US STEM education system needs an overhaul. Is emulating Finland’s system the answer?

May 8, 2020



Despite the noise and discourse about the state of STEM education in the US, we have a long way to go before we solve the conundrum and emerge as the world leader.


Image credit: Pexels: Yan Krukov.

Gaëtan Salone, who is today an established engineer in a leading MNC in the Silicon Valley, cannot thank his class teacher enough for going the extra mile and helping him with his math and science. He credits his love for the subjects to his seventh grade teacher who took upon himself and coached him till he grew confident.

“I was really not enjoying my math and science till my seventh grade. It clearly showed in my performance,”

Reminisces Salone about his school days in Helsinki.

“But I was fortunate enough to have great teachers who took special care to see that I not only enjoyed the subjects but also excelled in them. We were taught not to cram to pass a test or exam, but to think analytically, question and evaluate references. I realized very early that learning hands-on and making mistakes were the first few steps to my learning process.”

“When I look back to my early education and see the kind of system my 6-year-old daughter is in right now in the US, I can clearly see the difference. I want her to love STEM subjects and probably pursue a career in technology. But I don’t see this happening here. With less focus on playful and hands-on learning, she’s getting disinterested in science and math. I can see where this will lead.”

Besides, I am paying over $25,000 annually on her school fees and this will increase as she goes to higher classes. However, this is not about the fees alone. If she gets the same special care and attention that I got in Finland back then, I would definitely rethink my decision. So, we are moving back to my roots in Helsinki next year,” tells Salone.

Salone also tells us that the amount of homework his daughter comes home with everyday does not leave her with much room for playing and relaxing after school. “When I was my daughter’s age, my homework was very minimal. Most of the days we had no homework at all. We had a lot of free time to play after school,” remembers Salone.


Image credit: Pexels: Jena Backus.

The kind of life Salone leads today in the Silicon Valley would be anybody’s envy. But his daughter’s education is his top-most priority and nothing will stop him from giving up what he has earned so far to secure the best for his child. Salone might not be going through this dilemma alone. There might be several parents from Finland, but settled in the US, contemplating on the same course of action.

Given the 2015 data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), where Finland outperformed the US in reading, math and science, this comes as no surprise. PISA is considered to be one of the most important tools to measure education systems worldwide.

So where does this scenario leave us with? Why isn’t Salone happy with the US model of STEM education? We all know about the current state of STEM education in the US and we had also discussed in detail about what needs to be done in our earlier blog.

However, very little is being done despite repeated calls for educational reform. There has been a common consensus in the US to support and promote STEM education, thus leading to several studies, commissions and task forces that have come up with numerous findings and reports. Interestingly, all the reports singled out the same problems and called for the same solutions.

If we were to look for a sustainable change, the American STEM education system needs to go for an overhaul. Perhaps emulating Finland’s education system is the answer. Considered to be one of the best education systems in the world, Finland is able to outrank the US year after year because this Nordic country has over the years revolutionized its educational system with several simple, yet novel reforms.

Let’s find out the top 3 things that educators and specialists in Finland pointed out what Finland does differently to consistently outrank the US in the field of education.


Formal schooling does not begin until age 7


Image credit: Pixabay.

Global education influencer and ALO Finland digital teacher training on Finnish education, Pirjo Suhonen, says:

“Formal schooling in Finland does not begin until age 7, when children are considered to be ready, motivated and eager to learn. Out here in Finland besides science, technology, math, literacy and language, art, music, physical education, textile and wood work are also considered important in holistic education.”

Whereas in the US, children are stuck in the K-12 circle, where they begin their formal schooling around 5 or 6 years, and the cycle continues till college. The grading system takes a toll on some students as they have to deal with tests, competitions, peer pressure and the rigmarole.


Finish education is not based on high-stakes testing


Image credit: Pexels: Anastasia Shuraeva.

Suhonen eleborates,

“Finnish education is not based on high-stakes testing or narrow curricula. Instead, play and playful learning are highly valued in Finland. Teachers do not need to stress over test results, spend tremendous amount of time in preparing children for tests or assessing them. They can create a learning environment, which supports the holistic growth and development of learners. There is a shift of focus in the curriculum from teaching students content (what to learn) to broad-based competencies (how to learn).”

“Basic education creates the conditions for lifelong learning and continuous development, which is an integral part of building a good life. Children should learn how to learn, experiment and make mistakes, not how to take tests.”

However, in the US standardized tests and exams are a part of the curriculum. This system leaves no room for a holistic growth as most of the children tend to cram and study just to pass their exams. There’s also very little focus on playful and hands-on learning early on.


Finland relies on academic, research-based teacher education


Image credit: Pexels.

Adjunct Professor (UEF), education researcher and specialist, Jyrki Loima, says:

“Finland remains to be the only European country that has fully relied on academic, research-based teacher education for its best high school students and has updated their curricula accordingly. Teacher education programs have remained very popular and universities may only take the best applicants, which is a strong pre-service quality assurance guarantee as well. Current basic education curriculum update (in force since 2016) will have less content requirements for students.”

“More attention is paid on teamwork skills, the joy of learning and interdisciplinary, project-related collaboration of the students. Skills and processes matter, not solely emphasized on test scores. Recent minor changes in teacher education programs have been holistic and constructivist, emphasizing on the individual support that learners need. Research skills are seen as important tools for teachers to improve the various learning environments they facilitate.”

In a stark contrast, a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) states that around 30 percent of physics and chemistry teachers in public high schools in the US are not well qualified in their fields and have not earned a certificate to teach those subjects.




Image credit: Pexels.

Given Finland’s education system where children start formal schooling at 7 years with more focus on playful learning and pedagogic research and child development, children don’t need to worry about competition or exams. With no private schools in Finland, there’s also the same level of education for everyone regardless of anyone’s social stature. So, parents need not worry about looking for top performing schools. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Finland’s education system outperforms other countries, including the US.

Moreover, as education is free in Finland, the student loan debt compared to the US is quite low. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s report, the student loan debt in the US amounts to $1.56 trillion, fanned out among 45 million American borrowers.

In Finland, emphasis is also laid on special education and extra care when a child fails to learn things as fast as his/her peers. A special teacher is assigned to help the slow learner. However, in the US and in other countries without the special attention, parents end up hiring private tutors to fill in the gap.

With minimal homework, children in Finland can focus on play and extra-curricular activities after school. Salone would not be planning to move out of the Silicon Valley, had his daughter got the same kind of education system that he got as a child in Finland. But we can stop the future exodus of many parents like Salone and perhaps lure Salone back to the Silicon Valley if we revolutionize our education system and bring in those simple and novel reforms that Finland had been following over the years.

About Author
Urmila, who is a Big Data and STEM enthusiast, works as the head of communications with Mand Labs. She is a believer in transformation of life and career through STEM. She can be reached on Twitter @umarak

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