One thing that is common to successful education systems is that teaching and learning are guided or steered by system-level expectations that all schools must follow. But there are significant differences in how these expectations are technically employed. Many Canadian provinces, for example, set specific learning targets for most of the school subjects that all teachers and schools must respect. East Asian countries also set common standards that are often integrated into learning materials and teaching methods. Many other education systems have recently developed new standards for schools that aim at raising the expectations for all schools. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in the U.S. is an example of that development.
American educators make sometimes references to Finnish school system in expressing their support to and doubts of CCSS. Those in favor claim that Finland has national standards similar to CCSS. Those with more critical views maintain that the Finnish system of steering teaching and learning is fundamentally different relying more on schools’ role in setting the actual learning goals. I will highlight how Finland’s curriculum system is similar or different to that of the U.S. through three points.
First, formally each district (or municipality) in Finland is responsible to craft its own curriculum that guarantees that national laws and educational directives are adequately employed. In practice, however, districts have allocated this responsibility to schools after making sure that some critical aspects of curriculum are locally in harmony. This includes foreign language teaching, special education, pupil welfare issues and in many places the organization of schooling for immigrant children. It is therefore fair to say that Finnish schools have the right and the responsibility to design their own curriculum within the national frameworks and local requirements.
Second, national curriculum frameworks serve as coordination of these school curricula. There are four binding national documents that provide guidelines for pre-school, basic school (nine years), and upper secondary schools (separate documents for general and vocational schools). These documents describe general objectives and core content that are the basis for school curricula. The bylaw on education stipulates subjects and general time allocation that direct municipalities to provide education in equal ways to all pupils in different parts of the country. For example national curriculum framework specifies general objectives and core content in mathematics separately for grades 1-2, 3-5 and 6-9 in Finnish basic school. What the schools do then is to decide detailed learning outcomes (or standards), syllabi and teaching methods for each grade level in every subject. Since there are no census-based standardized tests in Finland, the national curriculum framework documents includes common assessment criteria for a grade B (or grade 8 in Finland). Schools are relatively free to decide the form and style of their own curriculum. Time allocation and national framework curriculum for Finland’s basic school are available here.
Third, teachers have a central role in designing the national framework curricula. Finnish government is at the moment revising the national framework curriculum for basic school. Working groups that prepare the renewed national frameworks for different subjects consist of mostly experienced teachers from all around the country. These new curricula elements are also often field tested and evaluated by teachers in order to guarantee that they are sensible and implementable in all schools. Teachers have also key role in writing textbooks that private publishers make available to all teachers. Finally, absence of national standardized tests allows teachers to teach what they think is important for pupils, and it also requires that student assessment practices must be described in detail in each school’s curriculum.
The question remains: Does Finland have anything like the Common Core State Standards in the U.S.? On one hand, there are common national level regulations and guidelines that all districts and schools must comply. Law and its bylaws also set a common educational frame in terms of subjects and time allocation that must be respected nationwide. But these national directives serve as loose standards and strategic guidelines rather than prescribed targets that every teacher must try to accomplish.
On the other hand, Finnish national curriculum framework doesn’t specify learning standards but only broad objectives and core content that help teachers in pedagogical architecture in their own schools. Perhaps the main difference between the CCSS and Finnish curriculum system is the central role that Finnish teachers and school principals have in both preparing the national curriculum frameworks and design actual curricula at the level of schools. Finnish authorities and parents trust the professionalism of principals and teachers than their peers do in the U.S. In other words, schools in Finland therefore much more autonomy in setting learning standards and crafting optimal learning environment for their children than schools elsewhere.
Perhaps the main difference in the Finnish way of national steering of teaching and learning is that national curriculum frameworks don’t come with external student testing and assessment conditions. Curriculum planning at the school level is purely a question of what is best for pupils rather than how to get the most out of the attached standardized tests. Only external standardised assessment in Finland is at exit of upper secondary school at the age of 18 (read more about that Matriculation Examination here). When Finnish teachers don’t need to worry about external test scores and their possible affects on their work, curriculum planning can also serve as a powerful means to collegial professional development in school.
Published on Diane Ravitch’s Blog on June 3, 2014