How We Can Learn from the Finns on Education


My attempt at pulla, Finnish cardamom bread.

Okay. I may be a bit prejudiced because I come from Finnish descent. My dad was a first generation American with Finnish parents and grandparents. I can barely recall Christmas at the grandparents house and a party with extended family — many speaking Finnish. Also, there were some foods I found disgusting like lutefisk. Of course, the lovely cardamom braid called pulla that my grandmother baked made up for her lutefisk and fish head stews.

Finland boasts the number one educational system in the world. And they do things very differently than we do here. Depending on the source, we are either 17th or 27th in world for our education system.

So what does Finland do that we don’t? They let kids be kids. They don’t do standardized testing. They emphasize playing outdoors. Here’s an article from the Wall Street Journal where an American and a Finnish family traded places and they discovered the different school experiences for their kids. Here’s an excerpt:

To Really Learn, Our Children Need the Power of Play

The U.S. can learn a big lesson from Finland’s education system: Instead of stress and standardized testing, schools should focus on well-being and joy

By Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle

Aug. 8, 2019 7:00 am ET

Five years ago, we switched countries.

Pasi Sahlberg came to the U.S. as a visiting professor at Harvard University, and William Doyle moved to Finland to study its world-renowned school system as a Fulbright scholar. We brought our families with us. And we were stunned by what we experienced.

In Cambridge, Mass., Pasi took his young son to have a look at a potential preschool. The school’s director asked for a detailed assessment of the boy’s vocabulary and numeracy skills.

“Why do you need to know this? He is barely 3 years old!” Pasi asked, looking at his son, for whom toilet training and breast-feeding were recent memories.

“We need to be sure he is ready for our program,” replied the director. “We need to know if he can keep up with the rest of the group. We need to make sure all children are prepared to make the mark.”

Pasi was flummoxed by the bizarre education concept of “preschool readiness.” Compounding the culture shock was the stunning price tag: $25,000 a year for preschool, compared with the basically free, government-funded daycare-through-university programs that the boy would have enjoyed back in Finland.

Pasi had entered an American school culture that is increasingly rooted in childhood stress and the elimination of the arts, physical activity and play—all to make room for a tidal wave of test prep and standardized testing. This new culture was supposed to reduce achievement gaps, improve learning and raise America’s position in the international education rankings. Nearly two decades and tens of billions of dollars later, it isn’t working. Yet the boondoggle continues, even as the incidence of childhood mental-health disorders such as anxiety and depression is increasing.

Finland focuses on equity, happiness and joy in learning as the foundations of education.

Meanwhile, in Finland, William Doyle entered the school system ranked as #1 in the world for childhood education by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Economic Forum and Unicef—a system built in large part on research pioneered (and increasingly ignored) in the U.S. Rather than pursuing standardized-test data as the Holy Grail of education, Finland focuses on equity, happiness, well-being and joy in learning as the foundations of education.

Finnish parents and teachers widely agree on several mantras rarely heard in U.S. schools: “Let children be children” and “The work of a child is to play.” A Finnish mother told William, “Here, you’re not considered a good parent unless you give your child lots of outdoor play.”

Finnish children learn to take responsibility and manage risks at very young ages, in school and out. Following local customs, William’s 7-year-old son learned to walk to school by himself, across six street crossings and two busy main roads. One day, on a forest path, William came upon a delighted Finnish father applauding his 6-year-old daughter as she scrambled up a tall tree—to a height that would have petrified many parents around the world. “If she falls and breaks her arm, it will be in a good cause. She will have learned something,” the father said nonchalantly.

In Finland, William experienced an education culture that protects and cherishes childhood, one in which students are immersed in a play-rich education that goes all the way to high school. At his son’s school, William saw children rush to the cafeteria in stocking feet, giggling, hugging and practicing dance steps. Students got a 15-minute outdoor recess every single hour of the school day, rain or shine.

“There are many reasons children must play in school,” explained the school’s principal, Heikki Happonen. “When they are moving, their brains work better. Then they concentrate more in class. It’s very important in social ways too.” He added, “School should be a child’s favorite place.”

The cultural shift is profound. Instead of annual, high-stakes standardized tests, Finnish children are assessed all day, every day, by a much more accurate instrument: trusted teachers who are selected, trained and respected as elite professionals.

Finland has a crucial insight to teach the U.S. and the world—one that can boost grades and learning for all students, as well as their social growth, emotional development, health, well-being and happiness. It can be boiled down to a single phrase: Let children play.

Back in the U.S., that idea has a powerful champion: the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has a membership of 67,000 doctors. “The importance of playful learning for children cannot be overemphasized,” declared the academy’s 2018 clinical report “The Power of Play.”

—This essay is adapted from the authors’ new book, “Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive” (Oxford University Press). Mr. Sahlberg is a professor of education policy at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and a former director-general at Finland’s Ministry of Education. Mr. Doyle is a scholar in residence at the University of Eastern Finland.

What are your thoughts about letting kids be kids and getting lots of outdoor time?

pulla ( traditional finnish cardamom bread)

I borrowed this recipe from a lovely blog called “Feasting at Home.”



A traditional recipe for Pulla – a Finnish Cardamom Bread that tastes and smells heavenly. Perfect for mornings or afternoon tea. This makes 2 large loaves, feel free to halve.

  • Author: Sylvia Fountaine | Feasting at Home Blog
  • Prep Time: 2 hours
  • Cook Time: 40 mins
  • Total Time: 2 hours 40 mins
  • Yield: 2 loaves 1x
  • Category: Bread
  • Method: Baked
  • Cuisine: Finnish


  • 1 Cup  half and half
  • ¾ Cup  water
  • 1 ½  Cup  sugar
  • ¾ Cup  melted butter, let cool
  • 3 eggs
  • 4 tsp yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • approx. 7 cups flour
  • 1 Tablespoon crushed Cardamom Seeds or 4 tsp ground cardamom


  1. Prepare the cardamom. Give yourself  a good 30 minutes for this part.
  2. Slice 40-50 pods lengthwise with the tip of a sharp knife. Scrape out seeds. Grind down to the consistency of fine sand with a mortar and pestle. You could do this step ahead.
  3. Heat half and half and water to just lukewarm. Pour in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, stir in yeast and let stand for 7 minutes. Mix again to make sure its dissolved. Mix in sugar, eggs, cardamom, butter, salt. Mix in 7 cups of flour cup by cup and combine till the dough pulls away from the edges. You may need to add more flour.
  4. Using dough hook, or by hand on a floured surface, kneed for  6- 7 minutes and make a large ball.
  5. Place in large bowl and cover and let rise in a warm area for 1 ½ hours, or until dough doubles in size.
  6. Punch down and divide into 6 balls ( this will make 2 braided loaves)
  7. To make the braided bread, roll each ball in to long ropes. Braid the loaves and tuck under the ends. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper ( or a lightly grease pan).
  8. You could also make small rolls, instead of one loaf– although baking time will shorten.
  9. Brush with an egg wash or half and half.  Sprinkle course sugar over the top.
  10. Let rise again at least 1/2 hour. Place in a pre-heated 350 degree oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes and nicely browned. Poke with a skewer or tooth pick. It’s done if the pick comes out clean.
  11. Pull it out of the oven and let sit for 10 minutes. Slice and lather with butter.


2 thoughts on “How We Can Learn from the Finns on Education

  1. Thank You for this post. Very enjoyable. Have You been in Finland or a least in Helsinki? Many visit Helsinki and they think that they know all about Finland. Our countryside is beautiful and offers much to see. Well, also Helsinki as I have shown when presenting “Unknown” Helsinki and lesser-known Helsinki.

    Happy and safe travels

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