Owning Education - Why Finland Is So Far Ahead

About a year and a half ago iSchool Initiative founder Travis Allen, Emily Wolfe, and I had the opportunity to visit Finland and learn about the practices that make Finland's education system the envy of developed and developing nations alike. 

Tiina Makela from the University of Jyväskylä welcomed us with the surprising familiarity of southern hospitality in the nordic state. We had the privilege of meeting with the Dean and many of the faculty to discuss the future of education and the principles that contribute to Finland’s educational excellence. 

During our time in Jyväskylä, we also visited a secondary school where we were excited to see that many of the students there were using iPads in class. School-wide iPad deployment was underway the week we were visiting and we had a chance to speak to some of the students and teachers about the projects that make this town educationally unique.

A student in his senior year at the school, and an aspiring teacher, discussed the level of involvement everyone at this institution shared. The senior and his classmates were given the task of redesigning the physical space around their classrooms. 

Everything from the demolition of walls that would make the space more easily accessible to the selection and arrangement of furniture in the new space was delegated to three groups of students who competed for the best design. I thought this exercise was an excellent  way to foster creativity and competition in such a highly socialized country. 

It was inspiring to see how vested these students are in the entire process. I thought back to my days in middle school and high school and considered what it would be like if I had the opportunity to be involved in the process while my school was undergoing expansion. 

Moreover what would it be like if there were no bells, if I knew my teachers on a first name basis, and if I wore my slippers to class? What would be comparable to my using an iPad for homework instead of heavy books and outdated material? What would I make of my education if, instead of constantly questioning "When would I ever need to use this?," a real-world application of exercises was clear and useful at its core? 

The Finnish education model is built on this solid principle: The more responsibility you give to students at an earlier age, the more responsible they will become. It is because of this principle that students are allowed more flexibility and are encouraged to pursue their passions as early as secondary school. Students have the option of choosing their own classes from a very early age so the educational experience is much more personal and unique for every pupil. In many ways the Finnish high school experience is much more similar to the college experience in the US.

Since Finland is much more socialized than the US, school lunches are free for all students and all school food is significantly healthier. As you enter the cafeteria, there is a room where you can hang your coat and leave your bag before washing your hands for lunch. Students here trust each other and there is very little theft. There is a high sense of nationalism and belonging. Most Finnish students don't have to deal with the challenges of diversity and racism we have in the melting pot of the US. Finland is very culturally homogeneous and this may play a role in the success of their education system to some extent. Having considered that - the pedagogical differences are vast and there is much to be learned. The main takeaway from our experience is that Finnish students own their education, and their educational experience is superior because of this ownership. 

iSchool Initiative is excited to partner with the University of Jyväskylä, Finland to share research and learn from some of the world's top educators. We want to implement 21st century Finnish practices in America and other countries needing educational improvements. We are currently discussing a joint project focused on improving the K-12 education system in Barcelona, Spain where we are also partnering with GSMA. Our goal is to truly prepare each student for the 21st century through personalized education and inspire them to own it. 

Nikola KolevEducation