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News, 5/30/2014 | Consulate General of Finland, New York

Finnish education system receiving advice from the U.S.

Samuel E. Abrams, a researcher at Columbia University’s Teachers College, was awarded the Insignia of Knight, First Class, of the Order of the Lion of Finland at the residence of Consul General and Ambassador Jukka Pietikäinen in New York on May 12. 

Samuel E. Abrams

The honor was bestowed before family, friends, and colleagues in recognition of Abrams’s advancement of the understanding of Finnish education in the United States.  Abrams has conducted a vast amount of research on Nordic as well as American education systems.  Much of this research will appear in his book The Children Must Play: Education, Business, and Conflict, to be published by Harvard University Press in 2015.  On the occasion of his knighthood, we asked Abrams a few questions about education in Finland and in the USA.

When asked about a specific trend or issue as a key factor in the success of Finnish education, Abrams brought up two things: the well-rounded curriculum of the Finnish educational system and the professionalization of teaching.  In contrast to the American curriculum, Abrams said, the Finnish curriculum for students in grades one through nine comprises a lot of arts, crafts, music, and play while consisting of no standardized testing.  Abrams said the Finnish approach thereby not only makes school more enticing for children but also cultivates significant collaborative skills and provides natural, hands-on opportunities for learning math and science. According to Abrams, this philosophy, combined with a nutritious hot school lunch, which is free for all students, makes Finnish schooling so effective.

Abrams also attributed the success of the Finnish school system to the excellent preparation of teachers in Finnish universities; their autonomy in developing curricula and assessing their students; and their high regard in society and good pay. Abrams explained in a talk he gave following the presentation of the honor by Consul General and Ambassador Pietikäinen that his initial interest in Finnish education goes back to a book he read fifteen years ago on economic globalization by Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree.  Abrams noted that Friedman pointed out that year after year Finland had topped the charts for three related signs of modernization:  Internet connectivity; graduation rates from secondary school; and portion of national income devoted to teacher pay.  Given the relative high pay of teachers in Finland, Abrams said, the profession attracts and retains very capable young men and women.   Abrams, who was himself a high-school teacher in America from 1989 to 2008, added that he was struck several years later by the comfort and elegance of teachers’ lounges in schools he visited across Finland in the course of four research trips.  Abrams said he interpreted the state of these lounges together with the relative high pay of teachers as revealing expressions of the importance of education in Finland.

How could Finland improve its performance in the future?

Because the Finnish PISA results declined in the last study and the nation’s economy has weakened, it seems Finnish policymakers are under pressure.  We asked Abrams for advice on how to best prepare for future challenges in terms of the educational sector.

Abrams advised Finland to preserve the well-rounded curriculum and not to follow other countries with continuous testing. He stated that there will be pressure to introduce standardized testing, but that Finland should just keep up the good work and not look at the PISA results too closely. Abrams was also of the opinion that the increased focus on testing in some countries may have decreased the PISA results in Finland. Abrams explained that because the PISA results are norm-referenced, one country’s improvement comes at the expense of another’s standing in the charts. Abrams emphasized that the high profile of PISA has led several countries to redesign their systems to boost student results.  Abrams nevertheless asserted that Finland’s PISA scores shine because they come from a school system without standardized testing, which is the norm in other countries around the world, and with lots of arts, crafts, music, and play, which is no longer the norm in other countries around the world.

Abrams is a longtime fan of Finnish education. Consul General and Ambassador Pietikäinen stated in his speech, “Sam has spent a lot of time in Finland getting to know not just the Finnish school system, but also the Finnish society as a whole”. When asked what Finland could learn from American schools, Abrams said: “You can learn what not to do. You do not want to follow in America’s path”.

When it comes to higher education, however, Abrams said that Finland could learn a central lesson from America and its Nordic neighbors.  Abrams faulted the Finnish university admission process. In Finland, one can typically apply to only one institution of higher education in a specific field of study (e.g., school of medicine or law).  Abrams said this process may have made sense long ago when Finland was a rigidly regionalized nation, but now that young Finns are much more mobile, the universities should develop a uniform policy for applying to programs in the same field.

Laura Lotta Abrams, Samuel Abrams and the Consul general Jukka Pietikäinen

The benefits would be significant, Abrams said:  applicants would not have to fret over where they should apply to increase their chances of admission; many applicants would not lose a year or two or three of their lives before beginning a program of their choice; the Finnish economy would accordingly get a boost from more young people joining the workforce earlier; universities would gain from a more diverse applicant pool; and the country would not lose so many students to universities in other European countries with more flexible admission policies.

Abrams added that the Finnish government succeeded in the 1970s in getting more than 300 municipalities to implement the same plan for the country’s nine-year comprehensive peruskoulu.  In control of the purse strings for universities, the Finnish government, Abrams said, should likewise prevail upon university administrators to unify their admission practices.  University faculties would lose some autonomy, Abrams said, but everyone would benefit in the end. 

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Updated 6/3/2014


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