Finland’s Finest: Why We Need to Take Note of Finland’s Approach to Early Education

In recent years, Finland has been consistently at the top of worldwide rankings by nation for 15 year-old academic performance.  They’re obviously doing something right.  And in my biased informed opinion, if we want to know why their 15 year-olds are so bright, we need to look not only at what they’re doing in high school, but also (and perhaps more so) at what they’re doing in their early education programs.

While here in America, we seem fixated on the “earlier is better” philosophy, Finland is staying at the top by honoring early childhood for what it is.  In fact, Finnish children don’t even enter formal schooling until they are seven years old.  That’s right.  Finland is getting ahead by starting later.

Before seven, however, young Fins don’t just stay home watching cartoons all day.  The period of early childhood is revered and respected in Finland, evidenced by their commitment to providing access to high quality early education to all of its citizens.

In these preschools and kindergartens, you won’t find the country’s next crop of top students drilling through flashcards or poring over worksheets.  More likely, you’ll see them singing, playing, and painting.  In Finland, the focus for early education is on learning how to learn.  Children are encouraged to experience, explore, and play.  The Fins value the development of curiosity and social competency in the early years.  They know that the “academics” will come more easily later if the foundation is there. 

In addition to Finland’s developmentally appropriate approach to early education, it is interesting to note that its teachers — including its primary teachers — are required to have master’s degrees and generally come from the tops of their classes.  Teaching — even teaching preschool — is highly respected as a profession and recognized for the important and influential work that it is.  Fins realize that teaching preschoolers is more than babysitting and that early educators are intelligent and valuable members of their community.    (Oh, I could tell you the stories of comments like, “Do you have to go to college to teach first grade?” and “So your job is to fill up the paint?”  I’ll save it for another day.)  When valued in this way, teachers are not only more likely to live up to the standards created for their positions, but are more likely to find satisfaction in their profession as well.  And as many of us can attest, a happy teacher is a better teacher!  These highly trained and respected teachers are given a great deal of autonomy and are allowed to teach as they know they should.

While Finland also has many other factors contributing to the favorable outcome of its students (including a high adult literacy rate among other things) it’s impossible to deny the value of its strong commitment to developmentally appropriate, high quality early education.  And yet, in our effort to get our 15 year-olds closer to where theirs are, we seem to be moving our 4 year-olds farther away from where theirs are. 

Unsatisfactory test results and “failure anxiety” have led to more academics earlier, and less time for play-based exploration and social interaction.  But from looking at the Finnish model, it seems we’ve gone about “improving” in the wrong way, throwing DAP out the window.  How can we expect to get the same results as the Fins by preparing our young children in the opposite manner?

Continue the discussion about developmentally appropriate practice.  Read about the Gesell Institute’s recent study, and comment with your questions for its executive director, Dr. Marcy Guddemi here.

To learn more:

Early Education’s Top Model: Finland – The Globe and Mail

A World of Opportunity – Video by Economic Opportunity Institute

Top photo by Arsel Ozgurdal.



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