Written by Janet English

18. Finns Share Insights About American Education

18. Finns Share Insights About American Education by Janet English

“I guess I’d say I didn’t really like the multiple-choice thing in the U.S.  My sister said it really well: ‘It felt really funny to not having to produce anything yourself. You would just choose from already ready answers.’”


Chapter 18



It’s toward the end of my journey and I sit down to interview students who used to go to high school in the United States. Julia De Silva spent one year in Mobile, Alabama, Antti Lind spent one year in Miami, Florida, and Iiris Sydänmaanlakka spent four months in a high school in Greenbelt, Maryland.  I ask them to compare the Finnish and American education  systems. Their reflections reveal profound differences in how our two systems are structured, what is considered important, and how learning is assessed.


Julia de Silva Goncalves:

“Well, both school systems like Finland and U.S. have their pros and cons but I think the way we do things in Finland challenges you more to actually think and not just memorize …but also in the U.S. you learn a lot more like teamwork and I think that’s good and like going in front of the class and … talking – because I think students here – I don’t know if it’s just because we’re Finnish people – we’re kind of nervous to talk about our projects. So, ‘Yeah, this is what I did’ …in the U.S. … it’s also the culture that’s different.”
“What did you like about the culture of the school in the U.S.?”
“The culture in the school in the U.S. I thought it was really cool…the school spirit …and how you have all the activities there and because we don’t have that here in Finland. So, that was what I really liked about the school there.”
“What is the school culture like in Finland?”
“In Finland we don’t really do any sports in school. We just come here and do our classes and then we go home and do like whatever we do. We don’t really like stay after school.”
“So you don’t have a community of students doing things like in the U.S.”
“No, we don’t have like the same kind of community here.”  

Antti Lind:

“I think I had great teachers over there. They were funny they made us laugh in every lesson, they talked a lot and then they just gave us some assignments and we had to do those and then they checked them out every time so that was like in Finland they don’t check our assignments or homework so you don’ t really have to do your homework but over there you had to do your homework or you got a bad grade.”

Julia de Silva Goncalves:

“In the U.S. most of my tests were multiple-choice tests so it was about studying specifics like names and numbers and that’s a little different but here in Finland most of our tests are essays it is really the big picture and really understanding it. When I got there I had to learn to study really detailed things and that was new to me. I think there are good things about both systems because here out teachers don’t really care about if we can remember all the numbers and names. In the U.S. in my history class that was really important to know that.”
“Tell me what was hard.”
“It was hard to remember all the names and numbers because I’m used to my teachers saying, ‘Okay, you don’t have to remember all the names and numbers’ and all of a sudden it’s … all about the names and numbers so I was kind of confused at first but you get used to it and in the end I think remembering is easier than understanding.”
“Do you still remember the names and dates?”
“No…I remember only a few of the names out of all the names I studied in my history class.”

Antti Lind:

“I think in the U.S. teachers they have this list that they have to do this they have to study those things with students and they try to mix it little bit and they try to do it as much and as fun as they can but it’s hard for them and a good teacher can do it a little bit funnier and easier but in Finland the teachers they don’t have that kind of list. We have maybe one book and they can … ask, ‘What would you like to study?’ and, ‘What makes you think this is important and what is not important?’”

Iiris Sydänmaanlakka:

“I guess I’d say I didn’t really like the multiple-choice thing in the U.S. My sister said it really well: ‘It felt really funny to not having to produce anything yourself. You would just choose from already ready answers. ‘ It felt kind of funny and I don’t think that’s like a very good way to show if you know or not. Like if you really know the stuff or not.”
“I think also if all one only does multiple-choice questions your confidence probably changes.”
“Yeah, that’s true. I mean. And if you only have … you get used to it. You get used to only choosing from different answers and you really get used to that and when you try to do something else it’s going to be harder. The problem is, like in real life you don’t have answer choices. You’ve got to figure it out for yourself.”

Since 2001, American teachers have been under tremendous pressure to teach a large amount of content with very little depth. As an imperfect analogy for what it’s been like to be a teacher in the U.S., pretend your job is to bake cakes in an assembly line (for our purposes the cakes represent content you’re supposed to teach).

Korvapuusti (cinnamon roll) and coffee in the Helsinki train station.  Photo credit:  Dennis Grice

Korvapuusti (cinnamon roll) and coffee in the Helsinki train station. Photo credit: Dennis Grice

You mix the batter, you pour the batter in the pans, and you put the pans in the oven. In the middle of baking your cakes you are told to take the cakes out of the oven so you can start baking different cakes (for this example it would be more curriculum you need to teach).  You exclaim, “The cakes aren’t done.  This isn’t going to work! But the decisions have been handed down to you and you must hurry to put more cakes through (and more and more curriculum).  At the end of the day you are evaluated on how well you baked your cakes (they’re not fully baked) and you are criticized for doing a poor job.

In Finland it’s the pace of the learner, not the pace of the teaching, which determines the progression of curriculum in a classroom. Finnish teachers are told, in essence, “Here’s an objective; take your students on an [intellectual] journey.”  Finnish teachers are given the time and freedom to work with topics that interest the students, and teachers are able to challenge their students to solve problems in an unhurried, relaxed environment.


“Well, a surprise for me was in States that I have heard many, many stories about how bad the teachers are in the U.S. and I still …read in magazines about how bad the teachers are in the United States. But those four months I was there and I traveling through many, many classrooms in that time and I didn’t see any bad teachers.  But I saw teachers that work way more than I do. I kind of felt very bad for myself because I saw how hard these teachers work here.  I promised myself maybe I should work more when I go back home but actually it’s about the same as before. Teacher in the U.S. have to work too much, I wouldn’t say nonsense., but too much on what doesn’t help teaching or doesn’t help learning – Lots of reports, lots of meetings with no goal, and maybe meetings just for meetings, and also reports on students.  You know, ‘They have done this and they have done this.’ They work hard but not with the students. They work hard with the system.  And that was the biggest difference in our educational systems.”
“And I saw great teachers. So great teachers and I followed their lessons and for me it was like Christmas. I saw maybe…well, for me it’s jackpot if I get a new demonstration in six months, if I learn something new from someone else or if I find a new demonstration that I can use in a lesson. During that fall from that one teacher I learned maybe 40.  Well I saw many excellent teachers but this one was the top of everything – it was very good – and how he handled very talented students.”
“What is his name?”
“James Schaeffer.  He teaches physics, in Montgomery Player (paraphrased).”


The Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards are written to be more aligned with international standards of learning, including those written in Finland.  For an international comparison on the value of the Common Core Standards in Mathematics by OECD visit http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA2012-US-CHAP4.pdf

 (The assessments are a completely different issue which will not be discussed in this series.)