The Finland Phenomenon

Guest post by Sharae Brown, Development Officer, TASC.

I didn’t see many of the movies that were celebrated at the Academy Awards this past weekend, but I am grateful for the last movie I did see: The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System. On a beautiful day this week, I spent my lunch break watching and discussing the film with my colleagues at TASC.

The documentary gives a glimpse into how Finland became an education superpower. Finland now ranks at the top of almost all academic indicators used to measure countries’ education systems, and it has virtually no achievement gap among students.

I was impressed and struck by the differences in Finland’s educational system as compared to the U.S. system; they have greater trust among all stakeholders, fewer standardized tests and more teacher preparation and appreciation. Perhaps most striking was Finland’s focus on equity rather than excellence. Could this be the great secret behind their success?

I was encouraged by similarities I saw in their approach as compared to TASC’s ExpandED Schools model, with both emphasizing:

  • More intimate and personalized working relationships with students
  • Project-based learning that incorporates arts and science
  • Engaging, fun but rigorously academic curricula and activities
  • Collaborative teaching and coaching for staff
  • Providing all students the opportunities to be great at something

Overall I thought the film was good, however much of the footage focused on what happens in the upper grades and during the traditional school day. It would have been great to view elementary school life and to get a better sense of what Finnish kids do after school.

There is something magical about a film’s ability to teach, promote dialogue and demystify issues often perceived as complex, so I’m glad that movies focused on education systems—like The Finland Phenomenon and Waiting for Superman—are giving the public the opportunity to learn, compare and contrast, and engage in education dialogue. And we never know, one day there just might be an Academy Award category for these films.

What other education-related movies should we be watching?

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About Susan Brenna

Susan is TASC’s Chief Communications Officer. A former journalist and education reporter for outfits including New York magazine and New York Newsday, she manages TASC publications, talks to journalists and bloggers, deals with the whole messaging business that former journalists treat somewhat suspiciously, and argues for why kids need both more learning time AND inspiring opportunities. Trenton Makes, the World Takes.

2 thoughts on “The Finland Phenomenon

  1. I missed the movie because I was in DC so I appreciated your post. I’m sure there’s not a single reason for the success, but the focus on equity sure makes sense to me. No one can guarantee achievement — there are just too many other factors at play in students’ lives — but knowing that everyone has a fair shake has to make a difference to kids and communities. As rational beings, people who don’t believe they have a fair chance are less likely to work hard. Why bother if the odds are stacked against you?

  2. Charissa, I agree that there isn’t one single reason for the success, but the underlying philosophy must influence the many decisions they make in shaping their education system and thereby account for many of the differences between our system and theirs. I’d also add that the Finnish seem to focus on process rather than product. They seem pretty nonchalant about having the best system in the world, probably because their ultimate goal is to give each child a rich, high-quality education. Being the best is just a nice byproduct of that.

    Sharae, I too wish that the filmmakers had spent more time examining what happens in the early years of a Finnish child’s education. One educator who was interviewed said that they conduct interventions in the early grades to help kids who are struggling. What are those interventions? How do they identify kids who need them? Seems like that may be where much of the magic really happens.

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