Home » 21st Century Learning » Are Finnish Children Better Prepared for the 21st Century?

Are Finnish Children Better Prepared for the 21st Century?

By: Paul Solarz

In America, it has become apparent that some children are graduating college without the skills and abilities that they need in order to be successful in today’s rapidly changing work world.  Businesses are putting pressure on universities to prepare their students better.  Those colleges, in turn, are putting pressure on high schools, and the trickle-down effect is hitting elementary schools.  The traditional lecture, skill-and-drill, worksheet-style classrooms just aren’t acceptable anymore.

It has long been known that skills instilled at a young age are more likely to become habits, so it makes sense for schools to teach these immediately as children enter kindergarten.  But the question I’m considering is, “Do Finnish teachers need to spend time working on the same skills that American students need to?”  This blog post was inspired by the following quote:

“I especially like your notions on 21st century skills. As educators we realize them to differ depending on whose list we’re quoting. How does my list look like? And yours? Have you designed a set of skills collaborating with your students? Does our mindset allow us to reshape the objectives according to what we as teachers see happening during the class?”

– Olli Maatta, Language teacher, Teacher trainer, Head of International Relations at Helsinki Normal Lyceum

The truth is, Finnish children seem to be developing some skills earlier than American children.  For example, when children walk themselves to school in the morning at the ripe old age of 7 (several kilometers, through snow & ice, and uphill both ways, of course) do they really need to focus on independent thinking in the classroom?  Students are known to come home after school and remain unsupervised for several hours until a parent returns from work.  These kids live independence!

As I watched parents and children on the streets of Helsinki, in stores and restaurants, and in schools, I noticed that children here are pretty much allowed to be themselves and do anything they want, but they don’t seem to ever take it too far!  I never saw parents interfering with their children’s behaviors.  I imagine that when they do, it’s a much bigger deal to a child than in America where the impact is minimized by overuse.

When I compare them to my fifth grade students, Finnish children never seemed to take their misbehaviors to the point where I would have to give a consequence.  They seem to know where the line is and they seem to respect that line.  Could this be because adults correct them so infrequently and the behavior expectations remain the same at school and home?  Do we as American teachers and parents create misbehavior by our constant redirection and control?  Are we squelching children’s ability to monitor their behavior naturally?

Although we only visited three schools during our stay in Finland, I feel that I was able to observe students using 21st Century skills both in class and during their “break time.”  At Innokas Koulumestari, translated as Innovative Master School, students are allowed to spread out all over the building to learn in the “best environment for their learning style.”  Teachers occasionally walk around to assist those who need it, but they are unsupervised for long stretches.  I don’t get the feeling that teachers walk around trying to “catch” their students misbehaving.  I feel as though they would truly be surprised to find anyone off-task beyond what is acceptable here.  Children seem to know that they have a task to complete, and appreciate the independence from the classroom.  They work hard to avoid losing that independence.

At Helsingin Suomalainen Yhteiskoulu (HYK), a grades 3-12 school, students have a block schedule, which allows them 15 minutes between classes.  In these 15 minutes, students are encouraged to use the bathroom, hang out with friends, and can go anywhere in the school to hang out.  Somehow, when the teacher walks into the classroom, all of his students walk in with him, the door closes (and locks), and instruction begins.  A polite-sounding bell system helps with this, but students manage their timeliness on their own.  Could American students be trusted to walk to class on their own, not to mention get there on time and without incident?

At Helsinki Normal Lyceum, a high performing secondary school with tough admittance requirements, students took time out of their day to talk with us about what their school was like.  These risk-takers were able to explain what they felt was the ideal educational environment in English, with amazing vocabulary!  They told us that they enjoyed classes and teachers that allowed them opportunities for collaboration with their peers and inquiry-based learning.  They craved opportunities to be creative and show their learning through technology.  If we listen to students, they ask for 21st Century skills to be used as a means to learning!

I guess it’s hard to say whether or not Finnish children are better prepared for the 21st Century than American children, especially since I only have a surface understanding of what is really going on here, but I have a feeling that the independence provided to children points them in the right direction.  What do you think?  Start the conversation in the comments below!


  1. Paul Solarz says:

    As I finished typing this story, a nice Finnish woman from Espoo walked up to me to ask me why I am typing on a computer at 1:21 in the morning on the ferry to Stockholm while everyone else around me is dancing to a live band. My answer could have been because this is the only place I get wi-fi on this ship (which was true), or because Joe Mazza put the fear of God in me if I didn’t finish my post tonight, but I told her what I was actually doing.

    She had a lot to say about this topic. She lives in Espoo, where Innokas Koulumestari is. She agrees that in Finland, children walk to and from school freely with no fear. She said, “We don’t need to plan play dates for our children after school. They can go to friends’ houses or stay at home alone and we don’t worry. I lived in Boston for four years and I was surprised that it was not like this. I don’t think it was less safe, but people think it is unsafe.” I told her about how most of us agreed that “trust” was one of the major differences between Finland and America, and she agreed.

    I’m not sure what came first: our society being untrusting or our society doing things that caused us to distrust. Could our distrust be causing some of the trouble?

  2. Joe Mazza says:

    Hahahaha. Great job this week, Paul. Not bad for a Cubs fan. Now get dancing on that ferry ride. Enjoy your family. jm

  3. kavanyee says:

    Great piece and follow up! Loved the fear of god reference to Joe! Now go and dance

  4. Renee says:

    Paul, I think as Americans we are very mistrusting for good reasons. I have found Europeans in general are more carefree which shows in children as well. Maybe if we didn’t have so many rules and restrictions, ex. Drinking age, gun laws etc., we would see some of the same results with our students. Looks like you had a great experience. Safe travels home!

    • Paul Solarz says:

      I agree Renee, there are definitely good reasons to be mistrusting. But I wonder what our society might look like if we were more trusting in other ways. I wonder if students can be trusted more in elementary schools to get to art, gym, and music on time, independently, and without much delay. If they talk while getting there is that the biggest deal? Can we let kids work in the LMC unsupervised and trusted to get the task done before the next subject starts? I don’t even let kids go to the bathroom together because I worry about misbehavior! Maybe I could work harder to build that trust. Maybe we all could, especially in schools! It would be hard at first, but imagine what it might look like after years of consistency across the building!!!

  5. Thomas Arnesen says:

    Great post, but for a Norwegian also used to the idea of children walking to school, have 15 breaks in between classes and kids being able to visit friends in the afternoon etc. yet we are not reaping the academic benefits and our schools are among the noisiest in Europe. The calm and dedicated diligence I witnessed both in upper and lower secondary schools in Finland amazed me. Perhaps we need to look more closely at Finnish history to trace the roots of their school achievements.

    • Paul Solarz says:

      I would love to hear more about the comparisons between the Norwegian education system and the Finnish. I wonder what other factors contribute to the strong focus in school. If you think of anything, please post them here – thank you!

  6. Jean Hino says:

    Your statement about trust is interesting particularly in light of the above comment from a Norwegian. Is part of the “mis-trust” in American education because of the “melting pot” with so many different cultures and Finnish school are more homogeneous? I teach at an international school in Tokyo. Some of our students in elementary school ride the train over an hour to come to school each day. Some of the Asian students in particular come to school and then go to “cram” school to “keep up” their Japanese or Korean. We have students who study 12+ hours a day but I’m not sure they are any more prepared for the 21st century. Parent expectations play a big part in the students’ achievement but then we hear of so many who are burned out by college or shortly after. As an elementary teacher I would like to know how we can help students be prepared to be successful for the rest of their schooling and for future jobs, but too often secondary and college don’t want to make changes.
    I look forward to reading more as you debrief from your time in FInland.

    • Paul Solarz says:

      Thanks for your comments Jean – I think the “melting pot” theory could be part of why our country has mistrusted people in the past. I wonder why we are still so mistrustful today (other than it’s how we’ve always been). If we look at communities around the world that have become more culturally-heterogeneous, I wonder if we can track the level of trust and see if that is a direct relationship. Hmmm…

  7. […] in Finland somehow seem to be happier than children in America.  I think it has something to do with all of the independence they are given – they are allowed to grow up to become who they were intended to be instead of being heavily […]

  8. Carol says:

    Paul your blogs are fantastic and filled with great information along with interesting questions. The question about happier students and the potential correlation to more independence is fascinating, are you going to try and integrate that into your classroom? I can’t wait to hear more about your trip! Be safe and get some sleep.

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