Finland Travel Log: Child-Centered Preschool Programs
Below is the third in a series of posts I'm writing from Finland, as part of a trip with a delegation of U.S. education leaders. For a week, we're immersing ourselves in Finland's top-performing education system. Read Part One here and Part Two here.
My first full day in Helsinki confirmed so much of what I have read about Finland's child-centered approach to teaching and learning. Let me also offer up a few words from Linda Darling-Hammond (Stanford University), Pasi Sahlberg (Director of Finland's Center for International Mobility), Barbro Hogstrom (Director of Child Care in Education for Finland's Ministry of Education), and Dan Leeds (National Public Education Support Fund). Their words set up the context for a few of my own observations.
Pasi: We have learned so much about child development and the science of teaching and learning from American education researchers.
Linda: Teacher education is deep and intense here. It all begins with child development. It is the first class that prospective teachers take.
Linda: School does not start until age seven for children here. This is when they are ready to learn. It is not like in America, where we are now trying to force kids to learn at age three, four, and five—and when they don’t, we label them as failures. All preschool programs [in Finland] are based on what we know about play and socialization in child development.
Barbro: Playing is the way to learning.
The Finnish education system's student-teacher ratios reflect the nation's values. For children under three years old, there is a 1:4 adult-child ratio. For students between three and six years old, the ratio is 1:7. So for every 21 children there are 3 teachers—who are each fully prepared with a university degree in early childhood instruction. Soon Finland will require two-thirds of its early-childhood teachers to also have a bachelor’s or master’s in early childhood education.
Barbro was asked about quality control in early childhood education. "This is why we have teachers," she responded.
Finland is serious about being consistent research on early childhood development and learning to read. Educators here are flexible—and patient. The day care center I visited—Tuomarilan Paivakoti, funded publicly—would make Maria Montessori and advocates of the Reggio Emilia approach proud.
The school supports 90 young children for 190 days a year with 20 adults in the building. The teachers work different schedules, so that the school can open at 6:30 a.m. and close at 6:00 p.m. The teachers I observed deliberately taught colors and sorting and how to make educated guesses. They were careful to make sure the students were included and valued, despite any disability. They made a fun-filled game in their small gym an opportunity to coordinate and collaborate.
I loved watching three-year-olds, carefully supervised, serve themselves lunch (and seconds) and clear their plates. I was thrilled to see teachers not rushing them. These precious young humans were barely 36 months old. Each teacher, you could see, was so proud of their knowledge of young children and the independent and autonomous learners they are helping them to be.
Dan: You cannot translate every Finnish lesson for improving America’s public education system. But you can, like the world’s great cuisines, adapt from others and meld it with your own recipes.
I overheard many people from our U.S. delegation comment that what they saw in these high-quality day care programs in Helsinki and Espoo was similar to what they experienced with their own young children.
Is it not time to do for all children what we want for our own?