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Aurora Institute

Finland Offers Lessons for Building Student, Teacher Agency

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Michael Horn

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field, Activate Student Agency

Finland FlagThis post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on August 13, 2015. 

Rhonda Broussard is the founder and president of St. Louis Language Immersion Schools, a charter management organization. In 2014, she traveled to and explored the education systems of Finland and New Zealand as an Eisenhower Fellow (full disclosure: I was also a 2014 Eisenhower Fellow). As I listened to her discuss her travels this past May in Philadelphia, I was struck by how relevant some of the insight she had gained in Finland were for those creating blended-learning schools that seek to personalize learning and build student agency. What follows is a brief Q&A that illustrates some of these lessons.

Q: Your observations around student agency in Finland and how it stems from the great trust the Finnish society has in children are striking. Can you explain what you saw and learned? Do you have takeaways for what this means in the context of the United States?

A: What amazed me most during my school visits in Finland is what I didn’t observe. Finnish schools had no recognizable systems of “accountability” for student behaviors. Finnish schools believe that children can make purposeful decisions about where to be, what to study, how to perform. Whether via No Excuses or Positive Behavior Intervention Support, American schools don’t expect youth to be responsible for themselves or their learning. When I asked Finnish educators about student agency, they responded that the child is responsible for their learning and general safety. When prodded, educators responded that the child’s teacher might send a note home to parents, speak with the child, or consult their social welfare committee about destructive or disruptive behaviors. Despite the fact that Finland is the second country in Europe for school shootings (they have had three since 1989), none of the schools that I visited had security presence or protocols for violent crises.

My first trip to Finland was during the immediate aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting. When I juxtaposed those events with the high trust I observed in Finnish society and schools, the reality of micro-aggressions in our schools became more apparent. In my piece “Waking up in Helsinki, Waking up to St. Louis,” I cite a few examples of what trust looks like in Finnish schools. The absence of trust in American schools requires educators to police our youth daily, and do so in the name of respect. Many U.S. peers respond to my observations with, “But our kids are different, they need structure.” Our country, society, and expectations are different, but our kids are not. American hyper-attention to accountability reinforces the belief that people, young people in particular, cannot be trusted.

How can average American public schools shift toward more student agency and decrease disruptive behaviors? Predict and provide responsive supports for academic, social-emotional, and physical interventions. Fifty percent of Finnish students receive academic interventions before 10th grade, adolescents study courses in social needs, all grades break for physical activity after 45 minutes of instruction, all school meals are free regardless of income. These shifts allow schools to meet the immediate needs of students that pre-empt distracting or destructive behaviors. Starting point? Ross Greene’s Lost at School.

Q: The level of personalization or customization in Finnish schools is much more extensive than I realized. Even siblings in the same school might attend school for radically different hours. Can you give some examples of what you saw? How does the system work, and how are families able to handle the different starting and ending times?

A: Children are expected to know their own schedules, and parents rarely manage drop-off and pick-up. Finland is a country of latch-key kids where:

1. Students attend their neighborhood schools. Societal trust in education means that families do not shop neighborhoods for the so-called best schools;

2. And students take themselves to school—they walk, bike, sled, ski, or take public transit—unless they live in an urban area and have a special need or great distance for transportation.

In my “Hei from Helsinki!” blog post this fall, I noted that, “Within any individual elementary school, classes, grades or cohorts of students report for different periods of time. First graders will typically have shorter school days and may go home alone at 1pm while their older siblings are still in school. Many schools have aftercare programs for 1st and 2nd grade, but by 3rd grade everyone goes home at the end of their daily schedule. Kids call/text their parents to check in. If you have three children in the same elementary school, they will likely have different start and end times from each other and may have different start and end times for different days of the week. Students are expected to know their specific schedule and manage their time accordingly.”

Below is a sample primary student schedule from a photo I took showing different start and end times by class, by day of the week:


Q: The agency and ownership doesn’t just extend to students it seems. Do teachers have similar expectations from society and for themselves? How does this manifest itself in the way that teachers improve their craft?

A: In Finnish Lessons, Pasi Sahlberg explains that, “Teachers at all levels of schooling expect that they are given the full range of professional autonomy to practice what they have been educated to do: to plan, teach, diagnose, execute, and evaluate.”Administrators know that teachers have the professional training to be successful in the classroom—all teachers have a research Masters degree before beginning their teaching career—and the professional curiosity to identify their own growth areas.  Schools have no expectations of teacher mentors, instructional coaches, peer observations, or continuous improvement feedback. The Finnish education system distributes power and responsibility to create ownership and personalization at the school and classroom level. The Finnish National Board of Education defines the courses and standards, municipalities then write an aligned curriculum, and teachers write the lessons and assessments. Finnish teachers engage in similar professional work as Americans—curriculum committees, student support, school culture events, clubs—but they are organized more by teacher impetus and less by administrative edicts.

See also:

Michael is a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute and serves as the executive director of its education program. He leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.