‘How to Define Success’: Teachers explore Finnish school system


Provided by Beth Wahl

Upper school French teacher Galina Tchourilova reviews material at the Council for Creative Education (CCE) Finland conference. The conference, which lasted five days, took place over the February break.

Do you dream of a land without tests or homework? Of a world freed from the clutches of the SAT, AP exams and, worst of all, the dreaded mid-chapter assessment? Look no further than Finland.

Famously known as the happiest country in the world, Finland boasts marvels like the Northern Lights, reindeer jerky and free healthcare. Yet one of its most renowned accomplishments is the school system; despite skipping kindergarten to delay student enrollment until the age of seven, Finland consistently ranks as one of the best education systems globally, according to studies from organizations like the World Economics Forum. To learn more about the processes behind this success, teachers from the Harker upper, middle and lower school campuses visited a five-day professional development workshop organized by the Council for Creative Education (CCE) Finland during the week of Feb. 13.

Teachers Andi Bo, Ali Bo, Elizabeth Brumbaugh, Mark Janda, Vandana Kadam, Tina Kim, Cindy Proctor, Rajasree Swaminathan, Galina Tchourilova and Dr. Beth Wahl began the conference with a workshop on Finnish culture and history, followed by three days of visiting various schools and surveying classes and students. On the last day, they partook in an action-oriented session to discuss what they had learned and what they would like to incorporate into their classes at Harker.

According to the teachers’ observations, the Finnish school system is generally less rigid than the American system and encourages students’ self-sufficiency, whether that be through leaving their own students alone during class time or having them take public transport alone from an early age. Upper school english teacher Dr. Beth Wahl frequently observed the Finnish students’ resulting independence and the bond that formed between the teachers and students.

“When we talked to the kids from the middle school, there was no teacher sitting there, telling them what to do or reframing what they were saying,” Dr. Wahl said. “It was just the kids talking to us. There’s a tremendous amount of trust between teachers and students and they don’t feel like they have to censor the kids or any need to tell them what to do. I found that really empowering, both as a teacher and as a parent myself, to see that kind of trust.”

Harker teachers also noticed a lack of competition in Finnish schools, with students appearing less stressed in comparison to those of the Harker community. A major factor in reducing pressure is the difference in test frequency, as Finnish schools rarely formally assess students outside of the final matriculation exam, which students take as an application to university. Middle school Mathematics Department Chair Vandana Kadam was curious about student stress and anxiety, so an opportunity to go and specifically look at schools in Finland where students’ experiences were different piqued her interest.

“Students in Finland don’t have tests or homework; that is such a foreign idea to us,” Kadam said. “I know that there’s a lot of stress that Harker students feel from tests in our school, assessments in general. It’ll be great for us to bring [fewer tests] to our school, if it’s a possibility for our system to see if we can achieve things that the Finnish education system is achieving without tests.”

While Finnish students face many obstacles similar to those American students experience, like college entrance exams, the Finnish administrators underscored the importance of students participating in their studies to uplift their community. Upper school history teacher Mark Janda highlighted the Finnish focus on developing a society and culture rather than individuals.

“Finnish culture, to begin with, does not particularly prize competition,” Janda said. “And to some degree, they seem to shun competition. They have relatively little wealth disparity, and they have a government school funding system that funds all schools. They explained that for 100 years it has been a belief that if you want to build a particular kind of society, you have to start with children. So you build your society with schools, and you accept that build[ing] it is going to take a generation.”

Several teachers viewed the differences between Harker and Finnish schools as opportunities for growth. After the conference, they arrived home with new ideas and principles to implement into the Harker community to help students and faculty members thrive. Kadam specifically hoped to adopt the Finnish habit of collaborating through group projects and games rather than working as individuals, while simultaneously allowing students more independence.

“What I have been noticing is that [as] I’m doing a project, there’s a lot more I can do to systemize it in a way, [based on] what the [Finnish] did,” Kadam said. “I realized that I can make the kids take even bigger ownership of this project by coming up with the rubric. So, the projects are definitely something that I would like to bring into my classroom, or maybe introduce some games that will help the kids understand better.”

Along with lending students more trust and creating more room for collaboration, teachers emphasized the idea of “celebration without competition,” and how Harker can learn to apply it in the community.

“First, we can think about our values, and how to define success,” Janda said. “We can look at it as about achieving a sense of contentment, a sense of responsibility or a sense of autonomy, but also with a connection to the rest of your community, instead of grades and college admissions. So, I would like to think, how do we redefine our values?”