What Homeschoolers Can Learn-From the Finns

Note: It's one of those years! A year with a high school senior in our family. Which means I'm up to my ears in college admissions paperwork for the next month. Since my writing time is taken up with other less fun documents, I'm going to run some different material here. This is an article I did for Practical Homeschooling magazine a bit over a year ago.

The genesis of this article was a conversation I had with someone at my great-aunt's funeral. This woman happened to be a newly retired judge and was there as friend of my cousin, also a judge.  Learning that I had homeschooled my children for over two decades, the judge, who had been an elementary teacher before attending law school, began grilling me about our educational methods and results. It was one of the liveliest, most challenging conversations I have ever had about homeschooling. At the end she thanked me "for allowing me to cross-examine, er, I mean discuss this with you." Deeply interested in alternative educational models, the judge at one point brought up the Finns, which led to my later researching how they do what they do.

What Homeschoolers Can Learn From the Finns

Does this sound familiar? Children attend class in their stocking feet in a homey setting. The highly motivated teacher has a great deal of freedom, choosing her own books and instructional methods. With a classroom day of around four hours, the children study language arts, math, science, music, art, sports, and some practical skills. Little ones learn primarily through play. Older ones have a minimal amount of homework, and tests are rare with only one standardized test at the end of nine years. The teacher takes very seriously her responsibility to not only teach but to also nurture the young people under her care, and she knows her students intimately as she teaches them from first to sixth grades. Oh, yes. By the time they are 15 years old, students who have attended this type of school whoop up on their peers in reading, science, and math.

Though much of that description may hold true for many homeschools, it is actually a portrait of a typical Finnish school. In the past decade or so, Finnish schools have become the darling of many in the education world because of their unique philosophy and stunning results. Since 2000, the first year the study was performed, Finland has appeared in the top echelon of the prestigious PISA (Programme For International Student Assessment), a test given to 15 year olds around the world every three years. Just last year Pearson Education named Finland and South Korea as “education superpowers.” The unassuming Finns have found this attention a bit disconcerting. After all, they had simply set out to provide a quality education for every student, not set the world on fire.

Finnish schools have not always been at the head of the worldwide class. Back in the early 1970s when they were behind most countries, they determined to revamp their entire system. Now compulsory schooling begins at age 7 and continues through 16. Having an egalitarian society, one of Finland's goals is to educate all children equally well, so they do not separate out gifted students or slow learners. They do provide extra help for any who need it, something like 30% of younger children, but that help comes in the regular classroom. Bright children aid their friends, and from several measurements, remarkably it appears the Finns have been able to raise the bar for everyone, rather than allow the slower students to drag down the others. After primary school, students can either move to a college prep secondary school or a vocational high school. From there they may attend college or a polytechnic institute or head out to work. So far that doesn't sound too radical. Just wait.

According to Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons and Director General of Finland's Ministry of Education and Culture, “Less is more” in Finnish education. Finnish children attend school for fewer hours, spend far less time on homework, and take fewer tests than American children. By law, Finnish children are not even allowed to be given grades before 5th grade, according to Sahlberg.

Finnish teachers also have less top-down control than many others, including ours. While Finland does have a national “curriculum”, it acts as a guideline and not a taskmaster. The math section, for example, consists of ten pages for the first nine year. The math section of the Common Core, by contrast, has seven pages for fourth grade alone. Official school inspectors were done away with in the 1990s, and teachers and principals work diligently because of internal responsibility rather than some form of external accountability. Speaking at Vanderbilt University, Sahlberg said that there is no word for accountability in Finnish. Instead, "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility is subtracted."

What Finns do have in abundance are passionate, intelligent teachers. Pasi Sahlberg says only the best and brightest high school students, about 10%, make it through the competitive selection process for the 650-700 spots available at the five-year teaching colleges. Prospective teachers must excel in all academic areas, most particularly math and science. On top of that, they need to sing and dance or be musical and should have some sports experience. Finnish teachers appreciate the autonomy they are given to creatively teach, and even though they are not paid as well as their counterparts in the U.S., they are repaid with a high amount of prestige.

As intriguing as the Finnish model is, even if I lived in that country, I would still want to homeschool my children. (Happily, according to the HSLDA, homeschooling is on the rise in that country and is protected by the Finnish constitution.) And while for a host of reasons the model likely wouldn't translate well into school systems at large in the U.S., the greater flexibility of homeschoolers puts us in a position to be able to glean some valuable strategies from the clever Finns while discarding other elements. Here are some take-away lessons that might be useful to homeschooling parents:

  • Build time in your schedule for “professional development.” Finnish teachers have about two hours each week. The time we spend reading about educational ideas, attending support groups, or listening to live or web-based seminars can all help sharpen our skills and refresh us when we are weary. Reading Practical Homeschooling is one great way to to this, too! Read widely. Keeping your mind active and piquing your curiosity will make you a better teacher.

  • Play is important! The Finns have proven that you don't need to rush academics with preschoolers for them to be very successful in the long run. Let your little ones learn primarily through indoor and outdoor play, art experiences, and listening to good books.

  • As your children grow, keep your school rich in play, arts, and hands-on activities. Handcrafts and music are integral parts of a Finnish child's day, along with learning two foreign languages. Teachers often employ creative instruction such as outdoor math where the children use sticks, pine cones, and other natural materials as manipulatives. Finnish children play outside and have about an hour or more of recess each day.

  • Teach your children how to learn and don't focus on test-taking. If your children become self-learners who love to discover new things, they will do just fine on any tests that come their way.
  • Do you have a gifted child? One who has special needs? Give each one what he or she needs, including extra tutoring or more advanced challenges. But don't make a big fuss about your child's abilities, either which way. Let the advanced child help the struggling one and both will gain. Maybe if we do this, our kids will have some of the Finnish humility as well.

If you want to spend some of your “professional development” time learning more about how the Finns educate their children, you might check out some of the resources listed below. Anne Wegener


Hancock, LynNell. "Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?." Smithsonian. Sept. 2011. Web. 21 Jun.
"Homeschooling Gains Attention in Finland." HSLDA. 24 Sept. 2010. Web. 25 Jun 2013.

Kouta, Maria. On Top of the World: How the Finns Educate Their Children. 2013. eBook.

Levine, Joshua. "Finnishing School." Time Magazine. 11 Apr 2011. Web. 21 Jun. 2013.

"Pearson Launches The Learning Curve." Pearson. 27 Nov. 2012. Web. 25 Jun 2013.

Sahlberg, Pasi. Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in
       Finland?. Youtube, 2011. Web. 22 Jun 2013.

©2013 Home Life, Inc. Originally published in Practical Homeschooling magazine. Used by permission.


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