What is Finlands education system doing right?

What is Finlands education system doing right?

Inspiring article by Jodi Grant on After School Alliance about Finlands world leading education system. It goes against the standard idea of what education should be. They focus on the importance of play, choicem there are no private schools, tough teacher selection process and little testing. And they have one of the best education systems in the world. Amazing!



What is Finland Really Doing Right?

By Jodi Grant

This post was co-written by our Excutive Director Jodi Grant and STEM Policy Director Anita Krishnamurthi.

Last month we were delighted to be invited to attend a breakfast at the Finnish Embassy featuring Dr. Pali Sahlberg, the director of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki; Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; and Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the president on education.  Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss moderated the panel.

Finland has been receiving a flurry of attention from education stakeholders and reformers for consistently standing out as one of the strongest school systems in the world.   We were eager to hear what the Finns thought was the key to their success.

Dr. Sahlberg began by saying that Finland never set out to be the best, they just wanted to improve and do better by their children.  This benchmark comes from a philosophically different place than the international competition that drives most of our debate on this issue.  He proceeded to describe the other social issues Finland has worked on to ensure children and youth have a fair shot: their child poverty rate is 4 percent, compared to 22 percent in the United States; they are ranked first in child health and well-being while the United States is ranked 29th; and, their income inequality is also much lower.  He also stressed that equity played a major role in their re-think—they determined that the notion of private schools where people can opt out of the system and private funding of education is not compatible with an equitable system.  Consequently, there are no privately funded schools in Finland.  Finland also boasts an incredibly selective teacher recruitment and training process.  Only 5 percent of applicants are selected for a master’s program in education, which is required to become a teacher.

As the U.S. debates how long our school days should be, Finland offers a sobering example of why that cannot be the only solution.  Children in Finland do not start school until they are 7 because the Finns believe that learning to play is extremely important—it teaches children how to get along with each other, to pay attention and focus, and to be imaginative—all qualities they think are essential to child and youth development.  The country has one of the shortest school days around, teachers give minimal homework and testing is rare. They strongly believe that you test a small sample of schools to see how well a model is working and you ask the teachers to assess how the students are doing.  One of the points Dr. Sahlberg made that really resonated was “Accountability is what is left when responsibility is taken away.”

The Finns strongly believe that children need to have opportunities outside of school and academics to develop into healthy, well-adjusted adults.  Seventy percent of their students participate in activities run by NGOs that offer sports, music, art and other enrichment activities (and he expressed grave concern that this number was not higher!).  They fully believe that these activities have merit on their own and should be separate from the school day—he actually mentioned the words “youth development” several times!  Sadly, in the United States less than 20 percent of our children are in afterschool programs, and youth development is not valued as highly as it is in Finland.  Afterschool programs are under constant pressure to demonstrate how they impact academic success of students.

Dr. Sahlberg spoke at length about the difference between Finland’s approach and that of the Global Education Reform Movement, which he abbreviates to “GERM.”

Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) FINLAND
Competition Collaboration
Standardization Individualization
School Choice Equity—all schools receive public funding and legislation forces them to collaborate. They don’t compete against one another
Test-Based Accountability Trust-Based Professionalism
Dr. Sahlberg stressed that the U.S. and many other countries are “infected” by the GERM model while Finland has moved to eradicate the GERMs.  He gave us five lessons that he thought the United States could learn from Finland:
  1. More collaboration, less competition
  2. More trust-based responsibility—less test-based accountability
  3. More pedagogy, less technology
  4. More equity, less privatization
  5. More professionalism, less social experimentation
The description of the Department of Education’s signature reform, Race to the Top, that followed Dr. Sahlberg’s presentation strikingly illustrated how GERM-ridden we are, with a focus on high-stakes testing and steep penalties for schools and teachers whose students do not perform well on these tests.  Afterschool programs are not immune, as they are often only considered valid if they can improve test scorers rather than being evaluated on a host of measures that show growth of the whole child.  Sadly there was no real dialogue about the presentations and how we might incorporate the best practices of the holistic Finnish model into our education reform efforts.

We left the breakfast feeling both elated and depressed.  Finland shows what is possible—they set out to improve a failing system and have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.  There are clearly lessons from Finland that support all the great things our afterschool programs are providing to American students in the hours after school.  There are clearly lessons learned from Finland that can help us demonstrate the value of the informal nature of the afterschool space.  There are clearly multiple ways to measure our students’ success that do not rely on test scores.  But there are also clearly some big barriers and challenges ahead and for now none of the real lessons from Finland are in policy maker’s textbooks.


The Future of Innovation- Tim Brown

I can’t remember how I came across Tim Brown from IDEO, probably from one of his great talks.
Here’s one on the future of innovation at Acumen. It was really helpful when I started looking at how design and enterprise could help people.
Some nuggets
  • Use information to connect
  • Solve for the system- look at the context, design not just the product also business models
  • Trust builds market- Holistic design is not just about design but also about accountability
  • Brands bring trust
  • Set up kiosks and do experiments for a day- test viability
  • No idea will scale unless it solves real needs for real people
The Civic Shop_ shopping for good

The Civic Shop_ shopping for good

Based in the new wing of Somerset House the Civic Shop is a retail space that “showcases the work of a new generation of civic activists and social designers – inventors of new public spaces, new economies and champions of public good in everyday life.” It is run by a group of people looking at ways to reframe our everyday experiences, socially and physically. The group includes, Cassie Robinson, Snook,Women’s Engineering Society and Future Gov.


They explore and question the relationship between the commercial and civic sphere. By civic they refer to public space and how that is becoming more and more privatised and commercialised today. Community centres and public libraries are shutting down, even town squares are being closed off. Civic functions are starting to take notes from corporate spheres in order to increase “efficiency” and “productivity”.

The store is designed to encourage people to explore questions such as “Has the world of commerce encroached too much on our civic spaces, and how much do we care?” There are items for sale as well as things that are free and the money generated goes back to the causes that inspired the products. It is interesting that they use a familiar typology, retail, as a way to engage and inform the public about social and civic initiatives as well as to question what is happened around us. Cassie also makes a weekly podcast, which explores the wider discourse.


Here are some of the participants

A-Z Genova Project

A-Z Genova Project– 26 Urban interactions in 2 days. The project explored Genova as a city in decline, where the built environment is increasingly seen as a challenge. The interest was in how interpretation shapes our reality, and ways to adapt perception to mediate change. Taking inspiration from an Italian phrase used to call for change, “Cambiare dalla a alla zeta / Change from a to z”, the city was framed using the alphabet. Each letter identifying theme of the city, with an interaction created to make a new perspective. For example the response for G for Gardens was to create mini gardens.

A-Z genova project

Dearest Scotland

Dearest Scotland is an apolitical campaign crowdsourcing future visions of Scotland for a common good. They ask people to write a letter “dearest Scotland” to the future citizens of the country. Be it literal, fictional, poetic or metaphoric. Run by Snook in Glasgow, letters are collected, published and shared with the world. The aim is to give citizens a platform to share their thoughts and voice that is often not shown in the media. They recently successfully ran a crowdfunding campaign to raise £10,000 of funding to publish a book of Dearest Scotland letters.



Started by the Noun Project, KindSigns is a movement using signage as a force for good. The Noun Project is on a mission to create, share and celebrate the worlds visual language. They started KindSigns a series of open sourced design workshops where participants get the chance to create their own personalised KindSign and place it at a location they choose and inspire others around them.


Mariana Amatullo_ Interview at Impact Design Hub

Mariana Amatullo_ Interview at Impact Design Hub

with a sense of new mastery comes the realization that a boundless set of possibilities open up…and you do wish to do your best to honor that promise.


I recently saw this brilliantly insightful interview of Mariana Amatullo on Impact Design Hub. Mariana Amatullo speaks of designing for social change and impact and imparting on young designers the skills needed to do this.

Marian Amatullo is a writer, educator, speaker and student of design and social impact. She is Vice President and co-founder of the Design Matters department at At Center College of Art and Design. Her practice focuses on the intersection of design and social innovation.

Some excerpts from the interview

Mariana on the effect of social impact design projects failing

In the design for international development arena for example, we can point to a number of “shiny objects” and programs designed with all the best intentions that have failed; they do leave an open wound for all of us. For me they stand out as a reminder of why it is a good idea to not be timid or apologetic, but informed and thoughtful in this space.

On the Safe Agua Initiative a project where students travel to low-income communities in Latin america and co-create to design innovative technical solutions that aim to over come some of the social issues that come from water poverty.

The initiative has resulted in award-winning products and incubated student-led social enterprises, which has been remarkable. But it has also pushed us to experiment with different frameworks for collaboration, field research and participatory design methods that have been quite influential across the board in our undergraduate curriculum.  

Her thoughts on 5 things we know about working in the world of social innovation

1. Interdisciplinary collaboration is the name of the game.

2. The ability to learn from mistakes matters.

3. This is not work for the faint of heart.

4. Social innovation work can surprise you—for how addictive it is.

5. (And my all-time favorite): The sky’s the limit!

Mariana’s 5 things we have yet to know about the working world in social innovation

1. Design for scale.

2. Deal with the importance of measurement and evaluation.

3. Keep designers involved in the implementation of the social innovation.

4. Open up more entry points and design pipelines for the next generation of designers to contribute.

5. Overcome resource constraints and pay designers (handsomely) for this work.

Check out the rest of the interview on Impact Design Hub’s blog

Taking it to the street

Taking it to the street

Lately I’ve been exploring  some really interesting projects and organisations that have a focus on community and empowering young people to get out there and change their environment. Encouraging learning by doing. I’ve compliled a list of the projects I’ve discovered so far, here’s Part 1. They are definitely worth checking out!

building hero project 4

The Building Hero project

Building Hero Project in Philadelphia empowers young people to be community change makers and leaders, by educating them in design and entrepreneurship. The group meet a couple of weekday afternoons at the department of Making + Doing in West Philadelphia. They aim to make their neighbourhoods better places to live through design, so public spaces are central to the program. The ‘heroes’ learn through designing, making and selling products that improve public spaces, homes and everyday lives.  For example one bench was originally designed to be put in neighbourhoods that lacked public space. A really simple way to transform public space.

The Building Hero project has an interesting and highly sustainable funding model. They sell the products designed on their highly successful Etsy store. The money raised from the Etsy store means that they are able to fund the program, covering material and tool costs, pay a Building Hero and help the program grow.

project m

Project M 

Started in Alabama, Project M goes by the tag line “thinking wrong”. Inspired by architect Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio, graphic designer John Bielenberg started the program to inspire designers,and creatives from a range fo fields to use their work to positively impact communities.

Similar to the Building Hero Project participants are encouraged to experience being social entrepreneurs by going out there and making. Not to wait for permission or a project. . The sessions run for two- four weeks with a groups of 10 people, and there are shorter projects 48 hour “blitzes”. The groups have to identify a problem and solve it. By finding something that is meaningful, something they are passionate about and figure out a way to do it. The resulting projects include Pie Lab, a space for conversation and design. It started small as with Project M members standing in a street corner and handing out slices of pie to passers-by with the idea to spur community and conversation, one slice at a time. It has since grown to a local cafe with a space for designers.

Tog studio
Tog Studio is a live-build summer school, started by Scottish architecture and engineering graduates to meet the gaps in traditional education. The emphasis is on practical building skills and collaboration on real life projects in beautiful locations.

Tog is a gaelic word that means ‘build’ ‘raise’ educate and ‘excite’. Their projects aim to inspire self builders, in 2013 the team built a boathouse for the Tiree Maritime trust.

I find these projects so inspiring. Their real life problem solving initiatives and balance of education, action and entrepreneurship is wonderful to see and the positive impacts they are making in their communities.


If you know of other interesting projects let me know and I’ll check them out! And keep an eye out for Part 2 🙂


Quote // What change are you trying to make?

Quote // What change are you trying to make?

It has never been easier to figure out who your audience is, who you’re gonna change and what work you’re gonna do that’s gonna matter

“what change are you trying to make in your customers and in their work? change in a way that creates more beauty, change that create more difference, its more important that we do work that’s important than work thats pretty”

Seth Godin, Creative Mornings talk

John Habreken } participating in the built environment

John Habreken } participating in the built environment

Lovely documentary on Dutch Architect, theorist and professor John Habreken. He wrote a book The Supports and the People: The End of Mass Housing», where he questioned the role of the architect saying it should be about creating “supports” to be “infilled” by the individual occupant instead of the perceived all-knowing designer. It’s the idea of bottom up small-scale interventions made by people themselves.

It was interesting when he spoke about the first book, writing it without images “the truth can do without imagery.” He later made another version with diagrams and talked about the way people started to project their own world view into those diagrams.

He made great strides in promoting housing as an interesting typology and involving the users in the design process.

Participation is a paternalistic term because it implies that professionals make the world and they are willing to let the people in. The reality is it is the other way round. There is the built environment that has its own laws and has been around  for thousands of years… To what extent can the architect participate to make it better. It’s not participation of the people in the work of the architect.

There is a new dialogue with the reality of a building and the professional role. If we get feedback from it and can understand this we begin to ask ourselves what is the intervention the architect can make?

The Empowerment Plan

The Empowerment Plan

An inspiring example of how design and entrepreneurial thinking can make a positive social impact from the Detroit based Empowerment Plan, started by Veronika Scott, a 24 year old entrepreneur and product designer. Veronika has designed a a coat that turns into a sleeping bag for the homeless. But its more than that. She has created an organisation employs women that are homeless and sleeping in shelters, providing them with and income and hope. As she describes a woman once told her “coats are pointless we need jobs.”

sleep bag

It reminds me of a quote from Mohammad Yanus “when I see a problem I create a business to solve it.”

Find out more at http://www.empowermentplan.org/