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.



Is it worth it to DIY? Or, how I almost burned the house down…


A burst of creativity.

A friend told me the other day, “You could do that yourself.”

I was asking her if she knew anyone who could refinish my butcher block countertops. I hadn’t thought about doing it myself for more than a fleeting moment. Could I? I watched a youtube and called her back.

“I think I could do it myself, but I don’t have the power sanders. I’d have to buy them and all the other stuff—and if I did that, I might as well hire someone else to do it.”

“I have sanders and I’ll loan them to you,” she replied.

That settled it. I decided to go for the first of about 20 trips to our local hardware store and start the process assembling things to begin stripping, sanding, staining and lacquering my kitchen counters. We have a small kitchen, so the project didn’t look too overwhelming–when I began.


All finished!

It was more work than I expected, I admit. Many trips to the hardware store—“where everyone knows my name…” Yes, they were calling me by my first and last name after a few days and it reminded me of this song from Cheers:

“Where everybody knows your name
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
the troubles are all the same.
you wanna be where everybody knows your name…”

The problem started when I asked my husband for help. I nagged him into adding a second coat of stain one night after he came home from work. Bad idea. 

The next morning we woke up to a gooey mess. The first coat of stain apparently didn’t dry all the way, and the second coat didn’t soak in–and he didn’t know that you ‘brush it on against the grain and wipe it off with the grain.’

Thank goodness for Google. I found numerous youtubes and sites on how to fix it—or basically start over. I needed to find something called “mineral spirits” to wipe off the mess and then re-sand. My buddies at the hardware store informed me that mineral spirits are illegal in our area and they sold me some paint thinner.

In the garage, I had been practicing each step on an old nightstand of my husband’s grandmother. 

Here’s the biggest mistake I made in the process:

I tossed a pile of rags soaked with paint thinner on the old nightstand.


The next day, I could smell a faint burning odor like a distant fire. I was done with my counters and I began to put away my supplies. I thought, I need to throw away those old rags. Lo and behold there were no rags! Instead was a pile of charcoal that reminded me of the “snakes” we’d get for 4th of July when I was a kid. Also, there was a long metal object on top, which I finally recognized as a large flathead screwdriver without a trace of its hard plastic handle. I had used it to open the can of stain. After I removed the black charcoal smoldering rags I poured water on the smoldering nightstand, which was by the way, directly under the dry rough wood of the garage.

I almost burnt the house down—by doing a simple DIY project. Who knew that rags soaked in paint thinner could combust? Not me.

My next project, after the kitchen counters, was to salvage the nightstand. After all, it had belonged to Granny. Except for a little lingering smell of charcoal, I think it’s a keeper.


One Tip for Parents with Incoming High School Seniors –Write the Essay, Like TODAY!

imgresHere’s a tip for parents of incoming high school seniors that I wish we would have followed: get that college essay done, now.

I mean it!

I’ll never forget the agony my son went through trying to write his essays close to the deadline. He suffered from so much anxiety and went through days of writer’s block. He said the essays were the most important thing he had to write in his life.

My son and friend at high school graduation.

My son and friend at high school graduation.

By procrastinating and putting it off until the end–into a busy time when he also had a half dozen AP classes and swim practice to worry about–“THE MOST IMPORTANT THING I’VE WRITTEN IN MY ENTIRE LIFE” was too big a burden to deal with!

My son told me—during the summer when I suggested he get started—that the questions weren’t out yet. That’s what he said.

I have good news to share with you. The essay prompts for the Common App ARE out now for 2015-2016. You can take a look at them, and get some guidance here.  

images-1If you can “suggest,” “encourage” or “force” your high school senior to get started on writing essays for their college apps, it may be the best thing you do for them all year. Tell them to get a rough draft done. Put it away for a week or two, dust it off and have them do a rewrite. Repeat this process during the summer. Then put it away until it’s time to fill out the college applications.

You should take a look at it, too. If they let you. If not, have them find a teacher or adult friend to review it. My son wouldn’t let me review his essays. Not that as a writer with a degree in editorial journalism and a 20-plus-year career in writing could I have offered him a bit of help. But, no. He had to do it the hard way. He did get one of his English Lit teachers to review his work, though.

At this very second, he has three papers to finish for his college classes. Due today….


Maybe your kids will take your advice and get the writing started early. They’ll also practice good habits which will serve them well when they are in college!

Writing the essays and taking time for revisions over the summer will definitely lift
a lot of senior pressure in the fall.