Filling the Gap by Joel Josephson

by Guest Author, Joel Josephson


Learning timeAs educators we are more than constantly frustrated by the interference of academics (with little or no experience of the teaching of children), politicians and administrators with little or no direct pedagogic experience in the education process.

Their solution to raising educational standards, almost globally, is to test children as a way to weed out bad teachers, so that children get good teachers. This testing regime flies in the face of all conceived notions of how to teach and motivate children to attain and learn.

But why do the powers that be, completely ignore reality and disrespect educators. It is even worse, they constantly zip of to Finland and other successful educational systems and then find a million reasons, ‘Why it wont work here’.

We know that testing of children produces failure, stress, teaching to the test, not learning or even more importantly today, learning how to learn.

But how did we get to this, why has education slipped out of the grasp of professional educators and in to the hands of amateurs?

I do not think there is a single answer, but I do think that educators are perceived to have left a vacuum in educational pedagogic theory and a vacuum is always filled, even with toxic ideas. From a scientific standpoint it is obvious that education is a social science without any clear room for a single ‘Law’. The children represent even more parameters than the possible teaching theories, from academic homes, deprived homes, immigrants, gifted, with special needs etc etc etc.

So without a ‘General law’ or even agreement on how to teach, we cannot prove that our ideas and methods are any better than the politicians.

I am going to use the Finnish school system as the nearest thing we have to a ‘General law’ to see the different methods they use to achieve the most successful school system on the planet. Finnish children consistently come top or very close to the top for science, reading and mathematics


  • The national curriculum is only broad guidelines


  • All teachers in Finland must have a masters degree, which is fully subsidized.
  • Teachers are selected from the top 10% of graduates. (In 2010, 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots)
  • Teachers only spend 4 hours a day in the classroom, and take 2 hours a week for “professional development”
  • Experienced teachers are paid at similar levels to other graduates
  • Teachers are given the same status as doctors and lawyers


  • Finnish children don’t start school until they are 7
  • They rarely take exams or do homework until they are well into their teens
  • The children are not measured at all for the first six years of their education
  • There is only one mandatory standardized test in Finland, taken when children are 16
  • All children, clever or not, are taught in the same classrooms
  • Finland spends around 30 percent less per student than the United States
  • Elementary school students get 75 minutes of recess a day
  • 30 percent of children receive extra help during their first nine years of school
  • Finally, Finnish children spend less hours in school than most other developed nations

Reference link to the OECD data:,3746,en_2649_39263238_45897844_1_1_1_1,00.html

General Law

So lets try to build a ‘General Law’ or should it be called the Finnish Law. But before we go there we should remember that this huge advance in Finland occurred in the 70s before that they achieved average results and were not a wealthy or innovative country. This was a conscious change.

1. They started to change their system with the teachers and built a ‘Trusting’ regime were teachers are considered, and are, top professionals in their field. They respect the teachers abilities by letting them teach as they see fit, not to a rigorous, test orientated curriculum. The teachers work together and collaborate all day, every day, gaining support, and ideas.

2. Respecting early childhood as the base for all further human and learning development and allowing children to PLAY, learn to learn and discover how to become responsible members of society

3. Taking the stress out of primary and secondary education. There is no testing of the children or the teachers, there is very little homework, there is loads of support to overcome difficulties, loads of time to play, lots of bright committed, well-trained teachers who have the responsibility for their own teaching.

So what is the ‘General Law’ we can arrive at from this brief study?

Good effective education requires: Trust. Respect. Play, Learning to learn, Support.

Teach the teachers, very well. After you train them, trust them, respect them and leave them alone to do the job they are committed to.

Let babies and toddlers have a childhood free from ‘Teaching’. Provide them with opportunities to learn how to learn. Let them arrive hungry at the dinner plate of education with healthy appetites.

Children learn best in a stress free environment, without tests, lots of support (so it is difficult to fail or be a failure), lots of play, lots of great teachers.

Are our societies ready to implement this simple ‘General Law’ can politicians believe their own eyes?

Joel Josephson is the initiator/partner in 17 innovative European language projects. Joel is well known for his exciting and effective approaches to motivate language learners. Joel runs theEU_Educators Facebook group, that is sharing EU projects globally. He also founded the Kindersite Project early learning website, one of the first effective sites for schools. Formerly involved in high tech at the start of the Internet, he had 2 successful start-ups and consulted to technology companies. He has brought his understanding of technology into education by initiating many interesting projects with innovative uses of ICT. His Twitter handle is @acerview54.

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What are your thoughts?

Shelly Terrell

Shelly Sanchez Terrell (@ShellTerrell) is an award winning digital innovator, an international speaker/consultant, and the author of Hacking Digital Learning with EdTech Missions, The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers, and Learning to Go. She has trained teachers and taught English language learners in over 20 countries as an invited guest expert by organizations, like the US Embassy, UNESCO Bangkok, Cultura Inglesa of Brazil, the British Council in Tel Aviv, IATEFL Slovenia, HUPE Croatia, ISTEK Turkey, and Venezuela TESOL. She has been recognized by several organizations and publications as a leader in the movement of teacher driven professional development as the founder and organizer of various online conferences, Twitter chats, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Two of the projects she co-organized were shortlisted for ELTons, #ELTChat and the Virtual Round Table Language and Technology online conference. She was named Woman of the Year by the National Association of Professional Women, awarded a Bammy Award as a founder of #Edchat, and named as one of the 10 Most Influential People in EdTech by Tech & Learning. Her greatest joy is being the mother of baby Savannah and Rosco the pug. Shelly has an Honors BA in English with a Minor in Communication and a specialization in Electronic Media from UTSA, a Masters in Curriculum Instruction ESL from the University of Phoenix, and a CELTA from CELT Athens. She regularly shares her tips for effective technology integration via Twitter (@ShellTerrell),, and on her blog,, which has won several awards and recognitions as one of the top ESL, Edtech and Elearning blogs. Find over 400 of her slide presentations at


  1. Great blog, Joel. A quick question, though: you state that only the top 10% of graduates in Finland can become teachers. How is their aptitude or potential measured? Is it their skill at teaching, or is it their knowledge as subject experts? And, doesn’t this in part contradict the earlier point about assessment?

    Other than that, couldn’t agree more.

    • Brendan thank you very much.

      I do not know the exact process. I do know that all applicant teachers have to have a graduate degree. I will ask my Finnish contacts, see if they know.

      I would think that there is a difference between assessing adult graduate students, and assessing children?

  2. Joel, very inspirational blog. Thank you. We are thinking in very similar way. I presented your blog yesterday at our school meeting and there were very emotive discussion. Great! dasa.

  3. This was a breath of fresh air, Joel. You are bringing up really critical issues.

    PLAY is certainly the way kids learn – but how are teachers trained to manage play? I watch a lot of nursery and primary school classes. The main purpose of the nursery classes seems to be to prepare the kids to be able to sit at desks in first grade and listen to the teacher. I haven’t seen any planned, structured play where the teacher is there chatting and extending the children’s language. I keep wondering if it is happening in the times I’m not at school but…. I have my doubts.

    Then the testing. I see teachers skip the ‘real life examples’ in the coursebook and go straight to problem solving. When the kids ask a question, the answer comes back ‘That’s the way it will appear on the test.’

    If there is a national university entrance exam in a country, the washback trickles all the way down to nursery school. Solution? I can think of a few but they would be considered too radical.

    I do agree that teachers should be among the best paid and best educated professionals in a society (certainly earning as much as doctors) and they should be helped to do their jobs as effectively as they can by well-trained school administrators.

    I must seem completely idealistic, but I know that my own kid spends more time with his nursery school teacher than he does with me.

    • Thank you kristina. I totally agree with your comments, except the, ‘considered too radical’. In my opinion, if it a system that patently works, what is radical, it is not like this is an experimental system. It is working everyday.

  4. A great article, and as I have done quite a few projects with Finnish schools and have met many Finnish teachers, what always amazes me is how laid back they all appear. There is none of the stress that UK teachers suffer there- they are very professional, yet also not strangled by unnecessary bureaucratic nonsense such as health and safety, testing and so on.
    If only we could replicate their model here in Scotland…

  5. An interesting blog post that fits in to the Swedish school system as well. More and more tests, more and more control and no more trust of the teachers, that is the reality in our schools.

    There is no status/ very low status beeing a teacher nowadays. It has been to easy to qualify as a teacher during the last ten years. Student with low grades have trained to teachers….the ones with high grades have chosen more well-paid jobs and jobs with higher status.

    All tests have stressed the young pupils, I have had nine/ten years old girls and boys, who has been crying in the classroom, because they have failed in the tests…. or felt that the tests are to difficult.

    Sweden is a country close to Finland, until 1809 it was a part of Sweden. Today I wish that Sweden was a part of Finland, and a part of their out standing teaching system!

  6. Thank you for the kind comments Michael and Anna-Lena. Yet more examples of the incredible blindness of those that run education. I cannot understand why it is so hard to duplicate success.

    Even a modest change that recognised that happy, non-stressed children learn better, but since when did the needs and fulfillment of children carry any weight.

    A number of people have commented that Finland achieves because they are rich and spend large amounts on education. In fact this is not true. The link I give in the article above includes tables that show how much Finland spends per child and as a percentage of their GDP. It is average in the developed countries, so it NOT the money, but the system.

  7. Great post Joel it sounds from today’s standpoint like an educational garden of edan but as someone educated at primary school in the 60s it is not too far away from my experience so we have had something similar to this before so why not again? My greatest sadness in our system is that it has, to an extent, robbed several generations of their childhood (who really looks back and remembers their classroom time? It’s the playing with friends, climbing trees, picnics in the woods etc..) and that is something that can never be undone. Every child, every person has to discover who they are and what their place is in the world and I believe that our education system prevents us doing this. An educational experience such as you describe here puts ‘who I am’ first and ‘what I want to become’ second which, I think, is the right order.
    My hands are definitely up for an experience like this for all children!

  8. Interesting article, just wondering if you could expand on how Finland introduced this system in the 70s and what your thoughts are about introducing it in more traditional environments/countries. Was there a cross over point between old and new, were teachers who were in the system for decades re-trained or let go? Likewise with students already in the system. The transition from old into the new seems to be the most difficult aspect, thoughts?

    • Thank you Patrick.

      I do not have the history of how Finland did it, but I have found a couple of links that help:

      Also see a book: Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? by Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility

    • I can try to answer this as I was there in middle school when the new system was adopted. The biggest visible thing was that our class that was the 5th in middle school was renamed the 9th in the new school system. There was a big political twist as Finland was rather conservative but the school reform was considered radical and leftist. It took a couple of years during which a radical system hit the conservative environment and the old teachers and everything that was too radical or politically unaccepted died out and what was found good in the reform became widely accepted.

      One radical theme was the creation of school councils where the students had a vote and representatives – there was a leftist movement that thought the old system could be destroyed and a brave new world created, starting from schools and young people. In the democratic elections the conservative parties won in the schools, and within a few years political parties disappeared from the school world, leaving the councils to active people with no political connections. In the same way, all political ambitions in the school reform died; somehow the educators stole the show and politicians were played out of the field. It is pretty typical of Finland – we tend to listen to people who obviously know what they are talking about. About education the educators made more sense than the politicians. A very common comparison here is: would we let a politician or a salesman do brain surgery? No, we leave that to the doctor.

      No doubt there was some re-training for teachers, but I believe not many left their work. The change has been slow; new generations of teachers are better trained than the old. There is a huge difference when I compare my good teachers back in the 1970´s to those of my kids today.

      One thing I have to add to this is the fact that the old system in Finland was not bad, quite the opposite – it gave excellent education to the best but left the lowest performing pupils with a very weak education. The reform in the beginning was exactly an idea of equal opportunity to all, not to educate the top performers even better. There was a solid system and pretty good teachers already there, the big reform was just to take every child in the same train. It is like teaching everyone to play the piano, not just those who seem to be talented.. Everyone can enjoy it and everyone can learn, not a big deal if not all become concert pianists.

  9. You are spotting THE big issue, Joel, fully agree. But there is another aspect to consider: the families. Parents have to believe that playing is learning, and have to learn the right value of testing, and need time to be with their children… are we using schools as “parking areas for children”?

  10. I just have to correct two snetences here:

    “The children are not measured at all for the first six years of their education.” Not true. First and second grades pass without school reports, progress is measured by the pupil with an estimation that is compared to the estimation of the teacher. The progress is then discussed with parents, the pupil and the teacher. The scale is “is doing always well”, “is doing often all right” “needs practise”. Third graders receive “real” school reports with numbers from 4 to 10, some classes are only marked “S” or “done”. There are tests in the class designed by the teacher from the beginnig, whenever the teacher feels it is needed.

    “There is only one mandatory standardized test in Finland, taken when children are 16” Not true. The PISA test is taken at 16 but it is not taken in all schools; I think it is a rather small sample taken from random schools and not every year, so most kids never take it. For almost all students the only standardized test is the matriculation examination taken after high school at 18. The kids going to vocational schools after 16 never take a standardized test in their life. There is a lot of testing in the Finnish schools and the tests are extremely tough compared to the US (I have been in the US in high school for one year). However, the tests are designed by the teacher and the results remain between the teacher and the pupil – in some cases a parent signature is required to make sure that parents are aware of the progress of the pupil. After the pupil turns 18 it is forbidden to give any information to the parents.

  11. I find the principles of the Finnish system very convincing. As far as teachers are concerned, they obviously understand that teachers need constant professional development-not just a couple of hours a month ( we lucky if we get that, usually we are at faculty meetings). Our teachers spend way too much time with the same kids. The kids need more study time during school as well as more play time. Our schools resemble prisons. There is limited freedom, limited outlets for creativity, and a monotonous daily routine that turns kids off. Students should not feel like they are being forced to learn, they should want to come to school for the opportunity to learn. Finally the learning needs to be inquiry-based, i.e, meta-cognitive.

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