Demystifying the Finnish Education System, Part I: No Tests or Homework?

When I asked a classroom full of Finnish 9th grade students how much homework they traditionally get every night earlier this month, they literally laughed at me.

Around the world, there are rumors about the non-existence of homework in Finland, but I assumed this had been exaggerated, at least to some degree. The 9th grade students I was with had been speaking candidly with me about their educational experiences though, so I thought they might give me the truth. I had just shown the Finnish students a video about many American high school students spending three or more hours on homework a night, so I assumed they would tell me they had less homework than a lot of American students–but none? 

Earlier this month, I had the chance to spend a day at the Finnish Upper Secondary School, Karjaan Lukio. I was invited to give a talk in the afternoon to the full school on the topics in American history/culture, and in the morning I did a workshop with a combined group of 9th grade English and History classes on the topic: “A Day in the Life of an American Student.” As I reflected back on my own experience as a 9th grade student in the Bay Area, I thought it might be interesting to talk with them to identify what the primary similarities and differences were between our experiences.

After sharing some stories of my own high school experience with them and showing them a video about the pressure the American system can put on students to achieve, the class broke up into smaller groups to talk about what surprised them about the video, and what they identified as different in the Finnish system. Immediately, one of the students who was visiting on an exchange from the US proclaimed that she never wants to go back to the US system. “I started having all of these health issues,” she said, “without realizing that they all had to do to the stress I was experiencing due to school.”

Another group of students reflected, “In Finland, we don’t have to do anything if we don’t want to, and we still graduate (of course, you don’t get a good education [if you don’t do work]), but in America you have to do A LOT of work no matter what.” This is something that has consistently surprised me since being in Finland: students are truly given more ownership on their learning, for better or worse.

I also spoke with a Chemistry teacher at the school after observing her flipped-classroom model earlier during the day. Accordingly, much of her classroom time is devoted towards students working with each other to complete assignments at their own pace on their computers. She showed me a Google Sheet with each of her students’ names and various colored boxes next to each of them. She explained that each line of the document had some concept her students were learning written down, and the colors were entered by the students to express their self-perceived mastery of each given concept. When she saw a student who needed help, she would go to them in class to offer them one-on-one help.

“So, are the students typically pretty honest about assessing their level of understanding?,” I asked, intrigued by the model. She and the teachers in the Teachers’ Lounge laughed. “Well, if they aren’t, it’s not my problem,” she proclaimed. After observing the commitment she had towards her students in and out of the classroom that day, I understood that this statement was not coming from a place of apathy, but rather the expectation that students that want to learn can and will take ownership over their learning.

I imagined what my high school Chemistry class might have looked like under this model, but had a hard time doing so. Even when I was excited about the material, most of the accountability for retaining the material came down to my desire to perform well on the tests and other assessments in the class. Even beyond just wanting to receive a good grade in the class, I always understood tests or essays as the only real proxies that mattered for knowing how well I understood material. So I asked the teacher how frequently she gives her students tests, again suspicious of what I had heard about Finnish students not being tested, and curious how she held her students’ accountable for their self-assessments.

Again, she surprised me: No tests. Just some online quizzes, that the students scored and reported themselves. No tests, no homework–perhaps the rumors about the Finnish system were true after all?

Later that afternoon, before my presentation to the school, the German/English teacher who had invited me to the school gave me a tour of the campus. I had mentioned to him that I had included some stories about the SAT/ACT in my presentation and some of the prevailing criticisms of their model, and he told me that it sounded quite similar to the Matriculation exam in Finland–their version of the high school final exam/college entrance exam. As we walked around the school, he showed me what had become a sort of testing room. “This must be similar to how you take tests in America, too, right?,” he said as we looked into the room.

The testing room at Karjaan Lukio

It was not what I was expecting. After hearing all day about the lack of testing and stress at the school, and observing less structured classroom set-ups in both of the schools I had seen in Finland thus far (i.e. more grouped tables, less lined-up desks), what I saw in that auditorium surprised me. I had just been reading about the non-traditional, open-plan schools in Finland had been experimenting with so I was not expecting to see such a traditional classroom layout in this space.

As we talked more about the matriculation test, the teacher shared how stressful of an experience it can be for students. A students’ performance on this exam is critical in their college application process, and which majors they qualify for.

Granted, this is the only national test in Finland, whereas a recent study found that the average student in the US takes 112 mandated tests between kindergarten and 12th grade. So, the existence of this one test is hardly sufficient to scrap claims that the Finnish education system places less value on testing than systems such as the US. However, it is important to recognize that even this system renowned for their lack of stress and testing is not completely lacking of these features. The question from here becomes: Is Finland facing pressure to shift to a more test-based model of education, or is the matriculation exam the exception to the rule? My experiences so far seem to point to the latter explanation, but it will be interesting to see how the system changes over time.

All of this is to say that there is a lot more to be learned from speaking directly with those who have experienced the Finnish education system than is possible to glean from the myriad of think pieces written idolizing the Finnish system. There are a number of other topics I hope to dig deeper while here, outside of my specific research projects. One of the questions I have been most interested in since I learned about the dynamics of the Finnish system is: How equal is the system, really? Based on my conversations with parents, students, and researchers in Finland, the answer seems to be: Not as equal as we are led to thought.  I am still learning more, and hearing more perspectives on the matter, but the consensus so far seems to be that Finland largely lacks a political vocabulary for race (and instead insists on notions of “multiculturalism”). The very topic of racism, in or outside of the school system, is extremely taboo, so this can be a hard topic to breach conversationally. I hope though, that after spending more time here, I might also be able to help demystify one of the other proclaimed characteristics of the Finnish education system and society: Equity.

This goes without saying, but it is necessary to note here that this experience represents my direct observations of just one school in one city in Finland, and therefore is not necessarily representative of every school or students’ experiences within the Finnish system. These observations are, however, consistent with what I have learned from talking to many other Finnish coworkers and colleagues about their experiences either teaching and/or as students within the system. 

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