History Education in Finland: Some Impressions

By Darcy R. Fryer

Journalists can’t stop talking about Finnish education. Finland has won kudos both for its consistently strong performance on the PISA—an international survey that evaluates education systems worldwide—and for its success in promoting broad equality of opportunity, a healthy work-life balance, and a high degree of autonomy by highly educated teachers. My attention was riveted, but soon frustrated, because so much of what has been written about Finnish education focuses on the elementary years, and especially on math. What is there to be said about high school history teaching in Finland? 

Espoo is Finland’s second largest city and is known for being a technology hub with a highly educated population. jaakkoafs/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

In March 2017, thanks to a chain of generous contacts, I spent a day at Olari Lukio, a secondary school in Espoo, Finland. Espoo is Finland’s second largest city, a mushrooming technology hub of 270,000 just across a narrow bay from Helsinki. The town is affluent, highly educated, and increasingly diverse. According to statistics provided by the City of Espoo, only 78 percent of residents speak Finnish as their mother tongue, while 8 percent speak Swedish and 14 percent speak another language; there were students of Middle Eastern, African, and East Asian backgrounds in the classes I observed. Olari Lukio serves several hundred students in grades 7–12. Its particular draw is an accelerated math program, and many students plan to study science, engineering, or business at university. The modestly sized history department thus offers a taste of what Finnish history education is like at a school that is academically well-reputed but more oriented to STEM than humanities.[1]

During my visit, I observed classes in Finnish history, Finnish government, and 20th-century world politics; spoke briefly to the world politics class; and talked at length with history teachers Sari Halavaara and Juha-Pekka Lehtonen. To quell the inevitable question: no, I don’t speak Finnish. Sari interpreted for me in the first class I observed; later, one of Sari’s students took me aside and summarized in English the presentation that he and a few classmates were about to deliver. Pekka taught his world politics class in a seamless blend of Finnish and English that day in order to accommodate me. Having logged many hours in high school history classrooms, I found it relatively easy to follow what was going on even when the lessons were in Finnish.

What follows is necessarily an impressionistic, personal response to my day at a Finnish high school. My visit was brief; I approached it as a high school teacher mindful of her own practice, not as an expert on educational theory; and in any case it would be risky to cite any school as a model of Finnish pedagogy. Finns usually maintain that there is no typical teaching style in Finland; the culture prizes professionalism and initiative, rather than uniformity, in its schools.[2]

That said, what struck me with overwhelming force during my visit was the extent to which Finnish teenagers are expected to assume responsibility for their own learning. This expectation is embedded in the structure of the high school program. Secondary education is modular, with several short terms per year, and students design their own programs, working from a slate of required introductory courses and toward the goal of preparing for the national matriculation exam.[3] Students preparing to take the matriculation exam in history begin with three required courses and a couple of recommended electives, but then fill out the rest of their program with independent reading and more focused electives. Olari Lukio, for example, offers history of science and a course on the history of a single city—last year, it was Prague.

The conviction that students are in charge of their own learning also shaped the basic structure of the lessons I observed: a significant portion of the teaching was done, not by teachers, but by students. For example, in an introductory class on Finnish government, taken mainly by 15- and 16-year-olds, Pekka sketched an outline of the day’s lesson on chalkboard. The topic was the executive branch; subtopics included the powers of the executive branch, its relation to the legislature, its relation to the European Union, the conduct of elections, and the leadership styles of Finland’s two most recent presidents. Divided into groups of four, students researched these topics briefly in reference books and on the Internet and then presented their findings to classmates. Inevitably, some presentations were better than others, and Pekka gently prodded certain groups to flesh out the details or deepen their analysis. In essence, he provided the intellectual structure and quality control for a lesson taught largely by students.

Other lessons, too, required not just student participation but student leadership. In a world politics class, Pekka lectured on the Cold War, pausing periodically to call on students to teach topics they had prepared independently, to invite me to comment on US perspectives, and to show video clips. In Sari’s Finnish government class, students made longer presentations on public policy questions they had been investigating for several weeks, such as Finland’s campaign against obesity and the status of the Sami in Finland. In the United States, where student-led learning is less common, although not unheard of, “class participation” usually translates into an expectation that students will contribute one-off comments to teacher-led discussions. In contrast, the Finnish lessons I observed required students to construct knowledge for themselves and participate in teaching classmates.

There are trade-offs to student-led learning, of course. The teacher-crafted lessons I deliver may plumb historical questions more deeply that a student-led lesson will do. By structuring a lesson for my students, I can model how I think about a historical question and what I consider important; I weave a good deal of historiography into my 11th and 12th grade courses, something that teenagers cannot do without considerable guidance and prompting. My brief foray into Finnish history classrooms also left me with the impression that while the Finnish curriculum is notably strong in its teaching of media literacy and data interpretation, it is less ambitious in its work with written primary sources.[4] Leading an in-depth discussion of a single primary source or scholarly article allows me to model high-level reading skills that I hope my students will absorb and emulate.

Yet my visit to Olari Lukio impressed upon me the power of the Finnish expectation that high school students should take charge of their own learning. Their classes seem to be not tidy packages of information and experience delivered to them, but structures that support students’ own relatively independent efforts to master a body of knowledge. Increasingly, I find myself looking for opportunities to relax the reins in my own classroom and give students more space in which to design, teach, and lead.

Darcy R. Fryer teaches history at the Brearley School and edits the Common School column for Common-place: The Journal of Early American Life. She thanks Sari Halavaara and Juha-Pekka Lehtonen for their hospitality and thoughtful discussion of history teaching and Sirkka McMenamin for arranging the visit.

[1] After 9th grade, Finnish teenagers choose between two types of high school, academic and vocational, each enrolling approximately half of the age group. Olari Lukio is an academic high school.

[2] The classic text on Finnish education is Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland (2nd ed., 2014). See also Timothy D. Walker’s blog about his experience of teaching 5th and 6th grade in Helsinki and Walker’s articles in The Atlantic, especially “When Finnish Teachers Work in America’s Public Schools,” November 28, 2016.  

[3] This exam, which developed out of the 19th-century entrance exam for the University of Helsinki, emphasizes languages and math, but candidates also take one or two exams in other disciplines, such as biology, chemistry, history, or civics. As Pasi Sahlberg has written, one of the fundamental values underlying the Finnish matriculation exam is that candidates should demonstrate maturity by demonstrating their ability to think and write about sensitive or challenging material.

[4] In “How Finish Adolescents Understand History: Disciplinary Thinking in History and Its Assessment among 16-Year-Old Finns,” Jukka Rantala comes to a similar conclusion: while Finnish students capably read documents and contextualize them with relevant background information, they tend to “[understand] the sources as information rather than evidence” (202). Education Sciences 2 (2012): 193–207.

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