Practical learning, conversation, play - what we can learn from one of the top educational systems

Practical learning, conversation, play. These three concepts underpin the Finnish education system, one of the most successful educational systems in the world. In this article we explore the unique aspects of the Finnish educational model and provide a practical approach of how students across the globe can apply these principles to their studies.

In recent years, education in Finland has been admired by countries from all corners of the globe. A high school graduation rate of 93%[1] coupled with 66%[2] of graduates going on to tertiary education is not something to be sneezed at. Finland’s global rankings[3] across Mathematics, Science and literacy are the envy of the United States, the UK and a suite of other nations who are more economically prosperous.

So how did this tiny nation in a forgotten corner of Eastern Europe become one of the global leaders in education? What is the secret to the Finns staggering schooling success?

Early Building Blocks of Holistic Learning

The process of building the most successful system of education starts at the very beginning. Children in Finland don’t start formal schooling until the age of seven, contrary to what you might think of the most literate nation in the world[4]. They commence their schooling in a relaxed and sometimes informal classroom, with an emphasis on rest breaks, play time and hands-on learning. Fresh air, interaction with other students and immersion in nature are also key elements of the primary school system and the national curriculum is relaxed and flexible in order to accommodate this. There are no standardised tests until students reach the age of twelve, they are not forced to sit up straight or stand in regimented lines, and having ‘comfort items’ such as a stuffed teddy bear are common fixtures of classrooms across Finland.

Taking learning outside of the classroom and taking the stress out of learning inside, is a deliberate policy choice made by the Finnish Government in collaboration with key educators across the country. Studies have shown that emphasis on evaluating the performance of children in the early years of primary school is actually counter-productive in terms of their intellectual benefit, evaluative assessment has the potential to destroy the confidence of young students as they are trying and testing new methods of learning[5].

Are integrated classes the way of the future?

Another key point of difference in the Finnish model is the structure of classes, with no streamlining or separation of students according to ability or aptitude. All classes are comprehensive and children with special needs are not separated from the rest of the cohort in the primary years. Even in high schools, it is uncommon except in the most exceptional of circumstances for students to be separated from the bulk of their cohort. The Finnish government heavily subsidises specialist teacher’s aides to facilitate the appropriate care and education of special needs students without removing them from the comprehensive classroom setting.

There is also no inequality of opportunity based on financial status, as schools are funded completely by that state and as such, Finland has the lowest enrollment in government-independent private schools of any country participating in the PISA evaluation system of student performance[6]. Likewise, the gap between performance of males and females is also the smallest of any country. This approach has been accredited as one of the reasons that in Finland, the gap between the highest achieving students and the lowest achieving students[7] is smaller than anywhere else in the world.

The human aspect

The emphasis on the human aspect of learning – learning for the sake of developing academic and intellectual interests, rather than to succeed in exams and tests – is a concept that has slipped from the view of many national curriculums. The lack of standardised exams and other tests removes the competitive and adversarial behaviours often evidenced in students in their final years of high school. In a global evaluation of student performance in Mathematics, Science and reading (PISA), Finnish students not only performed above other nations[8], but the average level of “life satisfaction of students” was the highest in the world. Streamed and standardised, both the American and Australian models seem to miss the mark on this point. Marks and rankings are held in higher esteem than individual growth and development, which is clearly reflected by downward trends in educational ratings.

Learning for learning’s sake

Perhaps teachers, parents and educators around the world need to take a leaf from the Finnish book and reinvigorate the lust for learning, the desire to grow and develop and not just to win, to foster the individual capabilities of each and every student. It is astoundingly clear from this brief glimpse at Finland’s success in the field of education that holistic learning generates incredible results– both for policy makers, but also on a smaller scale for teachers and parents.

Finnish education principles - a practical approach

The Finnish educational system may not be easily implemented in other countries without major policy change; however there are several practical concepts that teachers, parents and students can implement in their own learning.

As a tutor, for example, it is important to incorporate different styles of learning, different techniques and fresh ways of approaching tasks with your students. For parents, it is important to ensure that your child is having regular breaks and having enough time to learn through play. This could mean that they study more effectively after longer breaks outside, or they are able to grasp difficult concepts when taught through games. Every student is unique! Whatever the method, holistic and tailored attention to fostering the development of the individual certainly approach that should be considered.

Practical learning, conversation, play. These three concepts may just be the key to effective learning and may just be the right approach for your, your child's or your student's needs in order to flourish!




[4], according to data collected in 2016.






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