Monday, June 27, 2016

Homework: Comparing to Finland

Today I had two different friends share this same video on Facebook. It is a video comparing homework assigned in Finland and homework in the U.S. I hope you'll take a minute (literally) to watch it...

If you've been following my blogging over the past year, you'll know that I have a lot of concerns about the way teachers (often) assign homework in the U.S. The short version: I think that an awful lot of the work that is assigned is "crappy homework" that doesn't actually do what teachers think it does. We can do better, and I've been reading and thinking about this as I have time. Here are a few ideas for how we could improve homework.

I really appreciate that people are becoming more broadly aware of what Finland is doing in terms of education, and I truly appreciate the calls for looking to Finland for suggestions of education reforms in the U.S. as well. Finland does many things almost opposite of what we are doing in terms of education here in the U.S.--reducing homework, increasing recess time,  revising curriculum to include more topics that connect to students interests, increasing teacher pay and requiring all teachers to earn a Masters degree.


Now that I've said that, there are a couple of problems with saying, "Let's just do it like Finland..."
  1. Finland has a much, much smaller population than the U.S. (About 5.5 million compared to 321 million in the U.S.) Why does this matter? It means Finland has about 1 million school-aged kids, while the U.S. has about 80 million, give or take a couple million. This is a problem of scale! Scale alone does not preclude making sweeping educational changes, of course, but there is a second problem we should consider...
  2. Finland is basically a mono-culture, and the U.S. is not. Finland has very small minority populations, very low poverty rate, and about 90% of the population speaks Finnish. (Less than 80% of U.S. residents speak English as their first language.) You can check out the detailed statistics for yourself from the CIA World Factbook: Finland and United States entries. This means that it is, again, not impossible, but much more complicated to make sweeping educational changes in the U.S.
  3. Okay, one more thing to think about: there is a strain of anti-intellectualism in the U.S. today that is simply not present in Finland. Remember what I mentioned about Finland's teachers before? Teachers in Finland have to compete to get into a teacher preparation program (there are only a handful in the whole nation), and it is a competition to get in. The programs are highly selective--they only take the brightest and best teacher candidates. And then they require them to earn a Masters degree. But then, they compensate their teachers very well, and treat them with a dignity and esteem all too often lacking for teachers here in the U.S. Why bring this point up? Well...I'm a little cynical...but I sometimes wonder if a nation like Finland can do away with homework and increase recess time for students...because they have better teachers overall? What if the teachers themselves are just that much more effective, that they really help the students learn the material?
Food for thought for you, I hope.

"Welcome to Finland" by Timo Newton-Syms [CC BY-SA 2.0]


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Tom. I figured you might approve. ;-)

  2. Thanks for sharing the news and helping us to understand the comparing Finland and the US isn't apples to apples. Certainly doesn't mean we can't improve.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Ed! I do think Finland's approach seems very effective, and there are things that the U.S. could adopt that would strengthen our educational system overall. However, the same could be said of South Korea's educational system (which also produces very high-achieving students!) but their approach overall is more about drill and practice, and rote learning, and LOADS of homework. Again, a smaller population, and much more homogeneous...but a radically different approach. I would not be too thrilled to see the U.S. adopt many of those kinds of practices...

      Much to think about! And definitely room for continued improvement here in the U.S., I think...

    2. Dave, I've taught several international students from Korea in the last 20 years, some of whom have had lengthy discussions with me regarding their school system in South Korea vs. that of the United States, and they all prefer our method of study because they actually feel like they are learning, not just memorizing facts. Rote memory might work well for some students, but I'd much rather have my students love learning than be good at memorizing. I hope we won't adopt that educational style ever.

      And regarding the masters...I personally know too many teachers who have their masters in the U.S. who are sub-par teachers. Maybe if there were actually some real benefit to having your masters in education in a K-12 system (other than a very minimal increase in pay), I might be enticed to get mine. 'Til then, I'll spend my time supporting kids at games, concerts, and plays, building relationships with my current and former students. Hope you're well, my Dordt choir friend.

    3. By the way, that comment should have said it was from Michelle Wynia...not sure why it now says "unknown".

    4. Hi Michelle! Thanks for taking the time to comment! I fully agree with you about distaste for the rote-memorization approach. Ugh--what a great way to squash any love of learning, curiosity, wonder, and joy! Memorization may still have a place in education, but I hope it's always in the service of understanding.

      You're quite right about the fact that there are many sub-par "Master" teachers out there; it's a shame, really. In the end, furthering education only benefits those who are really interested in improving their teaching practice. If they are only in it for the ever-so-modest bump on the pay scale, and not for true *learning*, there isn't much gain for it. I think (in the case of Finland, at least) the cultural expectation of teachers improving their knowledge, skills, and dispositions for excellent teaching associated with furthering education is the more significant difference. The Finns seem to place a much higher value on the teaching profession overall than the American public seems to. They seem to have elevated the professionalism of their cadre of educators, and this is something I think is lacking in American education on the whole. It's too easy for teachers to settle for being average to awful, rather than expecting them to start strong and only get better!

      My thoughts for now, but always subject to revision and somewhere-on-the-road-to-sanctification. :-)