In the 1970s, Finland moved to comprehensive schools for all students. With this change, schools were organized to insure that all students have a common education experience, with highly qualified teachers and supports for struggling students. Today in Finland, students start school with one year of pre-primary education, followed by nine years at a comprehensive school. Following the completion of comprehensive school, students choose between academic or vocational upper secondary schools, or they may choose to leave school altogether. This option is unpopular; more than 95% of students continue on to upper secondary education, with about half of those choosing an academic track (53%), and half a vocational track (47%) – resulting in a graduation rate of 95%. In the final two years prior to university in the academic track, there are no set classes nor are there grades. Instead, students design an individual education plan and are expected to complete the plan at their own pace. For students who are interested in specializing, specialized upper secondary schools exist. These schools tend to focus on certain subjects, such as the sciences, or arts, music or sports. Some general upper secondary schools offer specialized tracks. Others offer the International Baccalaureate diploma program.
Finland has a national core curriculum, which includes the identification of the core subjects, curriculum frameworks and a clear definition of how much time each topic should be allocated. It emphasizes languages – students must learn Swedish and Finnish (both are national languages of Finland) as well as a foreign language. The curriculum’s other subject areas are mathematics and natural sciences, humanities and social sciences, religion or ethics, physical and health education and arts and practical subjects. Students may also take other, elective subjects at the upper secondary school level. While the curriculum guidelines are fairly sparse by the standards of many countries – just 10 pages are devoted to math – the national curriculum serves as a guide, rather than an explicit lesson plan. The curriculum outlines how teachers should focus on developing their students’ creativity, management and innovation skills; with teachers grasping these goals and selecting their own teaching materials and lesson plans, they have been successful in achieving the government’s goals.
Teachers are encouraged to assess their students regularly, and guidelines for assessment are provided in the national core curriculum. Currently, there is also a push for student self-assessment, so that students may understand their progress and help to design their own learning activities.
The only external testing in comprehensive schools is for monitoring (rather than accountability) purposes and is done on a sample basis in grades 6 and 9. Finland also participates in international assessments like PISA. At the end of upper secondary school, all students take the National Matriculation Exam to determine whether they are eligible to graduate. This examination measures a student’s competency in four areas. Students are required to take an examination in the area of their mother tongue language, but can choose the three other subjects from the following group of four: the second national language, a foreign language, mathematics, or general studies, which includes sciences and the humanities. For languages and mathematics, there are two levels of the test, basic and advanced. Students can take either level in any of their tests, but are required to take at least one advanced level among the four tests. The national language tests include a textual skills section and an essay. The foreign language test includes writing as well as listening and reading comprehension. The mathematics test has ten math problems, and the general studies tests are interdisciplinary, requiring students to answer six to eight questions. The results of this test also impact their placement in institutes of higher education. Students who choose vocational education in place of upper secondary school do not take this exam, but are eligible for university at the end of initial vocational training.
Finnish classrooms emphasize the importance of learning through doing, and place particular emphasis on group work, creativity and problem-solving skills. From primary school onward, students are expected to work collaboratively on interdisciplinary projects. In many cases, students are expected to contribute to the design of these projects as well. In upper secondary school, students are expected to contribute to the design of their course of study.
Finnish students receive fewer hours of instruction than students in any other OECD country, being taught for only 600 hours a year as compared to 1,080 hours in the OECD countries with the most hours of instruction. Teachers spend their other professional hours carefully crafting their lesson plans and coming up with innovative ways to engage their students. Teachers also pride themselves on personalizing lessons to fit their classroom and giving students individual attention.
In the early years of school, Finnish students often stay together in a class with the same teacher for several years. That way, the teacher can follow their development over several grade levels, and they are able to learn in what many consider to be a family-like environment.
Finnish schools are comprehensive and untracked until upper secondary school, at which point students may choose to attend either an academic or vocational school. This has provided a great deal of educational equity for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, aided immensely by a strong teaching force.
At the end of compulsory education (lower secondary school), Finnish students must decide whether they want to continue in an academic track possibly leading to university, or to pursue vocational education. However, there is no formal test to determine their path. The only formal, national test is the university matriculation exam: a set of four open-ended exams that are based on problem-solving skills rather than subject mastery. Although most students who go on to university take this exam, it is not required for graduation from upper secondary school or even for university admissions – some universities admit students based on other standards. All students have the legislated right to be allowed to proceed to the next level of education provided they have completed the previous level.
Video: “Why Education in Finland Works: a visit from AFT President Randi Weingarten to Finnish schools,” American Federation of Teachers
The Structure of Finland’s Education System