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Part I. Finnish and American Education

Emilios Campos, CEI Intern.  More and more, as we see ourselves as citizens in a global community, it is imperative that we consider educational perspectives from outside the United States. Over the past decade, Finland has repeatedly shown itself as possessing one of the top education systems in the world–this depicted by the results of the PISA survey. This evaluation is published every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation.  More significantly PISA’s  empirical evidence  has proven that American exceptionalism in its public education system, though possibly true during the mid-twentieth century, is a bit of an exaggeration.  I had the opportunity to speak with two former students of the Finnish system, Taina Heinonen and Sari Haiskanen, about the differences they see between the American and Finnish education systems.

Since you have had the opportunity to observe/participate in education in both the U.S. and Finland, could you compare and contrast the two?

TH:  My knowledge of the U.S. system comes from stories from my friends and what I’ve seen in the news or from the popular culture.  In Finland, we start school when we’re 7 years-old which gives us, in a away, more time to be children without major responsibilities and grow and develop as humans on our own terms before having to conform to the school system.

Education in Finland is free and everyone is equal, in the sense that students get a good education regardless of their wealth as we don’t have private schools.  Also, what I’ve heard is that the high school scene is more brutal in the U.S. (the different groups defining how popular you are, etc).  It may be because I come from the rural area, but we never had that kind of divide. Of course some people were more popular than others, but I feel it wasn’t anything like in the U.S.

What I’ve also noticed is that in Finland they didn’t evaluate our IQ’s or whether we were ‘gifted’ or not.  Throughout my school years we were all in one class for every subject, and if someone was having problems with learning in the same pace as others they would maybe just do easier exercises or have tutoring classes here and there.

In my opinion, we were taught subjects quite broadly and not just from the Finnish perspective or about Finland.  We studied world history and geography a lot and also started learning English from the age of 10.  Since Swedish is our second official language, we had to study that as well from the 7th grade onwards.  They also encouraged us to study either German or French and nowadays Russian is becoming more and more popular too.

Are you familiar with the STEM initiative here in the US?  Do you know if Finland has anything that is similar/ any initiative to better prepare the workforce for the future through STEM or something similar?

TH:  Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with this initiative. However, Finland is big on entrepreneurship. Our studies did encourage us to become entrepreneurs and gave us skills towards that, especially in the University of Applied Sciences.  We also had several internships we needed to complete in our studies and also in the ‘junior high’ period of our elementary school. There were a few weeks where we would get to know first our parents’ jobs and then we could pick a workplace where we wanted to spend a week following the professionals and also working as much as we could.

Also, the philosophy of the Universities of Applied Sciences is to provide as much hands on education as possible. For example, my area is tourism. We did many projects for companies in the area so that we learned what the tourism business was like in reality.

Where did you live in Finland (Helsinski, another city, or a more rural area)?  Have you spent time in the U.S. as well?

TH:  I come from a rural town in the eastern part of Finland.  From grades 1-6 my school had 30 students in it and my class only 5. From grades 7-9 and in high school the class size was about 20 to sometimes 30 students.

Since my school was so small and we were in the rural area, we did a lot things outside the classroom.  For example, some of the biology lessons we spent outside gathering flowers and observing the nature; a lot of the PE classes were outside both in the summer and winter, and skiing and skating were compulsory parts of the curriculum.

Although I am living presently in Finland, I’ve spent different periods of time in the U.S. starting from 2008 when I did my first internship for my bachelor’s degree in Yellowstone.  I stayed for 3 months and then in 2010 came back for another 3 months to Washington State where I interned in a NGO for sustainable tourism.  In 2011-2012 I lived in DC for a year interning in a hostel.

My conversation with Ms. Haiskanen was less formal, but not less enlightening, due in part to her additional perspective as a mother of two children in the Vienna, Virginia school system:  a daughter in first grade and a son in second grade.

Part II on”Observed differences between Finland and America” with an interview with Ms. Haiskanen will continue next week.


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