Finnish schools are the best, and American schools suck? Not so fast.

I have written a lot about Finnish Education before but it has been a few years I have touched the subject. Each year when the PISA test results come out and Finland scores as the nation having the best education in the world, there is wonder how a small country tucked in the Northern corner of Europe can do it. The high level of education in Finland was also featured in the 2010 documentary film Waiting for “Superman” about America’s troubled public schools. I wanted to add this time my personal opinion after reading the article “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” in the Smithsonian magazine.

Is it true that Finnish schools are the best and American school system sucks?

Simply said: things are not black and white. It simply isn’t as simple as Finnish schools are the best and American schools suck. There is much more to it. Here is my opinion that nobody asked for, and it probably offends you. I am an immigrant who has two lands, which means no lands when you speak up about the differences between the two. As my husband says, this is the post that could also be called “minus 2,000 Twitter followers”. There are always two sides, and like with everything else in life, I recommend trying to improve the bad ones, and enjoy the good ones. If you want to read my previous posts about subject, here you go: Finnish kids are the smartest in the world, right? Finnish School System – the good, the bad and the ugly truth. Finns study religion, evolution and sexuality – Educated minds make educated choices. Brain food helps Finns to excel at school – it’s all about the right nutrition. Why don’t we see any Finnish innovations, or do we? – where that education takes you.

Ugly Truth You Don’t Want to Hear

As someone who has gone through Finnish school system for 15 years, I was stunned when I moved to America and entered a college here to continue my studies, and saw the (low) level of education first hand. The math class in college bored me to death, I had already taken that level of math during my first year of high school. Many people who criticize the Finnish education point out the homogeneous class rooms and lack of diversity making it easier to teach and get the high results. Ironically, the “book smarts” I had learned in Finland were about world history, religion, geography and social studies etc. made it easy for me to have a conversation with many Americans with diverse cultural backgrounds when I moved here. At the same time, the lack of understanding anything about life in Europe was obvious when many people here were approaching me with questions like “how civilized is Finland”, “do you have popcorn in Finland”, “have you ever heard we had this president called Kennedy” not to mention “where is Finland”, “where is Europe” and “what is Scandinavia”. While I certainly didn’t expect people to have much knowledge of my home nation Finland, at least I sort of expected people to know the capital of France, or that Coca-Cola had made it to Europe. Remember – these were my first impressions, when I moved to the US arrogantly straight-from-school from the glorious “best schools in the world”.

The Characteristics in Finnish Education I Like (besides the book smarts)

While I believe the Finnish education is good for pouring information in from various subjects (many not taught in American schools), what makes it tremendously better is that the school days are short, and children won’t enter school until 7 years old, and play, crafts and skills like woodwork, sewing, crochet and knitting are also taught and the hand skills are considered as important as book smarts. Also in PE I did horseback riding, ping pong, wall climbing, skiing (downhill and cross country), swimming, ice skating, gymnastics and several other types of sports because part of the education is to teach you a variety of ways to enjoy sports. We played team sports, but there is no team sports in schools like in the US. So the education was much more than “book smarts”, the education was preparing us for life. One of the most important lessons I learned in college in Finland was that school was never going to be the place for me to learn everything I needed to know in life, in business and in workforce. My professors emphasized again and again that they wanted to teach us problem solving skills, not answers to problems, they wanted us to learn where and how to find information, not how to memorize it by heart. I learned to learn from everything I did, saw or experienced. I learned the skills to absorb knowledge and how to apply the information I had learned.

What Americans Learn at School that Finns Don’t

I used to say “you can graduate from college in the US if you play football but you can’t graduate high school in Finland unless you speak three different languages” and my opinion of American education was not very high. Now I have learned, there is no such thing as “American education”, every school in every district is different and the quality of education varies from one side of town to other one, not to mention from state to state. There are a lot of very bad schools, and many amazing schools, but the problem is that there is such a big difference in between. There are many things I wish I had learned in Finnish schools. The confidence that Americans have, the public speaking and debating skills and the entrepreneurial spirit and support for such spirit. Maybe even the team spirit that American school sports have – I never witnessed anything like that in even nearly in the same scale in Finland as here in the US. I like that American schools start early with the “show and tell” and teaching children to speak up and be in the front of people. Finnish children are taught to be quiet and they are not given an opportunity to speak up often. Obviously I had a big problem with that when growing up. I love how Americans treat children with much more respect to their individual needs and skills. Of course that’s not all thanks to school, it’s cultural, but for example my children have their school art work displayed in local art galleries and coffee shops and the way their work is appreciated is something I didn’t see often in Finland. I can see how the American education is boosting my children’s confidence in a way I my confidence was never boosted in Finland. Which seems contradictory considering the high testing environment and the competition American schools have. Also, while play is an important part, and children in Finland don’t get as much homework as the students here do, it is not uncommon that Finnish children walk to school alone from early age, carrying a home key in their necks, and cell phone in their pockets. While all this “play is important” stuff is emphasized, the culture still expects many children to grow up faster than their American counterparts. While there might not be children from poverty walking to schools in Finland, there are children of high society who are expected to be independent, walk to school alone and speak three languages by the age of 10. I am OK that my 11 year old is still more of “a child” than “mini adult” or “pre-teen” and that she learns about confidence by doing things she excels, instead of independence because nobody is there for her. (note: my parents have always been supportive and there for me, this is about the Finnish culture, not the way I grew up) My children also go to a school where there is a vast variety of children from different cultural and racial backgrounds. I can count the students that were different racial or cultural background than me with my one hand’s fingers during the entire first 12 years of school in Finland. We were the sarahpalins of Europe; we read books about other cultures and other languages and religions without having any real experience of any of them. While I agree, the education is needed, but so is the experience, and unfortunately as “book smart” as Finns are, many of them have very racist opinions and they are not as tolerant as “highly educated” people should be in my opinion.

What I think as a Mom

I much rather have my children to experience and get to know different people, cultures and religions first hand, than just read about them in books. And even though every school year I get disappointed in several things that I see in the schools my children enter here, and my children read more novels in school than books about history, they still impress me with their smarts on daily basis. I like the communication between teacher and parents, the PTAs and the after school events and activities. Also, the science projects with so much free expression impress me. My children also watched chicks to hatch from eggs, had a pet and watched plants grow right in their class room. Sure, they may lack in the amount of books they read at school, but I like the hands on learning. I know that I could do better as a mom, I could home school, or continue teaching children after they come home from school at 3:30 each day, but the words of my college professor are deeply imprinted in my brain and I rather teach children problem solving skills and where to find the information and how to apply it when needed than learning everything by heart. I like that this culture is as much about entrepreneurial spirit, eagerness to find and live your passion, as about book smarts and degrees. I want my children to have the education, but education alone isn’t enough in today’s society, and I feel I need to teach my children first how to live. When I told this to my kids and referred that we will try to travel and do other things this school year as much as we can, my daughter answered “you can’t miss days in middle school, because they teach something new like every week”. I rest my case. PS. And before you comment about my poor English grammar, why don’t you write that comment in Finnish? Or heck, do it in German, French or Spanish to make it a bit easier. Even with my high Finnish education I am not perfect and don’t master the English language. Like said, things are never black and white, so why don’t you just take the best out of it and be positive? :)
  1. As a Canadian, I feel the US system is inferior to ours in many ways. It amazes me when I talk to US citizens and they think Canada is one big country of ice and people living in Igloos. The level of intelligence in the conversations I share with US citizens is far lower than my Canadian counterparts. It astounds me when I understand more about US politics than US citizens do. I know there are far more educated Americans out there, but my experience with the ones that I have met has not been very impressionable.

  2. Katja, This is a thoughtful piece, I agree that European education encourages children to be more knowledgeable about the world.I like that you were taught to problem solve by your professors. I was impressed during my years in Europe that most everyone spoke two or three languages. There is much learning for both sides. You’re right that American students have a confidence in themselves. I like that they are taught to speak up for themselves and that they can still be children. Though at times I see that carefree child time dwindling far too fast. We can learn a great deal from other systems of Education to improve ours. We have some great schools and some that must be improved.

  3. Oh, Katja! I am so impressed! As an American who has lived in Finland (5 years total) I appreciate finding someone who can recognize the good and bad in both systems. People sometimes get frustrated when they want to hear my undying praise for or criticism of either system – praise seekers being Finns for Finland and critics being Americans about the US, but all I can say (as you do) is it’s not so black and white. My three children have been to school in both the US and Finland. I finished my master’s courses in yliopisto. We have had good and bad experiences in both places, but you can’t compare apples to oranges, you know?

    ps – You won’t find me correcting anyone’s grammar!

  4. This was really illuminating, thanks for sharing your perspective. I think the bottom line is always parental involvement and encouraging your children to have a world view. The latter is usually what I think separates Americans from other nationalities, we tend to be very ignorant of other cultures by choice. Willful separatism is not a good choice in the global economy!

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, this was very interesting to read. I have four kids (ages 10-18) and our U.S. school systems are a major concern to me. I do feel like we are not up to the same standards as some other countries. Our town always has several foreign exchange students who come to our high school each year and they all seem to say the same thing…”school is so easy in America”. I think that’s such a shame and something the U.S. needs to address.

  6. Excellent article ! I should probably write something of the kind (if I can do half as good) about Finnish education compared to the French one that my kids are facing…

    French education is probably the most traditional of these three, you still keep hearing things like “learning by heart instead of thinking” and other shocking taglines. Although kids start school at age of three and have looooooooong schooldays (9 to 16h30), this does not guarantee better results. School is a very serious thing, the joy of learning quite abstract and methods seem quite ancient to me.

    But the environment sure is multicultural, and trying to grab the best bits of everything allows us to apply (at least at home) the best of breed – and luckily there is the Finnish school of Paris every Wednesday afternoon !

    Kudos for your English ; I blog (or used to…) in Finnish and French, but never feel that confortable in writing in English – your style is very positive and flows nicely, sounds just right. Thanks for the benchmark. ;o)

  7. Really loved this story. Makes me wonder if anybody has ever gathered and studied these real life stories from the people who actually have the knowledge of several cultures? Maybe it´s because of the formal culture always underestimating the power of first hand experience? We would probably have big advancements in education if learning could be constantly compared by parents from all over the world. My favorite expression about learning is: “It´s way too important to be left for experts only. After all they are OUR kids”.

  8. Yes, Liz, I meant that Finns have great education on many things in the world, but not all have the hands on experience, and education as “book smarts” isn’t enough to understand the world issues completely.

    The Sarah Palin reference comes from her interview with Katie Couric (starting from minute 1:10) where she admitted she had gotten a passport just a year before running for president.

    “the way that I have understood the world, was through education, through books, through mediums, that have provided me a lot of perspective”

    Books, education, and literacy IS the key but you can not learn everything you need to know about the world and life from the books. And you don’t really truly understand it until you have experienced life in different forms.

    Rufus, you are so right about the competition! What I don’t understand is the “sticker policy” in schools or rewarding kids of reading/learning. LEARNING itself IS a reward, and children should feel it. Children should be encouraged to learn for knowledge, not for test scores or for the trophy.

  9. Nice post. Having lived in several countries, speaking a few languages and having family in Europe, I often feel even more divided because I am ONLY an American. I feel foreign talking to fellow Americans who can’t find France on a map. Get Sweden and Switzerland confused (how is that possible? I struggle to comprehend. The older I’ve gotten, the less judgmental I’ve gotten..I hope ;) Not superior, just different. I’ve immersed myself, alone, for long periods of time living and working in other countries starting when I was a teenager. As in all things in life, there truly is no way to compare different systems or to get to the root “of the problem” with one. The factors are many: culture, geography, health, wars, economy, religion (or lack thereof)…Oy, my head is spinning. Critical thinking skills are the big tool necessary to grasp what there is, what there can be and how to go about it.

    Ok, I GOTTA ask: what do you mean by Finns being the sarahpalins of Europe? I’m kind of assuming you are referring to her lack of travels? I don’t think we can point to any US Presidents or Vice Presidents who were extremely world traveled prior to taking office.

  10. This was very brave indeed. Not to champion “USA-USA-USA” or “Finland is the Best!” is just asking for it. I wish more people would examine issues in degrees rather than extremes of this ideology or that. I used to work with a biomedical engineer a long time ago who taught me that human beings operate more like potentiometers rather than light switches. (http://www.dogwalkblog.com/my-little-dopamine-spritz-twittermakesyoustupid.html)

    I have family and friends in Denmark and they are very proud of their educational system as well. They defend theirs as passionately as many Americans defend this system. Like you, I straddle the middle which means both sides think I’m an idiot. Oh, well.

    Many Europeans don’t understand how there is no “American school system.” Many Americans don’t understand how they are hurting themselves in the global marketplace by having 50 separate states, all having hundreds (sometimes thousands) of school districts, compete AGAINST each other for resources. That is perhaps a fight for another day.

    What I find troubling about building self esteem and rewarding kids early, often and sometimes over the top is they don’t learn how to deal with frustration and failure. By the time they are 12, they have won every contest, given every award and had their picture in the local newspaper 10 times. (go out to any soccer tournament.. see the size of those awards.) They grow up expecting to win at everything or something is wrong with them. Another thing is, we appear to be raising a generation of kids who don’t know when it is appropriate to keep quiet… heck even having the ability to comment on your blog is … well, it proves my point.

    I am conversant in Danish, German and French.. but even I would NEVER, ever, ever attempt to blog in any of those languages.. and by “conversant” I know enough to ask for a beer in a pub and a hot dog on the street :-) Sure wish we would teach kids more languages in school….

  11. Really well-written and very thoughtful. I think your opinion has so much weight because you have experienced both systems of education – your own education and now your kids. I think it’s sad how you said you can’t generalize schools here in the states – some good, some bad. The sad thing is they all should be good and aren’t. It’s absolutely tragic for our children and not enough of us parents are outraged. And, if we say anything negative about the curriculum or ask for changed, we’re judged immediately as against teachers. Well, I’m a teacher and I’m not against myself, I’m against crappy educators doing a crappy job for the children in this country.

    Thank you for this post. I appreciate that you take a stand!

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