Four veteran leaders from the Needham Public Schools joined 10 other Massachusetts educators on a recent educational tour of Finland and Estonia. Over one week, Mitchell School principal Greg Bayse, Newman School assistant principal and president of the Needham Education Association Caren Firger, assistant superintendent for student support Mary Lammi, and Needham High principal Aaron Sicotte looked at how schools perform in the context of different societies, curricula and practices. They returned with a reinvigorated appreciation for the progress Needham schools are making.
This professional development opportunity, rescheduled from October 2020, was funded by the district. The objective was to gain insight into educational best practices, gain perspective on how different cultures and other contexts impact schools, and expand professional networks with fellow travelers and leaders abroad. The group engaged with students and educators in five schools over seven days across both countries, including elementary and secondary schools and a teacher-training middle school.
“It was a jam-packed week and an unbelievable experience,” said Lammi.
Why Estonia and Finland?
Each year, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) selects 15-year-olds in more than 65 countries at random to take the PISA exam, which covers reading, math, science and critical thinking. According to the most recent scores, Estonia ranks third, Finland eighth, and the U.S. is 22nd. Although the U.S lags overall, Massachusetts ranks near the top in the world when disaggregated.
But test results are just one element. Finland is known for its focus on well-being, trust in teachers and educator autonomy. Interest in Estonian education has grown as it climbs the international rankings despite achievement gaps between Estonian- and Russian-speaking students. Estonia’s focus on digital skills and parent involvement also stands out.
Compared with more than 900,000 K-12 public school students in Massachusetts, Finland has about 500,000 and Estonia 120,000.
Estonia More Like the US
The group agreed the Estonian system is most like Needham’s, but they highlighted its grit and innovation. “[There is] a level of perseverance in Estonia and the innovative mindset of the educators despite a significant teacher shortage,” said Lammi. “They are finding creative ways to ensure students are receiving a consistent and high-quality education.”
“I was struck by the fact that a country of that size with less resources is doing so well,” said Sicotte. “They make sure that technology is thoughtfully integrated into everything they do at all levels. And Estonian educators talked about over 80 education-based startups that develop by designing within the school systems.”
Lammi said that much like Finland, Estonia trusts and empowers teachers. “The curriculum only sets the result, while teachers decide how to achieve those results. There is also a high level of trust from parents that teachers and schools will make the best decisions for their children.” She said one of the highlights of the trip was engaging with educators and leaders from Estonia who were passionate and excited to share why their schools perform so well. “They highlighted their focus on equity for all students, innovation within and beyond the classroom and technology as a lever for new possibilities for all students. It was clear that this is a school-wide focus and teachers are not just on board, they lead the way.”
Estonia’s perspective on adapting and changing public education is a notable difference with the United States. Firger quoted Taavi Kotka, an Estonian entrepreneur and tech innovator, who spoke at a ministry of Education meeting. “Countries like Estonia are like wild animals, constantly on the alert. You are forced to innovate, to do something that no one else does,” Kotka said. She reflected on the commitment and urgency that the Estonian educational system feels to develop digital literacy and media skills across the curriculum for all ages.
Finland’s Unique Culture
With Finland, the conversation centered around the unique culture in which the schools operate.
“The entire community and school culture [supports] student independence from a very young age,” said Bayse. “They are empowered to be responsible for themselves, to walk to school, to figure out their social relationships and schedules. They did not understand our level of competitiveness. For example, they don’t share school rankings.”
Bayse also noted that Finland has less income inequality. “A teacher doesn’t make that much different income than a doctor, electrician or hairdresser. So kids are freer to make career choices. And health care is universal. There is a unique culture which undergirds the educational system.”
Happiness and wellness were also key themes, as Finland ranks first on the U.N.’s World Happiness Report. “Finland focuses on the whole child and prioritizes wellness, not just academics,” said Lammi. During the recent NPS National Honor Society induction ceremony, Sicotte referenced the trip and reminded students and other attendees to balance the pursuit of academic and economic goals with happiness.
The group observed that despite a slower and more deliberate pace, students were still able to master rigorous coursework. During the tour, 11th-grade students were asked how stressed they felt on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most stressed. Most answered 2.
“We asked high school students about bullying, and they really did not even understand the concept,” said Bayse. “They wondered why they’d be stressed. It’s just school work, and you just do it.”
The NPS team was surprised to learn that 96% of Finnish high school students report not having witnessed or been a victim of bullying. “It is a remarkable atmosphere for kids to be able to feel so mentally healthy while learning,” said Sicotte. “The atmosphere in Finnish schools also felt like an extension of home — and the food was phenomenal. I miss the salmon soup.”
“[There are] real plates and silverware and cut flowers on cafeteria tables,” said Bayse, noting the slower pace. “Kids take off their shoes when they enter because why would you bring dirt into your school? In the U.S. we spend a lot of time helping students with personal management, executive functioning and organizing their supplies and belongings. We did not see that required in the schools visited. They think those things are important, they just don’t think teachers should be doing it, so that’s a cultural difference. And shoes, coats and personal items were organized in the open with no apparent concern about theft. None of the schools were even locked.”
Finnish Teachers and Students
One of the schools the group visited was a teacher training site. Aspiring teachers observe practicing teachers in groups and then discuss what they saw. Lammi explained that feedback begins with the lesson plan before a trial lesson. The upfront development of teacher competencies and skills allows teachers more autonomy down the road.
“As one example, math teachers have total control over the instruction sequence because they have clarity and coherence on desired outcomes,” said Sicotte. “That’s the norm in Finland, and parents do not compare or question it.”
“I was very impressed with the investment and approach to teacher training,” said Lammi. “Teaching is a sought-after field, with only 10% admitted to selective teacher education programs. Coursework is robust and rigorous. Practicing teachers have time to supervise student teachers, modeling with feedback sessions. They sort of flip the script in Finland.”
Finnish schools also don’t provide sports or extracurricular activities; they believe that is the role of the community. “But,” Bayse noted, “they teach hobbies and handicrafts so students will have lifelong activities to feel balanced and happy. The fear and anxiety in our culture isn’t the ethos in Finland.”
They all felt the student-led visits and interactions over lunch were the highlight of the trip. Sadly, whether in Estonia or Finland, student questions about the U.S. often centered around school shootings and why they are happening.
Pathways and Pace
The Finnish high school —“lukio” or “upper secondary” — starts at 10th grade and serves students ages 16-18. In Finland, some 68% of students choose vocational education and training (VET) for upper secondary, and the rest enroll in general education. VET is seen as a high-quality pathway to employment, often with higher salaries. At the end of general upper secondary school, students take a national school-leaving examination known as the Finnish matriculation examination. “They value vocational experiences without losing access to higher ed, said Sicotte. “They were very adamant about no dead ends for students. Everything was very open with more project-based learning. The society more evenly values the ranges of learning, interests and professions with fewer put on a pedestal.”
Firger said she was impressed with the pace of the school day at the elementary level. “I really admired the flexibility within their school day — like 45 minutes of instruction, then 15 minutes of free time, so it was less structured. Students might take a break in the hallway or work out some energy. We have breaks in Needham schools, but they are more academic and structured. While there’s a national curriculum, the teaching is entirely up to the teacher.”
Life and Career Skills Prioritized
Since the early 2000s, Finland has been pursuing “transversal competence“ areas including well-being, interaction, multidisciplinary and creative, societal, ethical and environmental, global and cultural. These skills are now explicitly taught and assessed at the upper secondary education. The group was pleased to see the similarities with the Portrait of A Needham Graduate (PONG) skills that drive the NPS 2020-25 Strategic Plan.
Each of the four shared their appreciation for the incredible experience of traveling with fellow educators with an open mind to learn. And they gained an even deeper appreciation for all we have in Needham. They shared that their pride in our schools does not inhibit the pursuit of additional improvements, whether discovered locally or abroad.
Bayse, Firger, Lammi and Sicotte will discuss their experience internally with colleagues and hope to share with the community soon via a vlog.