For more than a decade, Finland’s educational system has been touted as one of the best in the world. Randi Orshan, the assistant principal of general studies at Baltimore’s Ohr Chadash Academy, has been studying what makes the Finnish education system so exceptional for a while now.
“For many years, I’ve been doing research on the Finland education system and what makes it No. 1,” Orshan said. “But I needed to go there and see it for myself.”
From April 15 to 23, Orshan did just that, taking part in a program that allowed her to shadow a Finnish pre- primary class (kindergarten in the United States) and a primary school (grades one through six). Between her years of research and her recent firsthand experience, Orshan determined that it is not just procedural elements of the Finnish system that makes it thrive; it is also a cultural dynamic.
“What it boils down to, for me, is that they have a very trusting system,” she said. “The parents trust the teachers, the teachers trust the parents. The students trust the teachers and the teachers trust the students. That’s the most important thing.”
That trust, she believes, allows for students to embrace independence, leaving Finnish teachers to act as guides for the students’ learning, rather than taking on an added role as disciplinarian.
“The teachers are there to facilitate the learning; they’re not there to make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to do because that is the student’s responsibility at the end of the day,” she said.
In an April 18 blog post on the Ohr Chadash website, Orshan outlined the simplicity of Finland’s hands-off approach, crediting student motivation to shorter school days. “The students only go to school for four hours a day,” she wrote. “They have ‘extra’ hours a week that students can use if needed, but the hours are simply 8:30-12:30. During those four hours, students are simply motivated — motivated to do what they are told and not by rewards, but by acceptance.”
In addition to more free time, students in Finland are not taught to read until they’ve entered primary school.
When the Maryland General Assembly passed the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act in May 2002, the state essentially endorsed the opposite of Finland’s approach. The law mandated that at the start of the 2007-’08 school year, kindergarten classes must change from a half-day to full-day schedule. Between those five years, teachers saw many of the elements of first-grade curriculum become kindergarten curriculum.
While literacy among kindergarten students increased dramatically, the longer days saw the students playing less and socializing less.
Ohr Chadash is a not a public school, but it does adhere to the full-day kindergarten classes, and includes reading as part of the kindergarten curriculum.
Although Orshan doesn’t believe taking Ohr Chadash kindergarteners back to a half-day is feasible, she says eliminating reading for kindergarten students is something she will consider.
“We’re looking into really figuring out if we’re going to go against the norm of not starting reading in kindergarten and making it more of the pre-reading strategies and play-based,” she said.
During her stay in the busy Finnish city of Helsinki, Orshan noticed something drastically different between traffic in Finland and in the United States: No one honked their horns. Orshan was surprised by the Finnish people’s responses when she made the comparison.
“They said, ‘What would be the reason to honk? Obviously, the person who is stopped needs to be there for a reason,’” she said, feeling the same sentiment can be appropriated to trusting students. “That kid is doing what he is doing right now for a reason. He doesn’t need adults going over there and talking to him about it. He just needs to be.”
“Children have brains,” she said. “Let them use them.”