Learning Matters

Staff Writer Christopher Wrenn on the Finnish education system.

Besides my place at Night & Day Studios, I work as a writing professor; I teach part-time, mostly as a hobby, one or two classes a term. I like teaching because I am convinced that anyone with a willingness to work can become a strong writer. However, there is one point of frustration that I face each term, the fact that many students are more interested in their grades than the value of learning.

Granted, I understand this; I graduated with a 4.0 and even took the time to retake a class in which I received a B+ to ensure that I kept my perfect grade point average. However, when I think back on my education now, my grades never cross my mind and not one employer has ever asked about my scores. It’s easy for students to miss the really important elements of scholastics — actual learning — in the quest to achieve a letter or number in their classes.

If it was up to me (which ultimately it is not) I wouldn’t give my students grades at all. That is the reason I was recently fascinated to read about the education system in Finland. Finnish students are consistently among the top performers in PISA evaluations (the United States usually rides somewhere in the middle), but most take only three tests, exit exams, in all their years of education.

So, what is being done differently? A few things: instructors at every level have Master’s degrees, classrooms are kept much smaller than those in most other nations, there are no grades given, and there is a specific focus on personalizing education. But many people cite another difference as the key factor: all schools in Finland are publicly — and equally — funded, so that every student gets the same educational opportunities. There are no private schools, and an elementary in a rural area receives the same kind of federal funding as an urban institution.

Also they have a guiding principle that we share here at Night & Day Studios: learning should be fun, not stressful. The construct of a grading system creates competitiveness, and often demoralizes students who feel they can’t achieve a specific score. Each term I see students drop out, not because they can’t succeed, but because they simply lose heart.

Obviously Finland is much smaller than the United States; its national population amounts to fewer people than some of our cities and so it is unlikely that everything working there would translate to the U.S. However, their system serves as a meaningful reminder that we can rethink our approach to education and find ways to make learning its own value. When we get there, the rest takes care of itself.