacher is well prepared, and the school’s teachers have selected the textbooks. The education act allows the teachers to choose their own teaching materials, but the books have been selected by joint discussion and review by the principle and teachers with the students’ particular needs in mind. Once the books have been selected, the teachers have total freedom in implementing the curriculum and designing the syllabus for their own classroom. The national core curriculum must be covered.
Classes for Satu and Okko start at 8:30 in the morning, and each class session lasts 45 minutes. There is a 15-minute break between each class during which the children must go out into the schoolyard for a recess break. This is observed during the first six years of their schooling. Lunchtime allows 30 minutes for eating.
Satu and Okko do not worry about a report card with grades at the end of the semester. However, they will be given progress evaluations. Graded reports are introduced in the 5th grade.
“What subjects do Satu and Okko study during the first and second year of their five day school week?” we ask. Anja responds, “ The mother tongue, mathematics, religion or ethics, environmental and natural studies, arts, crafts and physical education, totaling 19 weekly lessons. Weekly lesson amounts and subjects will increase to 30 lessons a week by their 9th grade. These will include a foreign language, biology, geography, physics and chemistry, health education, history and social studies, home economics, educational and vocational guidance. Grade 8 students can choose other subjects as another foreign language. The first foreign language has been introduced in the third grade. The second domestic language is introduced at the seventh grade level, if not sooner. Finland’s domestic languages are Swedish and Finnish.”
Required number of school days is 190. The starting day is optional for every school district. The Department of Education requires that the last day of the school year must be the last day of week 22 of the calendar. In October the children have a school break, for either 2 days or a week. Every district may choose the length of the break. Christmas allows two weeks, and later in the winter children look forward to a 1-week ski vacation during which parents may take the children to Lapland to ski. They also enjoy 3 to 4 days of Easter vacation. Rest, relaxation, and sports are essential to a student’s good health.
“Moving rapidly ahead with Satu and Okko,” Anja continues. “ Let’s see what they encounter in grades 7-9. They have left behind their classroom teacher and the familiar classroom they’ve had for six years. Now they’ll have to move from classroom to classroom, and meet with different subject teachers. However these classes are located on the same campus. Satu and Okko find this learning atmosphere quite relaxed. They address their teachers by their given names, work together in small groups with familiar students, advance at each one’s own speed, and often move to another group in the middle of the year. They engage in their own individual projects, but most work is done at school. There’s very little homework, and if there’s any, it can be done during the after-school program provided by the municipality at the school building.”
The upper secondary school’s purpose is to prepare the student for matriculation examination and to lay the foundation for higher education. There are compulsory, specialized, and applied courses. Studies are divided into courses, and Satu has to take 75 courses in order to pass the 3-year syllabus. With her good study habits, interests and abilities, she may complete her studies in 2-2 ½ years instead of the usual 3, and be ready to take the national matriculation exam, possibly in 3 stages. The students in the upper school are not part of the year group and are allowed to make their own options.
Satu and Okko apply to the schools they wish to attend through a countrywide joint application process. Satu is a gifted athlete and applies to a school emphasizing sports in addition to a regular upper secondary school curriculum. She is accepted, but the school is not in her hometown. She has to move to this town and find lodging on her own. Only education costs are covered by the state. She chooses several optional courses and many individual projects with the guidance of her counselor at school. Okko applies to a vocational school in his hometown, and is accepted. He wants to become a park ranger.
Satu does well in her secondary training and decides to take the matriculation exam in two stages, the first one in the spring of her second year, and the second one in the fall of her third year. She can add optional subjects to the matriculation exam in addition to the required four subjects by spreading the test over time. This helps when she later applies to the university. Okko’s vocational school lasts from 3½ to 4 years and includes a six-month “internship.” Following his graduation certificate, he plans to attend a polytechnic college for a degree in forestry. Universities focus on theoretical education and research, whereas polytechnic colleges focus on practical skills and business in the work world.
Both Satu and Okko finish their secondary education, Satu in 2 ½ years and Okko in 4. They will continue in their chosen programs of higher education and prepare for their future professions. Asked what they consider to have been the strength of their twelve year educational program, they respond: “Without question it has been the student oriented, active conception of learning that has focused on student activity and interaction with the teachers and other students in the learning environment.”
What do teachers have to say about the system? Why are the PISA scores ranking Finland’s test scores at the top of the list? A retired upper comprehensive school principal/superintendent in a rural community, a comprehensive school principal in a major city, and a first grade teacher in a mid-sized town all agreed that the educational equality is the key factor. Individual attention and instruction for each child, as well as the flexibility that teachers have with the curriculum, is the key to success. Teachers are well trained and are highly trusted by society allowing them to use the best pedagogical methods to teach the children placed into their classrooms.
Text © by Anja Vincent, Photo © By Lasse O. Hiltunen.