How Spending Time in a Finnish University Changed My Educational Perspective

edchatwithtasha
11 min readMay 27, 2022

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Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

“The country that consistently ranks among the highest in educational achievement is Finland. A rich country, but education is free.” — Noam Chomsky

The evolution of education. It’s always a topic that interests me as a teacher.

I’ve always admired the Finnish school system. They always put in a lot of effort to usher in newer eras of higher, more effective education systems while maintaining quality. Their focus on developing continuous learning in innovative ways always intrigued me.

Not only that, but they also have had the label of being the happiest country in the world multiple times.

Why? How? What’s the buzz about the Finnish education system? What’s so great about it? Shorter school days? No standardized tests?

Sign me up!

I had to find out for myself.

That’s why I decided to spend a summer studying in Finland during my third year as a university student. I applied to study at the University of Tampere and received a scholarship from my university to help with the expenses.

After acceptance into their summer program, I packed my bags and hopped on a plane to Tampere, Finland.

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While I was there, I took an intriguing course about English and the impact it has worldwide on countries and their culture (I’m an English and History major). I’d love to explain the interesting content of that course, but that’s a conversation for another day.

I didn’t know what to expect from a university course in Finland. I had always heard how the Finnish were ahead in many ways compared to the west, especially in terms of education, but experiencing it firsthand still surprised me.

That’s even after my Finnish Uncle kept telling me how easy it was for his two little boys there. They didn’t start school until they were 7! Wow, I started when I was 3. Talk about jealousy!

You really don’t believe something sometimes until you experience it for yourself. Well, at least that’s the case with me.

Here’s what I experienced with my course at Tampere University in Finland:

The Classroom Setup

You might think, what does the setup of the classroom have to do with learning?

The classrooms themselves were already set up for success.

There were no large lecture halls, but large classrooms instead. Also, instead of all the seats facing the professor, they were facing each other in a wide-open space with a projector on one side of the room. The room was set up for everyone to talk with each other as opposed to the professor just talking at us.

The number of students in the class was perfect for this setup. At that moment, I wished all of my university courses had that amount of students. How different would my university career have been had that been the case?

Photo by Jj Englert on Unsplash

The setup of the classroom positively contributed to higher academic performance and aided our discussions in ways I never thought about previously.

The artificial lights were never extremely bright, but a calming sensation from the natural lighting in the classroom instead. I was impressed with the design of the class in that way, as well as the innovative approach that was taken both for the interior and exterior design of the entire university.

When I think of my university lecture rooms back in Canada, the tutorial rooms where we had our discussions were in the basement with no windows and extremely bright white lights all around that were almost blinding with the pale, white walls.

My Professor

After class, it was routine to have discussions with my Finnish professor. She was, to be blunt, so healthy and happy, and I know how weird that sounds as I write it and as you read it, but I was used to seeing my professors back home stressed and overwhelmed with a lot of work, not having too much time to chit chat freely with their students. I was used to talking to my professors on the go as they were walking somewhere or doing something in their office as they multitasked.

I soon learned that educators and teachers in Finland are valued and treated like royalty, unlike back home.

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Not only was my Finnish professor paid a lot more, but she also worked half the amount of hours! She said the same was for elementary and high school teachers compared to the west. Teachers make similar pay to doctors and lawyers in Finland.

There’s also nobody breathing down your neck and inspecting you. My professor explained that Finland had long ago gotten rid of strict classroom routines and teacher observations.

“How do we evaluate our teachers? We never speak of this. It is irrelevant in our country. Instead, we discuss ‘How can we help them?’” — Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Educator and Scholar

As a result, educators are given the freedom to teach students the way that they deem appropriate, especially since there are no standardizing tests to prepare students for.

She also explained to me that the teachers feel included in the system here because teachers help to build it. Their voices are heard. Education policies are built together not only with educational authorities, but with teachers, parents, business leaders, and municipalities. These policies are built with everyone working together, everyone who regards education with the same passion.

“The countries who do the best in international comparisons, whether it’s Finland or Japan, Denmark or Singapore, do well because they have professional teachers who are respected, and they also have family and community which support living.” — Howard Gardner

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The Discussion-Based Classes

During class, there was no excessive writing. In fact, we didn’t focus on writing at all. Students could write if they wanted, but the focus was wholly on the discussion aspect.

We talked, talked, and talked some more. I’m not talking about the professor talking at us, but having intellectual discussions and students bringing up new ideas from all sorts of different countries and walks of life.

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I was not used to this at all. In Canada, I was used to vigorously writing down notes and catching every word my professor said so that I didn’t miss anything to be able to properly prepare to pass the exam. Forget about trying to understand the topics, it was all about inhaling all of the knowledge quickly and as much of it as possible.

From the other international students, I heard that their classes were also heavily discussion-based as well as their subjects were always highly practical and research-oriented with little to no writing involved. The pace difference from back home was refreshing.

The Classroom Timetable

Every 45 minutes of class, we got about 15 minutes of break time. This was mind-blowing to me coming from classes where professors back home would give 3-hour lectures with no break time at all or at most, 5–10 minutes in between.

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During the break, we got to walk around outside of the classroom, have enough time to go grab a coffee, and then start leisurely. Everything was so relaxed and flexible. Many days, we even ended class so much earlier. Back home, it was a miracle if we could convince our professor to end class 30 minutes earlier.

Increasing time spent out of the classroom during breaks actually had the effect of creating a positive learning environment for us.

No Work Outside of Class

What I heard about the relaxed but effective education system turned out to be true. My professor never assigned any homework. Every single day, I went home with no homework. I wasn’t sure what to do with my life.

I was travelling, so of course, I had tons to do in that sense, but as a student, I never had the feeling of having no homework. I was always used to being overwhelmed with homework in Canada.

So, what did I do with all that time?

I learned to spend time with myself. I couldn’t even imagine university being this relaxed in Canada. However, I accepted it quickly. I mean who wouldn’t?

Every day after class was an opportunity to fully explore and immerse myself in all that Finland had to offer. I took weekend trips to Sweden and Estonia as well as other parts of Finland like the capital Helsinki. I hiked various forests while playing Pokémon GO. I biked around the calm, picturesque city of Tampere as I people watched and took in the sights as if I were a character in a film.

Photo by Linus Mimietz on Unsplash

I also got to know the other international students in the summer course program. They were students who were mostly from other parts of Europe and Scandanavia. I was the only North American in the program and the course I enrolled in. We explored the nature that the city had to offer and went to the lakes to canoe or swim.

As I mentioned earlier regarding the breaks, the time spent outside of the classroom positively impacted my performance inside the classroom.

The balance felt great. School stayed at school and it didn’t affect my personal time in any way other than thinking about the intriguing discussions we’d have in class. In that way, I was 100% involved and present in class because I had enough time to enjoy my personal life that it didn’t have to be on my mind during class.

It all made sense now, the whole happiest country in the world bit. The students not only have a high educational proficiency but a high level of satisfaction in life as well. This is because of the healthy work-life balance and having time to focus on extracurricular activities and learn life skills that ultimately do aid in the classroom as wel.

Photo by SaiKrishna Saketh Yellapragada on Unsplash

One Final Assignment

In the end, I did get one assignment. I had to write a final essay. However, there was no deadline. No deadline?! Are you kidding me? How could a professor assign me an essay with no deadline? I felt shocked. She told me that I could submit it sometime when I got back to Canada and that she was looking forward to reading it. That’s it.

As expected, I took my time and handed it in sometime a month after the completion of my course and arrival back in Canada. She gave me comments on it and that was it! My university class credit had been given to me, just like that!

That was the easiest class credit I had ever received in my university career.

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Education in the West vs. Finland

I found out the answer to my question about why and how the Finnish education system is better than ours:

By doing the opposite of what we do here in the west.

Finnish students routinely outperform western students, namely Americans, when it comes to subjects like reading, science, and math. On average, Americans spend 50% more hours in school than the schools in Finland do.

Every hour of school they complete, they get a 15-minute recess. They have no standardized tests except for PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) in which they outperform American students.

What does Finland have that we’re missing? How do they have such a comprehensive and universal education?

Passion. Value. Determination.

Not to mention team effort from every citizen that shares the same goal regarding the education of their future leaders.

Together, they spend time researching how to build the best education system.

Together, they invest in their teachers and students in ways that we don’t.

Together, they have created a successful universal system.

This includes:

  1. Equal Opportunities: There are equal opportunities for all students. Each citizen has the constitutional right to universal education.
  2. Inclusive Learning: There is personalized and inclusive learning available for students who need it.
  3. Personalized Learning: There is a focus on the strength of the students rather than their ability to answer questions on a test. This focuses on their overall development. They have the chance to explore their natural creativity. It’s so flexible!
  4. No Homework: There is minimal to no homework so students have a good balance. This adds to the student’s level of satisfaction. Whenever I call my uncle, his kids are always playing, and never doing any homework because they never have any!
  5. Diverse Learning: Younger students learn through play, and older students learn through practical activities or discussions.
  6. Supportive Technology: Innovative technology is big all over Finland, and especially integrated into the classrooms.
  7. Life-long Learning: There is lifelong-learning and adult schooling is highly encouraged because the system is so flexible. (My aunt is currently in her late thirties but in an excellent nursing program after her 2 boys have grown up a bit)
  8. Valued Teachers: There are autonomous teachers that are highly trained and well-paid.

We don’t need to copy their system, but we need to find that passion and importance for education. We need the right mindset.

Final Thoughts

“Finland’s experience shows us that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.” — Pasi Salhberg

I prospered much more in my university course in Finland than in any of my courses in Canada.

As a teacher myself now, I try to implement all that Finnish education taught me while I was there.

This passion that the Finnish have for a healthy life in school as a student continues onto adulthood where full-time workers enjoy the benefits of a relaxed society that values life in a different way than we are used to.

My uncle who is a Finnish engineer enjoys an excellent work-life balance after he enjoyed the same while he was a student and completing his masters in Finland. He once thought about moving to Canada, but decided against it for the betterment of his family. I get it now, uncle!

The west should follow suit and structure its education system similar to Finland’s.

We need to re-evaluate our education system. If we can’t give students more movement, recess, and playtime, then we don’t understand the education system, or more importantly, understand life.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

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If you’re interested to read more about this topic, I found a book called Teach Like Finland that I’ve just put on my to-read list!

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edchatwithtasha

Education Writer 👩‍💻 l l EdTech & eLearning 🖥