I bet all of you are tired of my rose-colored posts on the seemingly perfect Finnish Education system. I just imagine you saying at home “Ok, we get it. Finland has a utopic education system, with a never-ending supply of recesses, free lunch, snack times and breaks. Students have less homework, fewer classes and less stress. We have read your article on how “Less is More”, and we understand that Finland has created an idealistic learning environment. But this really doesn’t explain their high scores on international assessments like PISA.”
You are right. It is confusing and counter intuitive. If I am being brutally honest with you, the math in a typical secondary level Finnish classroom is not particularly rigorous or advanced. While the instruction is sound and I have few critiques on the actual teaching, the topics covered in most classes were not extremely difficult. The actual calculations and content covered in a 9th or 10th grade level class, even the honors classes, were all topics I could easily assign to my high achieving 7th graders (Finnish 6th graders).
So, what enables Finnish 15 year old students to rank at the top of the PISA scores while the U.S. scores remains incredibly average or even below?
How do Finnish students, who spend their evenings skateboarding, playing video games or hanging out with friends, perform almost as high as those from Singapore or Korea where kids go to a “second school” after public school until 10:00 pm and follow that up with 4 or more hours of homework? It doesn’t add up.
Finland’s education system sounds great and wonderful and full of sunshine and rainbows, but how does it work? How are they getting such great scores in math?
1. It is all about the law of Averages. Finland is a country where everyone does “Well”.
Finland, a country that prides itself on equitable education, does a great job at getting and keeping everyone on the same playing field. Mirroring the philosophy of their society and governmental structures, education in Finland is more concerned with the collective good and making sure that every student does well instead of focusing on competition, tracking and ranking.
The result is that every student learns what they need to learn and does quite well at the basics, but not much more. There are very few high achievers. In fact on the recent PISA assessment Finland, while ranking far above the international average, Finland only had around 15% reach a top performing category, while the Asian Nations who beat Finland had between 30 to 50% of their students reach that top category. Yet, at the same time Finland had very few students on the low spectrum.
In Finland no one is pushed to become great, but no one gets left behind either. When everyone in society is doing at least “okay”, this creates a collectively high average that beats the average of a country like the U.S. or China that have gigantic educational achievement gaps that mirrors their societal and economic structures.
It isn’t a secret that the U.S. society is obsessed with competition. This mentality has created an education system that continually pushes students to learn and achieve at high levels. Which isn’t necessarily bad. Our system, that is based on competition and ranking, is very good at creating a huge group of students who excel and thrive in very advanced mathematical courses.
However, we have become so focused and intent on pushing our kids to learn more and more, that we create a hole in actual student understanding and their natural progression of learning. It is starting to become common practice to put 5th and 6th graders into Algebra, which I think is crazy, unnecessary and detrimental! U.S. kids are very good at following steps and getting the correct answer, but they have no idea what those answers mean or how they can be applied to real life situations.
And while all U.S. students are exposed to much more mathematics than the average Finnish student, this doesn’t mean they actually understand or retain all of that math information. And many can’t keep up with the impossible standards. Thus, we have the flip side to the American coin. We have a massive amount of students, especially in less affluent States and communities who are failing math completely.
In the spitting image of our American economy, we have a large successful group at the top but an even larger group at the bottom who pull our collective score below international averages. Finnish academic performance also reflects its economy. Everyone does well or at least okay and so the collective scores are high.
It is no accident that academic achievement mirrors the country’s economic structures. We will never fix our broken education system in the U.S. until we fix our broken economic system. Students will continue to fail academically as long as they live in fear, hunger and poverty- no matter what educational reforms or policies we enact. To the most extent these roadblocks do not exist in Finland. All students are fairly equal in terms of provisions and care at home. Most Finnish students come to school feeling safe, fed, loved, wanted and ready to learn.
However, I wonder if this “everyone is doing okay, so lets not worry about it” mentality is going to be a problem for Finland in the future. I have visited several math classrooms all around Helsinki and I often think that there are a handful of students that could be pushed to learn more and perform at higher levels. Perhaps a little more competition and challenge would be healthy for Finland’s youth. Like everything in life, there is usually a happy medium.
2. It isn’t about Calculations, Formulas or Factoring!
Math classrooms in Finland do not focus on calculations, solving algebraic equations, or what I would call formal mathematics. In fact I visited a 9th grade honors classroom where students were learning how to calculate the volume of a triangular prism for the first time. They were also struggling with what I would consider basic algebra concepts that would be simple to my 7th graders.
However, It didn’t take me long to recognize that Finnish math education isn’t overly concerned with calculations or formulas. The kids in Finland don’t do rows and rows of algebraic problems. They don’t sit around factoring complex equations for months on end. They are taught more practical skills and ways of thinking about and learning mathematics.
And if you take a look at the PISA questions you can quickly see why Finnish students are succeeding and U.S. students are failing. The questions do not look like the questions on an American math exam. There are no equations to solve or problems to calculate.
I recently took the PISA exam out of curiosity and to my surprise it looked more like a logic exam than a math exam. There were no what I would call “pure” math questions. They were all logical real life questions. I could do most of the problems in my head. All I had to do is sit and think the question through rationally and use my previous experiences and knowledge of the world to help me work out the problem. I didn’t reach for a pen and paper once to calculate or solve.
This is the KEY my friends. The PISA exam does not measure a students ability to solve a mathematical equation or calculate the answer to a directly given math problem. It doesn’t require factoring skills or differentials. The mathematics used in this international assessment of “What students should know” is actually fairly simple and straightforward every day math.
The math itself is not complicated or difficult. The students must read the problem, assess the situation, and figure out the answer. And the Finnish students who have been treated more like adults than children have more real life experiences from which to pull to problem solve. They have been given independence at a young age and have therefore figured out how to deal with real-life issues and problems on their own.
They have also had an education system that has not spoon-fed them all of the answers. They have learned how to read through a problem, think it through logically and actually attempt to find an answer before they give up.
The U.S. needs to focus less on actual drill and skill in mathematics and work more on problem solving and logic. Our students, who are very good at solving equations and doing calculations, have no idea WHEN to use one equation/ calculation over the other. Yes, they can apply their good calculation skills 30 times in a row, but being able to read a problem and identify which calculation should be used in a given situation is a different story altogether.
Also we need our students to actually read the math questions and not give up when they see a paragraph. They need more mathematical literacy skills and less “formal calculation” skills if they are going to compete globally.
3. Physics, Physics and More Physics
In any given week in Finland I will meet or talk to more people who have a degree in physics than I have met in my ENTIRE life in the United States. I swear- everywhere I go in Finland I find someone who studied physics or is currently getting their PHD in the impressive and very allusive field. It is crazy to me- Physics is not something that is very common in the U.S.
I am a math teacher. I have a degree in mathematics and I have never taken a physics course. Ever. The physics teacher in my high school was crazy so I avoided her class. I therefore was too intimidated to take a college level physics course and opted to take a chemistry course for my science requirement instead.
The concept of Physics is terrifying to most Americans. We don’t know it, we don’t understand it and we assume it is a field for only the highly gifted and talented. While it is common for U.S. students to take ONE physics course in high school, it isn’t a requirement. They also are not exposed to very much physics before the age of 16.
However all children in Finland take physics as part of their regular curriculum. As early as 4th or 5th grade Finnish students learn the basics of physics. They have a physics class every year in middle school and high school. Most of the math teachers are also qualified to teach physics.
It is a common subject and one that does not breed disdain and fear. In fact many of the students I have questioned or interviewed stated they actually prefer their physics classes to their math classes. Why? They prefer physics because it is actually APPLIED mathematics. The students can see how math is being used, applied and how it is relevant to the actual physical world in which they live.
When you look at the questions being asked on the PISA test the questions are more geared toward an understanding of physics than actual mathematics. This is the huge difference.
While American 15-year-old students can calculate circles around Finnish students, they are clueless when it comes to physics and mathematical application. Our students don’t know how to properly apply the math they know so well. Where Finnish students, who have had years of physics classes, understand the questions being asked and know how to apply their knowledge of math in a real and logical way.