written by Todd Beach

Have you ever read the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten The author, Robert Fulghum, composed a poem of simple yet essential lessons, which suggest that our lives would be easier if we simplified our approach.  These lessons which we ‘learned in Kindergarten’ include tenets such as, share everything, play fair, clean up your own mess, live a balanced life, and hold hands and stick together.[1]

I recently read the book, Finnish Lessons, by Pasi Sahlberg[2], which is a well-written account of how Finland created a world-class education system.  An education system, which over the last three decades went from being a relative backwater to arguably the best in the world.  How did they accomplish this?  Was it by employing similar policies which are prevalent in the United States today – policies which include high-stakes testing and greater control over teachers through macro and micro management as well as the tearing apart of teachers unions?  No.  Actually the Finnish way is simple and in many ways reminds me of the lessons articulated by Robert Fulghum:

Share Everything
Market-based competition and high stakes testing policies have NOT infected the Finnish education system.

“The main reason is that the education community in Finland has remained unconvinced that competition and choice with more standardized testing than students evidently require would be good for schools” (Sahlberg, 2011:39).

Instead, teachers and policy-makers in Finland have embraced a collaborative paradigm where they share information with each other about the learning needs of students and about teaching practices.  What’s more is Finnish teachers spend less time in the classroom than their American colleagues because more time is devoted to collaboration and professional development.  “Lower teaching hours provide teachers more opportunities to engage in school improvement, curriculum planning, and personal professional development during their working hours” (Sahlberg, 2011:63).

Further, Finnish teachers are provided a large amount of professional autonomy with “little interference from the central education administration in schools’ everyday lives” (Sahlberg, 2011:61).  This is in contrast to what’s happening in schools across the United States as more often those farthest from the classroom implement policies that undermine teacher autonomy and professionalism.  The Finnish model recognizes teachers as professionals who care deeply about their students and their pedagogy and therefore teachers are afforded time to reflect, create, and collaborate; in essence to share everything with each other about their teaching practice.

Play Fair
It is time for ALL stakeholders in the United States to own their responsibility in the education of our citizenry.  The Finnish people have successfully created and cultivated a national vision of what a good public education should be.  The United States on the other hand has engaged in rhetorical policy debates that, in some cases, are purposely divisive.  But the worst crime of all is being committed by those in our society who ignore their responsibility and duty as citizens concerning the education of our youth.

“Finland has been particularly committed to building a good publically financed and locally governed basic school for every child.  This common educational goal became so deeply rooted in politics and public services in Finland that it survived opposing political governments and ministries unharmed and intact” (Sahlberg, 2011:6).

Politicians, policy makers, and teachers’ unions – it’s time to play fair.  Using a political office as a bully pulpit to engage in divisive rhetoric won’t help the learners in our classrooms.  Failing to identify and/or protecting poor performing teachers compromises the integrity of the profession and the trust of our citizens, not to mention the residue it leaves on our students.  Each state needs to put first things first and engage its citizens to create a vision of what its public schools should be.

Clean Up Your Own Mess
Communities MUST own their responsibility to provide the resources necessary to educate the whole child.  This responsibility begins BEFORE kindergarten and continues through graduation.  Studies surrounding early childhood education clearly find that the pre-kindergarten years are especially important to identify any learning deficiencies and to make sure all students are ready to learn when their school years begin.

“Early childhood care, voluntary free preschool that is attended by some 98% of the age cohort, comprehensive health services, and preventative measures to identify possible learning and developmental difficulties before children start schooling are accessible to all in Finland.  Finnish schools also provide all pupils with free and healthy lunch everyday regardless of their home socioeconomic situation” (Sahlberg, 2011:48).

This is smart policy.  The most vulnerable in our society are our children and it is our collective responsibility to make sure they get off to a good start.  Policies that create have and have-nots where education is concerned do not facilitate excellence for our common wealth.  Local governments must clean up their misguided policies and provide resources that nurture early childhood development and care.

Live A Balanced Life
The maniacal focus of current U.S. education policy surrounding reading and math test scores must cease if we are to best prepare our students for the twenty-first century and the global knowledge economy.  We must provide a balanced curriculum for our students, which nurture their scholarship and civic responsibility.  The narrowing of curriculum and teaching to the high-stakes test approach, that has become commonplace in our schools is misguided policy.  Our students need a balanced curriculum if we are to develop the whole child to be thoughtful, compassionate, productive, and responsible citizens.  This means students should be learning how to sculpt as well as learning how to solve equations.

Even though the Finns are tops in the world on the PISA test which is one of the main assessments used to compare students internationally, Finnish teachers continue to promote a balanced approach to curriculum, teaching, and assessment.

“Some teachers in Finland are afraid that the current movement which judges quality of education systems by using academic units of measurement only, will eventually lead to narrowing curriculum and teaching at the expense of social studies, arts, sports, music, and whole person development” (Sahlberg, 2011:56).

High educational performance is much more than measured academic scores. The goal of public education systems should be to develop critical and independent thinking citizens who can also be creative, diplomatic, and compassionate.  Certainly this requires a balanced multitude of curricula.

Hold Hands and Stick Together
There are many factors that figure in a successful education system.  Caring for our students, focused curricula, local governing, and shared responsibility just to name a few.  However, studies reveal that one factor trumps all and that is the daily contributions of excellent teachers.

It appears that many in this country are in denial about the brewing crisis regarding the profession of teaching.  The boomer generation is retiring and this includes thousands of excellent teachers.  Yet the number of our smart and talented students who are going to college intent on becoming teachers is diminishing.

According to a report[3] which appeared in the New York Times:

The problem is aggravated by high attrition among rookie teachers, with one of every three new teachers leaving the profession within five years, a loss of talent that costs school districts millions in recruiting and training expenses, says the report, by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a nonprofit research advocacy group.

“The traditional teaching career is collapsing at both ends,” the report says. “Beginners are being driven away” by low pay and frustrating working conditions, and “accomplished veterans who still have much to contribute are being separated from their schools by obsolete retirement systems” that encourage teachers to move from paycheck to pension when they are still in their mid-50s, the report says.

In Finland, teaching is consistently rated as one of the most admired professions, ahead of medical doctors, architects, and lawyers, typically thought to be dream professions.[4]

Gaining admission into a Finnish university to become a teacher is incredibly competitive – only about 1 in 10 applicants are accepted.  Due to the popularity of teaching and the rigorous academic work to become a teacher (every teacher in Finland has a Masters degree), only Finland’s best and most dedicated are able to realize those professional dreams.

“Teachers in Finland possess a strong sense of being esteemed professionals similar to medical doctors, engineers, or economists.  Teachers at all levels of schooling expect that they be given the full range of professional autonomy to practice what they have been educated to do: to plan, teach, diagnose, execute, and evaluate.  They also expect to be provided time to accomplish all of these goals inside and outside of normal classroom duties” (Sahlberg, 2011:76).

Local communities need to reach out, hold hands and stick together, with their teachers and young people.  Together we need to understand that we need each other and so much of our success hinges on a strong education system with talented, caring, and dedicated professionals.  We need to cultivate a professional culture, which attracts our best and brightest to help teach and nurture our students so that they understand our heritage and the virtues of our republic.

Isn’t it Ironic?
In reading Finnish Lessons what was most apparent to me is that there is very little which is revolutionary surrounding the profound success of the Finnish education system.  The ideas applied surround a shared set of values, which are embraced by the Finnish people.  Indeed the ideas are simple and modest, similar to the tenets proposed by All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

The Finns are a modest people who readily accept their responsibility to care for and educate their children.  When the Finnish Minister of Education was asked if their goal from the outset was to become the best in the world, she replied, “For us, its enough to be ahead of Sweden.”

But what may be most ironic about the Finnish phenomenon is that many of the pedagogical changes, which teachers adapted and incorporated into their planning and instruction were developed, practiced and researched in the United States.  And here we are today looking at the Finns with education envy.


[1] Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, 1989

[2] Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Lessons, 2011, Teachers College Press

[3] Dillon, Sam, Report Envisions Shortage of Teachers as Retirements Escalate, The New York Times, April 7, 2009

 [4] Liiten, M., Top Favorite: Teaching Profession, February 2004 (as cited in Finnish Lessons).