One of my friends recently sent me a link to Valerie Strauss' Washington Post article Five bad education assumptions the media keeps recycling. It is an interesting read because it brings up some interesting (controversial is always interesting!) points. I have now been in Finland for a month, and therefore feel slightly qualified to make some generalizations about the education system based on my conversations with locals. There are differences in surprising places.
"Myth" in bold. My interpretations of the Finnish mindset are in regular font.
1. American education is failing; we need to copy other countries. Many people here in Finland (in case you have missed the studies, Finnish education is considered among the best in the world while the US is not) are envious of the flexibility in the American system to allow excellent students to thrive. Their system is founded completely on the notion that everyone gets the same education, no matter what. Many Finns I talked to see this as a shortcoming because they wish that their bright students could be accelerated. The way they put it is that America is the land of extremes, where there is some of the best education in the world but also some pretty terrible education. Finland rides the middle and pushes it toward excellence.
Tests are good at measuring success, high scores are good, the goal is to outscore other countries (as opposed to just do well). Again, the main goal of the Finnish education system is to give all Finns an equally excellent education. Tests are recognized as a necessary evil to measuring this success, but they definitely do not tie teacher salaries or anything like that to their tests. In fact, when I talk to Finns about their success in education, instead of being proud of having beaten most countries on the tests, they are proud that the world has taken notice of their system, which they believe to be working even without the PISA test scores. Seriously, they are happy that they can provide a good education for everyone and just treat the PISA success as a cool thing that makes them known to big countries (they only have ~5 million inhabitants).
3. Schools exist to increase global economic competitiveness. This is VERY un-Finnish. For them, the words 'civilize' and 'educate' are synonymous, so school is a place that people go pretty much just for their own self-improvement. They believe so strongly that everyone should be able to have a good education that free public education for all is guaranteed in their constitution!
4. Students go to school to increase their earning potential. Again, Finnish education is about self-improvement. The country fully supports everyone's chance to have this by providing subsidized student housing, student stipends, and free university education instead of providing the massive loans that most US students have to pay back.
5. Working hard is a key to high performance, even at the cost of happiness. I doubt anyone here agrees with that. School does not start until the kids are 7 and it goes for 9 years; before that they are in a variety of day care (päiväkoti) that emphasizes play-based learning. Also, the kids in those centers are required to have at least 3 outside recesses per day (even in winter!), and it is the parents' responsibility to make sure that the student is appropriately attired. Furthermore, the Finnish school day is much shorter than even the American day.