photoOne of the key issues that is always discussed when talking about the Finnish education system is the elevation of the teaching profession and teacher pre-service training. These are, most assuredly, aspects of the system that should be discussed. Finland has elevated the profession on par with doctors and lawyers. In so doing, they have reserved the slots in teacher colleges for elite students.

Part of this process was reducing the number of teacher education programs by 80 percent to allow for better alignment, consistency in instruction capacity and practice, and allow for more uniformity in Finnish classrooms. Teachers are trained to use and analyze data, to do their own field-based research, and implement research-based practices in their classrooms.

The pre-service system is heavy on theory and content. Over the first three years, students build that foundation before entering the classroom to student-teach in their last year in college. All Finnish teachers have a master’s degree. This sort of uniform and rigorous training allows teachers to have greater autonomy. Every discussion that I had with higher education and education officials focused in on this key issue of teacher autonomy. This is obviously something that American teachers crave and feel that they do not have because of the constraints of NCLB and in particular our current testing regimes.

The Finnish system, for lack of a better compound word, is teacher-centric. This is an important concept. This teacher-centric focus on high-quality training, pedagogy, research-based instruction, and elevation of the profession has helped Finland become one of the highest performing systems in the world. Couple the teacher-centric focus with the culture, vision, and transparency I wrote about in my last blog and it creates a powerful equation to drive results. This is all true and should be celebrated.

Now comes the but…

My observations and my conversations with key stakeholders also began to expose a barrier to moving the Finnish system forward. It is a rigid system that does not support innovation well.

There have been movements towards a more student-centric model. Helsinki schools are leading this charge with the creation of e-campus. The cornerstones of e-campus are portfolio-learning, a culture of creative and collaborative learning, and an approach called phenomenon-based learning (think interdisciplinary project-based learning). This movement in Helsinki comes on the cusp of a new national curriculum in 2016 built on the notion of student-centrism. These new approaches to learning are supported by the business community and economic forums and to some degree being met with resistance by teaching professions that see it as an assault on their autonomy. This must all sound ever so slightly familiar, correct?

In so many ways the movement in Finland is directly analogous to the push in the United States around personalized learning. Finland, to their own admission, lacks the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of the United States. Their economy is still relatively flat post the worldwide recession post 2008.

They know that to stay on top of the educational rankings and more importantly, to prepare their children to propel their economy, they need to shift their system from the teacher-centrism of the last several decades to a student-centric, student-driven system. Again, does this sound familiar? It was startling and fundamentally interesting to me that Finland and the United States were struggling with many of the same issues. The want to move to a student-centered approach but the difficulty in making that shift from providing the right capacity-building for teachers, engaging the right stakeholders, engaging parents, and empowering students to take control of their learning.

Systems perpetuate themselves, and each country, Finland and the United States, are trying to break out of the constraints of legacy, history, and inertia. I do have to fundamentally give Finland credit for proposing a shift from a teacher-centric national curriculum to a student-centric curriculum and aligned approach. This is a difficult shift and particularly difficult if you are on top as Finland is. We, too, can make this shift. We need to in order to be an economically viable leader in the future.


Read more about Matt’s trip to Finland:



scared-of-future-educationWhen I started at KnowledgeWorks almost a year ago, “strategic foresight” was a new concept to me. I had seen the KnowledgeWorks future forecast and thought through what the future of learning could look like, but my understanding of “forecasting” was limited to the Weather Channel telling me whether it was supposed to rain.

In May, I had the opportunity to learn more about strategic foresight when I took a leap out of my comfort zone and attended the Institute for the Future’s 2015 Ten Year Forecast Retreat. I’ve sat through plenty of conferences discussing how to tweak our education system to push it toward improvement, so trying to wrap my head around the education implications of Application Program Interface (API), block chain, and the seven economies that give structure to our world was mind-bending to say the least.

As much as I wish I could write a clear piece on how the corporate, consumer, creative, collaborative, civic, criminal, and crypto economies are going to be shaping education in 10 years, I still haven’t really wrapped my head around what those words even mean. I highly recommend looking to Katherine Prince’s reflections for deeper insight on the educational implications.

Along with major brain overload, I left the retreat with a revelation that I can fully comprehend and that I hope all involved in education and policy will start to take note of, as well.

First of all, our world is advancing very quickly, and while that can sound a little scary, that kind of fear is misdirected. The real scary idea is that our system of education – and the politics surrounding it – is not innovating even close to quickly enough to keep up with the reality of today, let alone the reality of 2025.

A lot has changed in the education world since 2005, regardless of whether or not we see it when we walk into a classroom. Most, if not all, of the students have always known smart phones, the internet, and social media and probably never had to use those things called Encyclopedias on research papers. There are innovative programs and schools that have popped up in the last 10 years that keep up with the reality of what it means to be prepared for tomorrow’s careers. Students are encouraged to focus on STEM classes to be competitive in the job market.

However, when I flash back to my time in high school, compared to my recent teaching experiences, I don’t see those changes in the education system.

When I walked into my first kindergarten class, an overhead projector was the most advanced piece of technology students could interact with (and by interact with, I mean look at). Students were leaving that K-8 school for high school without knowing how to type, let alone use the internet for research. Sure, my students were learning math and reading, but so were students in the 80s. Technology, progress, and future education’s potential weren’t even an option for my students.

And while there are future-ready schools that are willing to break from tradition to push children’s potential, they are often only available to students from well-off families. Game-changing innovation is happening and technology is advancing exponentially, but for the most part, it is reserved for the privileged and wealthy. Schools similar to the one where I taught are sliding farther and farther from the cusp of innovation.

I’m left frustrated with the system that too many students are being pushed through. As long as education conversations are dominated by the constant fights over the same controversial topics, we stall progress in public education, and the wealthy are able to race ahead with students prepared for the jobs of the future. Without the education community’s investment in the drastic transformation required to prepare all students for the future, education in 2025 looks devastatingly inequitable.

My experience at the IFTF retreat grounded me in the fact that my work in education is not about responding to the squeaky wheel, helping the rich get richer, or creating more stability for those with power. This work has to be about addressing the desperate reality that if our system doesn’t change soon, this country will continue find that the gap between the haves and have-nots will continue to grow until it is insurmountable.



Finland’s Educational Focus: Well-Being + Deep Learning

by Matt Williams June 29, 2015

I’ve wondered for a few years: what makes the Finnish Education System tick? As I’ve mentioned in my last blog, I trended towards being dismissive of what the Finns had built. What could the United States truly learn from Finland? Maybe, I thought, Vermont could learn something from the Finns. Finland was, after all, educational […]

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What Might Expand Job Mobility in Disrupted Suburbs?

by Katherine Prince June 26, 2015

This is the third of a five-part blog series on creating equitable and vibrant learning ecosystems for all students, no matter where they live. Louisiana’s statewide Jump Start program prepares high school students for careers via a career-ready diploma. It uses a unique point system, whereby participants earn graduation index points that correlate directly with the […]

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A Collective Commitment to Quality Early Childhood Education for All

by Guest Post June 24, 2015
Thumbnail image for A Collective Commitment to Quality Early Childhood Education for All

“What is required is a sense on the part of all of us that what happens to those kids matters to me — even if I never meet them.” Since yesterday headlines have been filled with President Barack Obama’s use of the n-word during an interview with comedian Marc Maron on his popular “WTF with […]

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What might make urban dropout rates plummet?

by Katherine Prince June 24, 2015

This is the second of a five-part blog series on creating equitable and vibrant learning ecosystems for all students, no matter where they live. Ever Forward Club is a community-based club operating in Oakland, California, that helps young men, particularly underserved and at-risk young men of color, foster emotional maturity and overcome the hyper-masculinity code that […]

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