Saturday, November 5, 2011

Irmeli Halinen on Finnish Curriculum

Irmeli Halinen and me
I had the privilege of listening to Irmeli Halinen who is the head of curriculum development unit with the Finnish National Board of Education.

Background on Finnish Education
  • early years of education and care belongs to the ministry of health but is moving to the ministry of education and culture. This includes children until they are six years old. At 6, they are eligible to attend pre-primary education, and compulsory school begins for 7 year olds.
  • Formal education is not for these young children. They learn through play. Research tells us that to begin formal, systematic education for children younger than 7 is developmentally inappropriate.
  • No streaming or tracking at all.
  • Voluntary tenth year of education.
  • Basic Education goes for 10 years and then children can go an academic route (matriculation) or Vocational route.
In Finland education providers have a central role in the governance structure. Government, ministry of Education and Culture, National Board of Education and state regional organizations all work together with educators who work in schools to develop and implement school.

Minimum teaching hours for every grade (by law)
  • 19 hours for grades 1-2
  • 23 hours for grades 3-4
  • 24 hours for grades 5-6
  • 30 hours for grades 7-9 (grade 10 is optional)
Maximum daily working hours for students (by law)
  • 5 hours per day for pupils of 1-2 grades
  • 7 hours per day for pupils of 3-9 grades
Important quality indicators
  • Practically all children in Finland complete school.
  • Politicians in Finland understand how important music, visual arts, crafts, physical education and home economics are very important.
The Ethos of the Finnish Education system is built on professionalism of teachers, supportive formative assessment for student learning and high standards for all that are enabling and encouraging. In Finland, there are no instrument of inspections that control teachers from afar. In Finland, their system is built on trust.

We have two kinds of teachers in Finland. Teachers follow their children all the way from grade 1 through grade 6. In grade 7 to 9 there are subject specialists. They have very high quality training and it is very hard to get into become a teacher. It is not unheard of for only 10% of applicants to be accepted for university teacher education programs.

In Finland, half of students go the academic route and half go the vocational route; however, the vocational route is becoming more and more popular, 

All post-secondary education in Finland is paid by the government.

Every school in Finland has a special education teacher who helps teachers in their school with meeting student's needs.

Class Sizes
  • Grade 1-2: average is 20. No larger than 25
  • Grade 3, 4, 5, 6: average 25-30. No larger than 32. Efforts have been made to reduce these classes to about 15. Study groups are designed by children around subjects of their choice. These groups can be as small as 9 or as large as 30.
Curriculum and Assessment

Curriculum and assessment in Finland are intertwined and can not be separated. Three times since the 1970s, Finland has reformed their curriculum and assessment Through out these years, the common theme: growing municipal autonomy and empowerment of schools and teachers.

All parts of the Finnish system aim at supporting teaching and learning - national norms form a strong basis for local provision of education. Those at the government level really listen to teachers questions, concerns and suggestions for improving the system.

Assessment in Finland is built on self-assessment. 

There are three layers of curriculum: national, municipal and school. These curriculums are less about a finished product and more about a living process. Curriculum is not just a group of subjects - curriculum is more about what they value and their ultimate goals for their children. To do this there must be a balance between academic achievement and student welfare.

While there are some standards that are dictated at the National level, most decisions about curriculum and assessment are made at the school level.

In Finland, there are no standardized exams that test all children of a certain age and subject. However, there are national-sample based tests of learning outcomes. Because Finnish teachers do not have to waste their time on high-stakes exams, they can focus on improving their teaching and supporting student learning. This is also works as a huge financial cost savings.

In Finland, students receive grades on a scale from 4 to 10. 

Assessment in Finland is seen in three ways:
  • assessment of learning
  • assessment for learning
  • assessment as learning
Assessment as learning is becoming more and more the focus of assessment in Finland. 

Curriculum is a pedagogical, empowering tool for us. Schools cannot be intellectually challenging and socially supportive of pupils if they are not there for teachers.

Finnish teachers feel like they are respected enough to have the authority and responsibility to create and conceptualize curriculum with their students. School-based curriculum work is the process of consciously creating the operating culture of the school.

On one hand curriculum can be used for administrative and controlling purposes as a ready-made tool by experts. While on the other hand, curriculum can be a common learning process and an empowering pedagogical tool for teachers.


Learning is like navigating. We have to know where we are right now. We have to know where we want to go and how to get there. And we have to be able to read and interpret the weather conditions.

Because the world is becoming more and more complex, navigating is becoming a difficult task. This task is best undertaken together as a community rather than as individuals. But you will get lost if you try to use the map of Edmonton while navigating in Helsinki. Highly prescribed, standardized curriculums make no sense.

It is becoming more and more important for us to focus less on what we are learning in school and more on how are we going to do it.

In order to act in a competent way, you need to be able to engage in self-reflection.

Questions I asked Irmeli Halinen

Q: I asked Irmeli how often would a teacher in Finland have a grade book where the teacher has a collection of grades for homework, projects, tests, quizzes and attitude and then average those grades together in order to provide the students and parents with a final grade.

A: Her initial response was bewilderment and silence. To be clear, nothing was lost in translation; rather, the context of my question simply didn't make any sense to her. After repeating my question, her response was that in Finland they don't care as much about the numerical data. Instead, they care more about the verbal feedback that occurs between the student and the teacher. Assessment is a discussion not a spreadsheet. It's only in grade 8 when children are about 14 years old that students are by law assigned grades; however, they might receive grading as early as grade 4 when they are 8 years old, but this is a decision that is made at the local, municipality level. Irmeli also went on to say that the grades do not help children learn and often encourage them to compete with each other, which is precisely the opposite of the collaborative community Finnish classrooms are designed to be. She also went on to say that grading in Finland is not directly used with end-of year evaluations.

Q. How often do Finnish teachers create their own multiple choice tests as a means of assessing their children?

A: Her response was that rarely if ever would a Finnish teacher give a multiple choice test because they would rather have their students doing something real.


  1. Just love the Finnish system, Joe. Thanks so much for this - I'm going to ensure that all the teachers in my school read it, although I know I will provoke a torrent of real-world practical concerns about why and how they can't change anything. Unfortunately, it's not teachers who need convincing so much as those making strategic decisions.

    One thing you didn't mention is the selection process for teachers in Finland: it's tough! The status of teachers is high in Finnish society not because it pays more but because it's seen as an important and difficult job carried out by the best and brightest - and it does attract those people.

  2. Thank you. I really enjoyed reading your post. Would you have any sample self assessments to display on post? Or could you direct readers to some Finnish educators blogs to learn more? A fascinating time for educators! I am loving it!

  3. Thanks Joe for sharing the powerful quotation "Assessment is not a spreadsheet ... it's a conversation" and attributing it to Irmeli Halinen. I have created a remix slide to help other educators focus on assessment and have shared it with a Creative Commons license off my blog at:

    Take care & keep smiling :-) Brian


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