Five Elements of Personalized Learning in Finland

Hayes_maryI’ve been keenly interested in personalizing secondary schools in the United States, so it was affirming to see the degree to which Finnish schools provide personalized learning experiences for students.

Colleagues and I who attended a symposium on personalized learning last summer identified five essential elements of personalized learning, and here’s how they played out in Finland:

1. Teacher Roles Redefined, Expanded

Finnish teachers have great autonomy for all aspects of their work, including curriculum development, planning, instruction, and assessment. In upper secondary schools, in addition to teaching their content classes, teachers serve as “tutoring teachers” (advisors) for a group of 26 students that they have had in class and remain with them until they have completed their upper secondary requirements (2-4 years). The tutoring groups meet for a half hour weekly, but the teachers do not “tutor” students as we might traditionally define it; they provide academic, social, and career guidance.

In primary school, all Finnish students take 1-2 periods of religion (not faith), a week, unless they are atheists, in which case they take ethics. Students attend the class related to their own religion (Lutheran, Catholic, etc.). When there are at least three children with a particular religion, the school must provide classes in that religion. With many new immigrant groups, schools have been hard pressed to provide instruction in all of the different religions represented by their students. They have met the challenge by enlisting parents as teachers, a nice way to build connections between immigrant families and schools.

2. Project-Based/Authentic Learning Opportunities

We saw many examples of students working in groups on projects that were connected to the world beyond school. In the primary school we visited, students were involved in a project studying the effects of the Gulf Stream with students in other countries. Education leaders told us that teachers were highly skilled in techniques such as cooperative learning. Students take applied arts in comprehensive schools and may also choose to study in a vocational school.

3. Student-Driven Learning

Teachers in the upper secondary school told us that the single best feature of the Finnish system was the freedom of choice students have: what to take, when, and with whom. Students confirmed this. One of the challenges of so much freedom and flexibility is guiding students to make good choices.

Students are required to take a minimum of 75 courses, compulsory and optional, in 2-4 years. They are encouraged to complete their studies in 3 years. Students select their courses and teachers. The curriculum provides a rich array of opportunities; there are no “extra” periods of academics that eliminate the possibility of students taking courses in the arts or other areas of interest. Students are assigned very little homework, and it is not graded or checked, as it is considered practice.

4. Mastery-Based Pace

Finnish students of all ages spend much less time in school than their American counterparts. After grade 9, students determine the school they want to attend (vocational schools are a popular option to the upper secondary school). They select an individual study program, which determines their schedule. Each course lasts 6-7 weeks. Each course has a test at the end which students must pass. They can retake the test and the course, if necessary. The school year is comprised of five study periods (terms). In the school that we visited, each course meets three times a week in 75-minute periods. Students of all ages must be in school only when they have a class. Each person’s start and end time typically varies from one day to the next. The same is true for teachers.

5. Flexible, Anytime/Everywhere Learning

Finnish students have individual, self-selected programs and schedules, but we were unable to find out details regarding “everywhere learning” during our short visit.

Finland’s goal is the development of a high-functioning knowledge society. As a result, they have a strong commitment to equity and to insuring that each child’s needs are met. Many students receive special education services. Twenty-eight percent of students receive part-time services, usually in the classroom; 8 percent receive full-time services, sometimes in special schools. The Youth Act requires every municipality to have a team to oversee youth services. The Child Welfare Act requires child welfare teams to meet regularly in each school. Schools and communities are expected to work together for the well-being of the child, with good results: fewer than 6 percent of students drop out of school.

Post submitted by Mary Forte Hayes, President, Massachusetts ASCD.