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.


  1. In addition to your 5 points (of which I agree are strong helps in achievement), there are deeper, cultural issues at work as well. A friend of mine is Finnish and a former math professor who has taught in Finland. I had asked him about the Finnish effect in education. In a discussion with him and some of his education professor colleagues in Finland, they pointed to the culture as the strongest reason to Finnish success.
    What is unique to the culture of Finland that helps success? First, they are a largely homogeneous group ethnically speaking. The common values are there for population. Because of this, school doesn’t start until age 7. Age 7? How can they do so well when we start kids in preschool? Because parents realize that they are the driving force in education. They stay home, they read to the kids, etc. Much like when you have a staff in a school moving in a common direction, you see success. But when your whole culture is focused on the same goals, great things can happen.
    Could it work in the US? When you have students who are coming from 100s of cultures, some of which are strong on education and others where education isn’t valued as much if at all, and students coming into the culture daily with their own expectations, having a societal mindset of valuing education is easy to say but near impossible to achieve when home values are saying something different.
    The Finns, like many societies expect their children to do post-secondary work, but again like most, secondary school is split into two types – vocational and college-prep. Both usually go through post-secondary training but again it’s easier to make things more relevant when you have a class of kids who are expecting to work soon so you can tailor projects to that end or setup things for kids heading to college. Dealing with a classroom where I have both is extremely tough. I know, I know, differentiate. However isn’t it a better use of resources to allow people to focus on 125 students with similar goals than 125 students who are all over the spectrum?
    Again, the points are valid and good things to keep in mind. However given the fact we have 100s of cultures mixing together, even if we copied the Finnish system exactly I can’t see how it would succeed here in the States.

  2. I am always puzzled by comments like Aaron’s. There is nothing ‘cultural’ about giving students freedom to pursue their interests. Indeed, it is puzzling that our culture – committed to freedom and choice – is so poor at doing so. Nor is ‘differentiation’ possible when the curriculum is entirely passive and fact-based, so of course you are hamstrung – again, nothing to do with culture, just poor school organizational structure and curriculum.
    When will we stop making excuses for the fact that our schools are out of touch with kids, the century, what we know about learning?

  3. I am always puzzled by comments like Grant’s! As if educational success is only about what the schools do or offer. Success comes when all interest groups work together.

  4. Grant:
    I’m not saying that the giving students freedom to pursue their interests (or any of the other points) are invalid. I was trying to point out that when the majority of the group is from families that value education and society as a whole values it, it makes achievement that much easier.
    Many of my students come from homes where school is looked as something has to be done since it’s the law. The parents, when they care, would much rather have their kids working. Does that mean I am out of touch with my kids? Not at all. Homework doesn’t get done so we do everything in class. I differentiate my lessons. I do objective-based assessment weekly, have backup video podcasts for kids to use as both preparation and relearning online, students who find they have holes in learning (and who care) can retake things. My exam scores and retention has gone up. The teachers in classes that follow mine are impressed with what they still remember. But again, when everything is being undermined by their home lives, it makes things a lot harder. I would, in some way, equate it to my “success” as a teacher in a private school. Involved parents made all the difference, and as a culture the Finns are much more involved in their kids lives.
    I would love to revolutionize school. As the first adopter of assessment-based learning in my school, it’s been an uphill struggle but slowly more people are seeing its value as are the kids. My comments were that we, as Americans, seem to look at finding the best solution and adopting it.
    I would dare say Grant we are probably on the same page. I would much prefer a school system with open-based learning that the other top system in the world (or at least from a few years ago) Singapore were every Geometry class in the nation is on the same lesson taught the same way each day. No deviation whatsoever. But as the education minister there said once, they are great at standardized tests but creativity is something with which the struggle.
    As far as being out of touch with kids, here’s another survey about the significance of role models involved in kids lives. One significant adult can make a huge difference.
    Grant, what are your feelings on the Finns splitting their secondary schooling into separate interest focuses (vocational vs. college prep)?

  5. Does anyone know the funding model for schools in Finland? The biggest limitation I see here is how schools are funded in USA… ADA would be impossible to calculate!

  6. I dug out one of my e-mails from my college professor friend who’s taught in Finland and discussed this with his colleagues who are education people both here and in Finland. Again, I had talked with him and his colleagues about taking things from the Finnish system that would work here in my high school classroom. I’ve invited him and one of the Finnish professors into the conversation and they can identify themselves at that point or when I get permission.
    “My belief is that Finland has done well on international comparisons of mathematics education due to factors that go beyond school rather than their having found some “magic bullit” that is exportable. The population is more homogeneous than we have here and tends to share the belief that doing well in school is important more than the US population, comparing averages. Furthermore, funding for schools is more stable than here since taxpayers do not have school-funding proposals to vote on where they express their frustrations about taxes in general.
    If there were an exportable magic bullit, that would be great. But I am not aware of one.”

  7. It seems that the Finnish system is designed to create engaging and relevant learning experiences, provoke student reflection, and help students apply the learning to life. Just what students will need to be life-long learners.
    Meanwhile, US schools dedicate their mission statements (or is it vision?) to life-long learning, while their students spend most of their an academic career of generating “achievement data.” Anyone know of a meaningful and rewarding career that looks like filling out a worksheet?
    Interested in reform? Here’s my post “My 9 Questions for Reflective School Reform Leaders”

  8. I thought it would be of interest to the readers of this blog to be aware that there are actually schools here in the USA that have a similar model to the Swedish model described in this blog. Please go to the BigPictureLearning website and read about an innovative model that is working right here in our country. My dream is actually to create a graduate program that would meet the needs of teachers working in these kinds of environments. Based on my research–interviews and focus groups–, they require quite a different skill set from that currently being offered in our schools of education. If anyone is aware of a College of Education that would be open to creating a different kind of learning experience for our teachers, please let me know.

  9. I found this post and the discussion very interesting. In British Columbia, our provincial ministry of education is promoting personalized learning as the direction that policy will be moving in, but this example gives me some concrete vision to what that might look like. There are already many online learning options available, but brick-and-mortar schools are still very traditional in scheduling and course offerings. I don’t see anything in the Finnish model as described that would not be possible with any type of student population, regardless of “culture” or parental support. The idea that students are capable of making choices, with guidance, about what to learn and how is so very sensible. Yes, there are challenges as with teaching any skill to any population, but the outcome and the benefits are immense.

  10. I just wrote several paragraphs and then, having decided what I really want to say, erased them. Here it is:
    If I had four children and one became a cement worker, one became a neurosurgeon, one became a teacher, and one became an electrician, and if each was happy and felt valued doing what he or she was doing for a living, I would say our education system was probably working pretty well. Of course, my assumption would be that the values and expectations set within my family would have as much to do with this outcome as the education system’s inputs, and I would expect each of my children to take responsibility for what he or she put into the educational experience and for the results of those efforts.
    Given the resources allocated to our schools and the responsibilities and expectations assigned to them, the vast majority of our schools are doing very well – often in spite of the “help” being provided from within and outside the system. There is a ton of room for growth, and we might be due for a total restructuring, but we ought to pay attention to our successes and promulgate them just as vigorously as we attend to our failures and try to fix them.

  11. Links of interest:
    2008 Newsweek article talking about the Finnish and Singapore school systems:
    Wall Street Journal article “What Makes Finnish Kids so Smart?”
    WSJ article quote on translating the system to the US and on funding:
    “Despite the apparent simplicity of Finnish education, it would be tough to replicate in the U.S. With a largely homogeneous population, teachers have few students who don’t speak Finnish. In the U.S., about 8% of students are learning English, according to the Education Department. There are fewer disparities in education and income levels among Finns. Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades; 53% go to high school and the rest enter vocational school. (All 15-year-old students took the PISA test.) Finland has a high-school dropout rate of about 4% — or 10% at vocational schools — compared with roughly 25% in the U.S., according to their respective education departments.
    Another difference is financial. Each school year, the U.S. spends an average of $8,700 per student, while the Finns spend $7,500. Finland’s high-tax government provides roughly equal per-pupil funding, unlike the disparities between Beverly Hills public schools, for example, and schools in poorer districts. The gap between Finland’s best- and worst-performing schools was the smallest of any country in the PISA testing. The U.S. ranks about average.”
    BBC News Piece:
    Commentary on three other aspects of Finnish education that could be imported:

  12. I’d like to make sure that readers understand that education for children in Finland begins well before the age of seven, the age for compulsory education. There is in Finland an extensive network of government sponsored day-care and early childhood education. Most families take advantage of these opportunities. In the United States we are far from the goal of universal pre-school. For most children, the availability and quality of pre-school experiences are based on parental income, resulting in uneven preparation for compulsory education. While a shared national culture can eliminate some of the issues that need to be addressed in a more diverse society, I doubt that’s the only key to effective schools. I’d suggest that, along with looking at the points Mary has made about Finnish secondary schools, examining the effect of the Finnish system of early childhood care and education as a factor in success for that educational system might give U.S. educators food for thought and action.

  13. At least some american schools do separate their school system into two parts, mine did. Instead of being tec./trade school vs. university bound my high school was university bound vs. NOTHING (or as they called it JUST GRADUATING) I think this is WAY worse… we Americans tell children if you don’t go to college your worth nothing, well let me tell you I went to college it isn’t all it is cracked up to be. I have a 4yr degree in Education and still can’t get a job because 5 years ago when they where despite for teachers they filled ALL the positions with people form other countries and all the “old timers” who are legal American’s feel they can’t retire because they can’t afford it (mostly for health insurance reasons… my mother-in-law is one of these “old timers”)!!! I think it would be amazing if the school systems would teach students about all their options… tec. schools, Jr. colleges, “real” colleges, the Army, Americore, and job training including filling out applications, writing cover-letters, and job interview training)… we say we have built our system of Education to prepare children for the future and to make a better country for everyone but college is NOT for everyone. Unemployment keeps rising… why is that? Why can’t we figure out the most basic of things… other countries have. And yet some how we still think we are #1 in the world… how can this be?

  14. I believe one difference to be considered is the status that the teaching profession has in Finland compared to the US. I understand that for a Finish parent, to have a child choose to become a teacher is about equivalent to an American parent whose child has decided to become a doctor. Finish teachers are highly respected.
    The formation that teachers go through is rigourous and the same across the country. In the US, teacher training varies greatly from region to region. Teachers are not held in such high regard, in part, due to this fact.
    In Canada, teachers are consistently at the top of the list of respectble professions. Could this in part explain the much higher PISA results in Canada, compared to the US?

  15. I would suggest that American education is in such disrepair and we are so disgraced in terms of what we are doing about our children’s learning that we should beg, borrow, and steal any enlightening ideas anywhere!


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