A Non-Finnomenon: A Real Teacher's Review

A new documentary, the author argues, trumpets the educational achievements of a country with far fewer demographic challenges than our own.

The Finland Phenomenon

I finally got around to watching The Finland Phenomenon, the documentary by Tony Wagner, an Innovation Education Fellow at Harvard University, about the cold Scandinavian country that has blown away worldwide education with a snowstorm of success.

Like any endeavor that attempts to take on complicated international issues in just one hour, the film insufficiently gives us a proper glimpse of Finnish education and how exactly it is they are number one in the world. But Professor Wagner’s complete confidence in the wonderful aspects of their model and a so-small-as-to-be-unbelievable sample of schools and students does give the audience, when all is said and done, a head-nodding sense that Finland is doing it right, and much, much better than we are.

Now, I haven’t read a single review of this film, nor have I heard anyone talk about it. But I’m going to go out on a limb and claim here that what is going on in Finland is not only NOT revolutionary, it is oversimplified and over-glorified.

The film follows Professor Wagner as he goes to what seems to be two or three schools in Finland and we are introduced to the structure of their system. Schools are small, class sizes are small, students are rarely tested, the students are not in school for as many hours, there is no homework, they work on projects, oftentimes on their own, and almost half of secondary students can choose to take a vocational route. Teachers are well respected and paid average salaries; getting into teaching programs is competitive and once you are in, very rigorous. Technology is used in every classroom on a scale those of us in the trenches in United States public schools only dream about. And perhaps the most amazing undercurrent throughout is that every Finn interviewed is speaking English, which is not even their primary language.

There are some great ideas here that every country would do well to mirror. The biggest and best idea in this film is the focus on vocational education. I think first and foremost (U.S. Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan should immediately put a plan into place that allows students who want a vocational education to be able to go that route as early as 8th grade. By this time students know whether they are cut out for academia or whether they are going to work for a living in a more traditional career. We talk and talk about increasing our college-going rates, but we forget that the entire philosophy behind higher education is that it is only meant for a small part of the population.

Here in California, the California Master Plan for Higher Education is very specific in this regard. The UC system was designed to educate the top 12.5 percent of the high school population. UC exclusively offers PhD programs, the idea being our top students continue on in research and continue to educate the rest of the population with their expertise. The CSU system is designed to educated the top 33 percent of the population from a slightly diminished theoretical standpoint and train them for other high paying jobs at the forefront of business, education, engineering and administration. The community colleges provide technical training for the next segment of workers and those with only a high school education or less will work in menial labor jobs that require no education. We know this, everyone knows this, but we continue to act like the job of all teachers is to get everyone Proficient and into college. THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN—IT ISN’T SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN.

There aren’t enough spots in college for all the really smart kids applying now. We just don’t need that many professors and PhDs. Society cannot work correctly if everyone goes to college, so why do we pretend that every kid who walks through our doors has a shot at higher ed? I had a senior last year with a 4.2 who got into St. Mary’s highly impacted Nursing program but couldn’t afford to go. Instead she is getting an LVN, which is far cheaper and easier to obtain than an RN, and will have her doing a different kind of nursing (more cleaning of bedpans, patient baths, getting supplies) for less money. And she had a 4.2 — we don’t even have room in our colleges for the top 12.5 percent, and most of them can’t afford it anyway!

The biggest takeaway for me from The Finland Phenomenon is this idea of streamlining kids into the labor force from a young age. That should be Obama’s next Acronym. First there was NCLB, then RTT; how about LGTW — Let’s Get To Work, the slogan can be this: “Training the next generation in real jobs instead of acting like everyone needs to read Hamlet.”

But aside from this, Finland is a Non-Phenomenon. The biggest focus of the film was this odd emphasis on TRUST. From top officials to administrators, many of the people interviewed in the film talk about the importance of being able to trust teachers and trust students. In one surreal scene Professor Wagner is interviewing a teacher as they both walk down the street. They are heading to school and the teacher’s class started an hour ago. He is confident that the students have been using this hour wisely, and when he arrives he finds an orderly classroom where all the students are diligently working on computers by themselves. Teachers in Finland spend almost HALF as many hours as American teachers do in the classroom, and when you see a population of students able to sit at computers without the teacher present, you understand how this is possible.

But this little anecdote leads me to my number one criticism of this film. Nothing I saw any of the teachers doing was anything American teachers don’t also do. Professor Wagner often seemed amazed that a teacher started class with a topical article from the news projected onto his screen from the Internet and used it as a way of warming up the class and introducing the day’s topic. BUT THIS ISN’T ANYTHING NEW. We all know how important this is and we are all doing this! Our problems come not from a lack of effective strategies but from the nature of our country’s size and demographics. This more than anything explains the disparity in worldwide rankings.

Finland’s success can be summed up by the statistics that pop up onscreen every ten minutes or so. Here are some of them: Finland’s population is 5.4 million; 93 percent of citizens are Finn (no immigrants); 16.2 percent speak Finnish as a second language (very little second language learners); There are 45 languages spoken in Helsinki schools (there are 45 languages spoken at my one high school).

Finland does the best job of educating its populace not because it is doing anything differently, it is because of its homogeneous population who live in a more egalitarian society. There aren’t immigrants, there are barely any students who don’t speak the language, and like all the Scandinavian countries, Finland has a more welfare-oriented state that has reduced rampant poverty. Because of all of these factors, yes, they can trust their students, and student outcomes are awesome.

Watching Professor Wagner interview Finnish students, it looked as if he was interviewing accelerated AP students here in the United States. These kids weren’t any smarter than our smart students, but from what the film shows, Finland doesn’t seem to have the kind of students who live in slums of fear and drugs, students we have in droves. Looking at Finland as the bastion of education and comparing it to us is like comparing an AP English Lit class to an intervention class where you have 10th graders reading at a 5th grade level. The success of the AP students versus the struggles of the sheltered students has little to do with the structure of the school or the two teachers in each class—you could switch teachers and the AP students are still going to score really high, and the sheltered students aren’t.

I’ll further argue that we could switch schools and teachers with Finland and the results wouldn’t change. I can just imagine switching classes with the teacher who lets his class work for an hour before coming to work. He can have my 10th grade English class and I’ll take that class. When he shows up to work after an hour, all the computers will be gone and the room will be empty. This idea of trust is all well and good in Finland, but in the United States all we have is doses of reality.

The thing about The Finland Phenomenon is that there is nothing new about it from an educational standpoint. Education in Finland is phenomenal because Finland is a phenomenally homogeneous country with a much better blend of capitalism and socialism than most other countries. Even the best ideas that can be taken from the movie—a vocational path, or paying teachers competitively, are not new concepts. We’ve been talking about these things forever.

At the beginning of the film, the narrator says Finland is a country with no achievement gap, an empty factoid that sums up The Finland Phenomenon. Being amazed that there is no achievement gap in Finland is like giving them credit for the cold weather.

When we talk about the achievement gap, we are normally talking about how our Black and Latino students lag behind White and Asian students. How can there be an achievement gap if there aren’t any Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, second language learners, or Asians? An achievement gap in Finland is an impossibility—instead there is only a straight white line, like the branch of a tree after a snowfall. We might as well be just as amazed at how they make all the wonderful snow.

Matt Amaral is a writer and high school English teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a featured blogger at EducationNews.org, a leading international website for education issues. You can also follow his work on the blogsite, Teach4Real.com

Screenshot from from The Finland Phenomenon.

This article originally appeared in New America Media.

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The Finland Phenomenon
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