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What American Schools Just Don’t Understand (Or, Why My Family Might be Moving to Finland)

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  • September 19, 2011
  • 2:30 pm
What American Schools Just Don’t Understand (Or, Why My Family Might be Moving to Finland)

NOTE: This is a guest post from Kerala Taylor, Senior Manager of Online Content & Outreach at KaBOOM!

My husband and I are expecting our first baby in December, and we just might be moving to Finland within the next few years–unless schools around here get better soon. And by “better,” I don’t mean that they start churning out higher test scores.

I want my daughter to go to a school where she can get her hands dirty. Where she can run around during the day. Where she can push her physical limits as well as the bounds of her own creativity. Where she can learn her reading, writing, and arithmetic but also essential life skills.

A Finnish school sounds like just the place.

For years now, American schools have been busy eliminating art and music, cutting back on P.E. and recess, and narrowly measuring student “achievement” via standardized tests. Meanwhile, the Finnish school system requires arts and crafts; provides ample time for play and physical activity; and does not mandate standardized testing.

When it comes to education–and to childhood in general–the United States and Finland are sending very different messages.

We say, “The children must sit.” The Finns say, “The children must play.”

Whether in the car, in front of the TV, or in the classroom, American kids spend far too much time sitting. And when schools decide they need more time for academics, recess and P.E. are often first up on the chopping block. Meanwhile, children in Finnish elementary schools get 75 minutes of recess a day, venturing outside even in subzero temperatures. (“If [it's] minus 15 [Celsius] and windy, maybe not,” concedes Principal Timo Heikkinen.)

We say, “The earlier the better.” The Finns say, “Children learn better when they are ready.”

In Finland, compulsory schooling doesn’t begin until age seven. Meanwhile, even preschoolers in the United States can’t escape the pressures of testing, and some parents operate under sadly misguided notions that four-year-olds who learn their three Rs stand a better chance of getting into an Ivy League college. One New York mom even sued her child’s preschool because the kids there–I’m not making this up–played too much.

We say, “Pile on the homework!” The Finns say, “A bit of homework is helpful–maybe.”

If kids are doing lots of homework, that means they are learning more–or so we are led to believe. Yet the correlation between homework and achievement is minimal in elementary school and only moderate in middle and high school. In our work-centric culture, kids spend precious after-school hours hunched over a desk when they could be outside playing. Meanwhile, Finnish kids do little or no homework in the earlier years and only about a half hour a night in high school.

So, it’s clear that Finnish kids face far fewer academic pressures than American kids–and get far more time to play–but are they actually learning? If international school rankings are any indication (and we love our rankings!), Finnish schools are among the best in the world. That’s not to mention that Finnish children consistently score better than U.S. children on International Student Assessment Scores.

We prepare kids for tests. According to principal Kari Louhivuori, Finns “prepare kids for life.” And yet somehow, Finnish students are even out-testing us.

Already packing your bags? Perhaps I’ll be joining you six–no wait, seven–years down the road.

Since we can’t all pack up and move to Finland, let’s join forces to save play right here in our own schools! Sign this Back-to-School Pledge from the national nonprofit KaBOOM! and get a copy of How to Save Play at Your School, featuring 15 actions parents and teachers can take this fall to make school grounds and school days more playful.


Kerala Taylor is Senior Manager of Online Content & Outreach at
KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit dedicated to saving play for America’s children. She is passionate about getting kids unplugged and about building community through outdoor play. You can follow KaBOOM! on Twitter: @kaboom

Photo Credit: KaBOOM!

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67 comments

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12:44PM PDT on Oct 1, 2013

Well if you hate America then just leave and stop bad mouthing her. I swear you liberals are so ungrateful and hate filled. We don't want self hating intolerant bigots like you here. Move to Europe and get all the socialism your America hating heart can take. Be warned gays and muslims run rampant over there like locusts. America is the greatest country in the world.

11:33PM PDT on Aug 23, 2012

Ah but you DO have to move to Finland to find a culture that values equity as their number one priority. Far, far ahead of "excellence" and performance. A culture that emphasizes cooperation and not competition. It is the focus on equity that has created the school system and performance that we are seeing from Finland.
http://m.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/

7:22PM PST on Dec 5, 2011

Excellent article and info.

7:20PM PST on Dec 5, 2011

"Yet the correlation between homework and achievement is minimal in elementary school and only moderate in middle and high school. In our work-centric culture, kids spend precious after-school hours hunched over a desk when they could be outside playing."

Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/what-american-schools-just-dont-understand-or-why-my-family-might-be-moving-to-finland.html#ixzz1fil0uYiG

"We prepare kids for tests. According to principal Kari Louhivuori, Finns “prepare kids for life.” And yet somehow, Finnish students are even out-testing us."

Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/what-american-schools-just-dont-understand-or-why-my-family-might-be-moving-to-finland.html#ixzz1filYgAtP

9:24PM PST on Nov 17, 2011

That was after moving from Maryland.

My grandfather emigrated from Finland at age 10. This was 1902. Mom was a certified genius and one time member of MENSA. She worked the near genius level IQs we had (we got our IQ from dad). It was dad who insisted on the IQ tests and she beat him. He was sore about that.

9:21PM PST on Nov 17, 2011

Smithsonian magazine: Finnish schools: "Whatever it takes."

For my Finnish mom's part she was more like the Japanese education crazy mother. It certainly wasn't any half hour of homework a night in high school. At least not in 10th grade, 11th grade, first half of 12th. After I had that study hall, I had maybe an hour of homework a night in WV. Such slackers.

9:41PM PDT on Nov 4, 2011

This makes me really wish that I grew up in Finland. When I have children moving to Finland would definitely be a very tempting proposal.

8:41PM PDT on Sep 24, 2011

Thanks for the information. I don't think standardized testing is a good idea. "No Child Left Behind" is a disaster.

7:12PM PDT on Sep 24, 2011

The basic problem is that standardized tests don't fully show the capabilities of the students. If they had all these standardized tests when I was in grade school I would Have been at bthe top of the class each year. In those that we did have, I was always in the 99+ %ile. They mean nothing. They don't allow the child to think. Some can pass the test, but cannot balance a check book, write a logical sentence, find a place on a map, or tell what Ponce De Leon was looking for. What is needed is getting back to teaching, rather than instructing on passing the standardized tests.

2:07PM PDT on Sep 24, 2011

Alice N. I swear I was doing well, and was good with simple adding. then they moved me up, I had to much math, to much homework and I had a break down. Coupled with teasing I then had a 2nd grade to 12th grade of semi special education. Not in the classes with Handicaped children, just watered down. Or that is how I recall. The child study team screwed me over and other educational institutions

Fixing the school issue is not going to be easy. Maybe Diane Ratvich will be able to. if we are lucky. I only have one of her books, and I do because it is more about censorship than anything.

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