What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?

Hi Readers — The Wall Street Journal was wondering that very question. Especially since Finnish school doesn’t start till age 7 (no pre-k! no k!) and there isn’t a lot of homework. The resulting article, by Ellen Gamerman, is pretty fascinating — and envy-provoking — but here’s the nicest Free-Range paragraph:

Once school starts, the Finns are more self-reliant. While some U.S. parents fuss over accompanying their children to and from school, and arrange every play date and outing, young Finns do much more on their own. At the Ymmersta School in a nearby Helsinki suburb, some first-grade students trudge to school through a stand of evergreens in near darkness. At lunch, they pick out their own meals, which all schools give free, and carry the trays to lunch tables. There is no Internet filter in the school library. They can walk in their socks during class, but at home even the very young are expected to lace up their own skates or put on their own skis.

Knowing our penchant for quick fixes, schools from Fargo to Florida will probably start requiring kids to lace up their own  skates.  But wouldn’t it be amazing if parents started letting their kids walk to school again? If only because it’s good for their kids’ SAT scores? — Lenore

32 Responses

  1. if i understand you right, you seem to believe that there is no pre-school / kindergarden in finnland .. this is not right.

    The Finnish edcuation system has lots of those – with standards for the teacher as tough as for the “other schools” – and with guaranteed places for every child from age 1 upwards (like in the other scandinavian countries women are expcted to have a job)

  2. I had the discussion with my fam last night regarding letting my kids out in the neighborhood alone (e.g., like walking to school). Their initial reaction was “hell no, look at what goes on out there, have you been hiding under a rock?” But after a little discussion – basically to the effect that some reasoning, planning, and preparation goes into it – I think they started to see it my way.

    Funny thing is that my dad let all of us walk to school, even his youngest (now 30), a petite princess who biked alone from the first day of KG (and is now a very strong woman). He agrees that there were always weirdos, and he even remembers some cases from when he was a wee tyke. He even admits there is less of a problem now, due to more awareness. But I guess it’s like the thought of your daughter’s first date – hell no, I’m going to be in the backseat with a shotgun. (Hardly.)

    Talking about it does make a difference. I think people are starting to get used to the idea of letting the pendulum swing back a little way.

  3. Here in Finland my half-Finnish/half-American seven-year old twins not only walk to and from school unsupervised (and that includes in the winter when it is pitch black), but also regularly visit our local library branch on their own, play in the local parks on their own, and mess around with the neighborhood kids without my interference. (Only last week they dragged home an entire fallen fir tree from the local forest area into the yard – what they had planned with it I have no idea, but sadly the garbage men mistook it for trash and removed it. Bummer!) While it is true that parents can be consulted for playdates (my daughter has a friend coming over for a planned playdate next week) it’s also true that most of the time the doorbell rings and it’s neighborhood kids looking for my kids to play. They’ve both got watches and know how to tell time; I tell them what time they need to be home, and they haven’t let me down yet.

    My kids are not abnormal, by the way. All of the kids around here are just the same. But no worries, Mr. Erma! This is one genuine 100% real American parent who will NOT be doing stereotypical American parenting. I am a free-ranger all the way!

  4. I live in a rural village in Michigan. I live one block from the elementary school. The woman next door walked her two children that one block to school each morning and walked them home each afternoon until they were in the fifth grade. Now that they’re in high school, she drives them to the school each morning, although it’s only half a mile away.

  5. This sort of thing just depresses me! Kids in the US should be getting educations at least in the top five internationally, given the wealth of their country, but alas, overprotective parenting and bad planning are shortchanging them (and sadly our Canadian system seems to be getting more and more like yours).

    I’ve been thinking about curriculum a lot recently, and the comment the Finnish person had about the lack of essay-style questions in the US seems to fit in to my speculation. So much of our North American education is about rote-memorization and plugging numbers into calculators, which is very superficial “knowledge” that doesn’t require any understanding, and that isn’t applicable outside of the classroom at all. The students that aren’t interested will forget everything they’ve crammed in to their minds for tests soon enough, and the students that are will have to learn it all again, less superficially, at university — which essentially makes a good deal of school completely useless. Combined with these kids not having to think for themselves in order to manage their lives (getting to school, lacing their skates, etc.) they’re not actually having to engage with the world, in school or out.

    Now, most modern intelligence tests test for formal reasoning, which requires logic, evidence, and a clear understanding of connection. You don’t need any of these things to memorize all of the state capitals or president’s names, and you don’t need any of these things to be driven to school, to passively watch television, or to play your typical video game. So kids aren’t being given a chance at *all* to develop these skills, whereas in Finland it seems like the curriculum emphasizes deeper understanding (from what I can tell), AND kids have to use their wits to get about the world. Of course they’re at an advantage!

    (The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I’ve been hooked on Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners and Food Revolution lately. In one segment in both shows, he demonstrates to junk-food addicted kids how chicken nuggets are made, a method both British and American kids find pretty gross. The British kids swear off chicken nuggets after seeing that, but the American kids happily munch away on them straight afterwards, seemingly not making the connection between the disgusting method and the delicious snack food. I don’t think this is indicative of american stupidity; it’s just these kids have never learned to make the connection between two things — because they never have to! Sadly, Britain seems to be going that way as well.)

    Pure speculation, of course…and eek! Sorry for rambling a bit on a tangent. It is an issue I feel strongly about!

  6. Maybe the American schools can take some of that money they’re always clamoring for and hire a Finnish educator to be a consultant.

  7. The bottom line is that children live up – or down – to our expectations. If we give them more challenges, both physically and mentally, then they will expand their minds and bodies. My children like their screen time as much as any other kid and we don’t limit it much but we do take time to challenge their thinking about the world in order to help them develop good judgement and critical thinking skills. We often use their favourite movies as starting points; you wouldn’t believe the amount of philosophy you can cover while talking about Star Wars!

  8. There have been a lot of these speculative “why are the Finns so darned smart?” stories around the internet over the years.

    Far as I can figure, the Finns are smart because if they weren’t, they woulda frozen to death about a thousand years ago.

  9. I agree with you, Gail. Our kids get to watch television, but the *kind* of television we watch isn’t cartoons (though they get some time for that), but things on the History channel and Discovery Channels and TLC that we can discuss and talk about and learn from. I can’t stand sitcoms and such, personally, so it’s no sweat off of my back – and we get family time to share knowledge. I try to get them out and about by themselves as much as I can, and when they’re with me, we’re constantly chattering and learning.

    @Jaynie: Excellent points all around and so, so true.

  10. I love that they encourage so much independence. I’ve been working on that with my kids, and they’re finally coming around. They’ve finally found where the other kids in the neighborhood are, and just about daily go ringing doorbells to see who can play while I stay in and deal with their baby sister.

    They’re much happier now that they can do so much on their own. They know that I just need to know whose house they’re playing at.

  11. I recently had a similar experience, only I didn’t have to look outside my country. For a Cub Scout outing we toured the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Disabled. This school has students of all ages, from pre-K to High School. What struck me, and I think many of the other parents, was how much emphasis there was on teaching the kids to be responsible for themselves. They are taught basic life skills from crossing streets to go shopping to doing their own laundry. For those kids who show the necessary maturity there are apartments available where they can learn to live on their own–in Junior High! It was very clear that giving the kids as much responsibility as they could handle as soon as possible was a primary goal. It is ironic that it takes disadvantaged kids for people to see how important it is to give kids responsibility.

    Now, I’m not suggesting that all schools start teaching the kids to do their laundry, but clearly we all could be doing a better job of giving them more responsibility, rather than doing everything for them or denying them life experiences out of the fear that they may get hurt. The next time you think of a ten year old riding his bike to school and worry, imagine that same kid walking there by himself it with a cane.

  12. Jaynie: Sounds like the old adage about not watching how sausage is made.

    I seem to recall that I knew a lot of disgusting food facts when I was young but shrugged them off with the attitude “yeah, but it tastes good and there’s a lot of disgusting things in the world.” I don’t suspect that’s a very common attitude, though.😀

  13. FWIW, I recall reading years ago that because young Finnish kids watch a lot of American TV shows, they start their educational career already knowing how to read Finnish because of the Finnish subtitles. Because of the English soundtrack, they often understand a little English, too.

  14. One of the interesting things about several of the highest academic score schools is that they are mono-cultures, such as the Finns. It is surmised that in a monoculture, less communication needs to be had about child behaviour because most people have similar cultural experience and expectation. There is a different challenge but, I think, a greater potential benefit in melting pots such as USA, Australia, in that we have to learn to communicate across diverse upbringings. On one hand, I think that is why we are so fearful, because the Other, is always frightening. When we learn we can let go of that fear, the diverse community is a beautiful place. As for those academic scores, my experience is that, ‘he who communicates best, wins.’

  15. @markus — As a single mother of 3, I am glad that the Scandinavians help provide child care so that mothers can work outside the home, but I want to say that being a mother is a job, a very very important job. Raising children and taking care of a home is hard work and I am tired of it being put down, being told that stay-at-home mothers are lazy and are not working. I run 3 businesses from my home so that I can be home for my children. When I was married, I also worked from home as a teacher and consultant. Just because a mother doesn’t give her child to someone else to raise and then she goes to work in someone else’s building does not mean she doesn’t have a job.
    (I normally try to avoid being negative like this, but I really felt I should speak out for mothers who work from home, and that includes the work of raising children.)

  16. Crystalblue, not to hijack the comments, but we who delegate some of our childcare duties are not “giving our children to someone else to raise.” If you expect others to be considerate of your sensitivities, please consider ours as well.

  17. Another thing, crystalblue, I also work from home most of the time, but I put my kids in preschool/daycare because it’s better for them and me. Mothers deserve to have that choice, in my opinion. I think that Markus was just clarifying that Finnish children generally have some group instructional experience prior to age 7.

  18. Couple of points.
    First, Finland is not that cold. Neither are other Scandinavian countries. Thanks to the Atlantic Gulf stream bringing warmer weather we are much warmer than northern Canada/Alaska. We watch in horror the news about snowstorms in Minnesota. Never such storms here.
    Second, while we of course do have American TV-series, we also have French, German, Spanish ..and so on TV-series. We do have subtitles for adult shows but children’s cartoons/movies are spoken over in finnish. Most children learn to read at school, there is no pressure or hurry. The first foreign language comes on third grade(children are 9 then), most choose english but also Swedish, German, Russian and French are available. By the time children are 15/16 and ending their grade school they have studied 3-5 languages.
    Third. One parent can stay home until child is 3 years old, on paid parental leave. NOTE, one parent – so stay at home dads are common too. We do not have any stigma here about working/SAH parents. No such “fight” which is better like there seem to be sometimes in USA. Daycare options are there but each family chooses what is best for them. Daycare is very cheap, max.250€/month so people can really choose what is best and not base decission on what they can afford.
    Fourth. While we do not have the “coctail” of different kind of people here like USA for example, we do have our minorities. We have our indigenous people – Sami and Karelian. We do have large gypsy population who have also quite of their own culture. And of course we have immigrants and refugees.
    So we are not so “mono” as people might think.

  19. I read this article and it reminds me of a Charlotte Mason education. Ms. Mason was Christian but you could apply her eduational philosophy in American schools (minus her emphasis on religion). I wonder why so few people know of her methods?!! Finnish schools and PNEU (Charlotte Mason) schools could be modeled here. Schools in America must change! More and more parents, like us, are choosing to homeschool so we can give our children a better education. And, no, I’m not homeschooling for religious reasons.

  20. @skl ..

    my comment was not intended to praise SAH over working parents – or vice versa .. just stating that if the family sees daycare as necessary it is available easily and affordable, and at an early age

    another point about putting children into daycare early – my wife is a kindergarden teacher (using the Aiustrian term here, as we life in Austria) – alternating annually between 1-3 and 4-6 year old children

    and she is of the firm opinion that for many children the earlier they get into kindergarden the better – mostly becasue very many children today grow up as single children (or semi-single children with a huge age gap) ..

    these children need to be able to interact with a group of similarily aged children, they need to develop the social skills of being in a group (things like “this is my toy, this is yours”, to get ones will, to submit to the will of others, how to act together as group when an adult says something) ..

    many of the children she gets need to develop those skills bitterly, as the only social skills they have learned up to that point is how to make ones parents to dance to your tune .. and a single weekly playdate is not enough to develop these skills

    and sometimes it is necessary for a neutral outside observer to notice real development problems, simply because its natural for parents to think of their child being perfect (or vice versa, calming parents that it is normal for child not yet do X by date Y – even if some books claim otherwise)

  21. I would LOVE to let my kids walk to school like I did when I was a kid. But, unless we move, our twins will be going to an elementary school that is over two miles from our home. … And when the wind chill here gets into the -40 degrees F range, child services does consider that to be child abuse.

    That being said… We ARE hoping to move before they start school, and if we are within a few blocks, I will let/make them walk to school most of the time.

  22. Not sure if this is really on topic, but the Finnish practice of letting kids lace up their skates made me think of my recent snowboarding vacation with my 8 and 10 year old kids.

    The kids had never seen snow before, but were convinced that they wanted to snowboard (watched the Olympics). We went to Heavenly in Tahoe and I signed em up for a full day of instruction on the first day. Perfect – I had some me time, and they had some quality learning time with a real instructor. The second day we hit the mountain together and once I was convinced that my oldest could ride the chair lift by himself, I let him go. My 8yo wanted to stay by my side, but eventually too wanted to be left alone to ride without me.

    By the end of the 3rd day, we were riding different runs and meeting up at the bottom. I felt no worry about them being abducted by a stranger, just a little twinge of worry that they would fall and hurt themselves. But I was cured of that notion when I noticed that they rode (the proper verb for snowboarding I think) more carefully and responsibly when they didn’t think I was watching them.

    All in all, it was the perfect Free Range vacation. (I would advise though to give each kid a Camelback, and some snacks so that they can take care of hunger and thirst without waiting for a parent).

  23. You know, Beth, you could drive them SOME days and have them walk OTHER days.

    Two miles is, what, a 40 minute walk?

  24. @ Beth, my second grader (7) walked home from school last week for the first time, and that is a two mile walk. It took them an hour, and they had an awesome time.

  25. So this is my excuse for my kids making their own lunch (starting yes in Kindergarten) and dressing themselves in frequently outrageous outfits. (I call the pith helmet my 7th grader wears to school “birth control”.) I want my kids to be as smart as Finns! (BTW I never know what is due for school, don’t check their work, don’t nag. They both get straight As. They tell me if its something interesting but many times I’m all “Book report? Really? What did he write about?”) Oh, and my 8 year old watches the time, begins reading at 8:30 pm and puts himself to bed at 9 pm.

  26. I’m so depressed and jealous. Why can’t we be more like the Finns instead of encasing our kids in bubblewrap? I hate modern American parenting with all of its accompanying anxieties and neuroses. I think it’s ridiculous when I bring my (young) daughter to the park and get funny looks because I don’t play with her there but expect her to play with other kids instead of me!

  27. We embraced the walking alone mantra a couple months ago. I had been walking my kids just half way most of the school year but was getting tired of bundling up just to walk a block and a half away and stand there and make sure they walked the other block and a half to the school. It seemed so pointless.
    So I decided they were ready (based on watching them walk 1/2 way to school) and one day mentioned I wished they could walk alone. My 8yo son jumped at the chance. He promised they would be careful and with instructions to stay together (no one straggling behind or running ahead) and to look both ways before crossing the street (3 intersections) off they went. That was in February I believe. Now I don’t even think about it. I warn them at 7:35am that it’s time to go and off they go. I don’t even watch them out the door any more.

    Before that they had been playing outside unsupervised for years. I love the sound of a dozen kids playing cops and robbers up and down the street (well, mostly love it…it can be quite migraine inducing). Just on our side of the street there can regularly be 13-15 kids (between the ages of 3 and 12) playing mostly unsupervised. The adults that are out there are usually chatting with each other or doing yard work. Then across the street there are another 6 kids between 3 and 10 that are usually out playing. Most blocks in our neighborhood are like that.

    I also get chided online when I talk about the independence I foster in my children. They all started getting their own cereal at 4. I taught the older 2 to use a microwave to warm food at 4 1/2. The youngest knew how to use a toaster at 3 1/2. They’ve all been dressing themselves since they were 2. My youngest (just turned 4) has been putting her own socks, shoes and coats on since she was 2, without help. She can button some of her clothes on her own. She cleans up her own messes and empties the dishwasher on her own (including putting away steak knives). They’ve all been making their own sandwiches since they were 4 or so (the youngest was 3 when she started doing it…of her own accord, she was so proud when she showed me her first sandwich).
    The older 3 kids (7, 8 and almost 10) do their own laundry. They can basically take care of themselves which I am very proud of. I’m always around if they need me but if I know they can do something on their own I won’t do it for them and I insist they try to do something first before I jump in and help them.

  28. The other day I took the plunge and sent my 3-year-old walking home by herself for half a block. (She was complaining that she didn’t want to go where we were going, so I sent her back home to sit on the porch while her sister & I continued on.) She wasn’t out of my sight, but she was far enough away that I couldn’t run and grab her immediately. She knows not to run into the street or play around in driveways. I’d say it was a successful first step. (She didn’t like it though – she’s a skittish kid.)

    I really try to encourage independence, but my kids don’t always feel ready for it. My oldest will often ask me to hold her hand when we are out walking. I guess they will get more comfortable with practice.

  29. “FWIW, I recall reading years ago that because young Finnish kids watch a lot of American TV shows, they start their educational career already knowing how to read Finnish because of the Finnish subtitles. Because of the English soundtrack, they often understand a little English, too.”

    Well not really… I learned to read when I was like 7 years old and first the teachers taught us syllabication. And it’s not about separating the letters. When you have a word “auto” which means “a car” in finnish, the syllabication of it is AU-TO. For another word, “lentokone” which means an aeroplane, the syllabication is LEN-TO-KO-NE. I learned to read texts properly when I was 8 years old and probably even a bit older. Subtitles changed so fast that I didn’t even have a chance to read them through.

    Yes, we watch a lot of American TV shows but we watch a lot of British, Swedish, Asian, French TV shows too. I have always thought that this is the main reason why we learn languages quite easily. Of course we have this love and hate relationship with our neighbour country Sweden. Most kids despise Sweden and they don’t even want to learn the language. The funny part is that Swedish is our country’s second language… Actually only people in our capital city, Helsinki, and in some other larger cities (mostly near Sweden) speak Swedish fluently. But not everyone, mostly people who are Finland’s Swedish (parents from Sweden or grandparents from Sweden).

    And what comes to English. I think that you understand quite well what I’m writing? Finnish people (mostly young people) tend to learn pretty fluent english. They play videogames that are in English, they read forums and blogs that are in English, they make friends who speak English and mostly, they watch a lot of TV. I haven’t ever done my English homework and I haven’t done anything wise during my English classes for years. Finnish think that it’s important to learn new languages because no one will understand us and our language and Finnish is probably one of the most difficult languages to learn.

    If I have heard right, in America kids don’t study much of languages? Here we start to study english when we are 9 years old. Some kids choose another language like I did. I chose (well my parents chose) french and I hated it. I really did it and didn’t learn anything. So it’s not wise to make decisions for your child if she/he says that she/he doesn’t want it. Later in high school I started to study French again (it was my own decision) and now I’m more intrested of it and more better in it. In junior high kids can choose 1 extra language which may be German or Russia. And then we start our Swedish studies too. In high school kids can choose more languages like Latin, Italy, Spanish and all the other languages I mentioned before.

    But the most difficult language is still Finnish. I believe that after learning Finnish every other language is more easier. Almost every grammar rule is irregular and varies in different time forms etc. You can read more about it http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnish_language but the fact is that people here, in their everyday life, speak differently. I mean, when we write we use different kind of language. More official one. But we speak differently, it’s like slang but older people do this too. So if someone would study Finnish and be really good at it, she/he wouldn’t probably understand a thing from someone’s speak.

  30. And I have to say few other things too. My parents didn’t really care what I did, when I did and where I was. I was running around the forests with other kids, hanging around in their backyards, biking around the area we lived and we were swimming almost every day in the summer. In the winter we were skiing, skating, making snow castles, playing in the snow and then came home for a dinner. I had a very pleasant childhood and I learned to do a lot of thing by myself.

    I always walked to school and really enjoyed it especially when I was a child. I think that it’s the main reason why I was so thin back then (and I’m not trying to blame anyone but I think that in America people use cars way too much and it has a connection to obesity etc.). After school we did go to an afternoon club and there we played, did crafts, got to do our homework. There we even got a healthy snacks which were porridge or something similar.

    When we left to home (usually when our mothers or fathers were back home from work), we left in groups. There were creepy old men who tried to talk to us or offer candy if we left with them. But we never did, our teachers and parents taught us that we shouldn’t trust strangers and we shouldn’t even talk to them. After something like this happened, we told about it to our parents. It wasn’t a big deal, bad things are around us but we just need to learn live with them.

    I haven’t done my homework for years, I don’t have any hobbies (I just hang out with my friends) and yes, I use alcohol occasionally (a lot of teenagers do it and i used to do it but now I can do it even legally because i’m not under 18) but still i’m almost straight A student. There are many students who are just like me. We are not geniuses. We even have quite crappy teachers. Maybe we have a good school system, who knows… But I have heard that in America and UK the students have to find out a lot by themselves. Here teachers give us all the material and even make mind maps for us. Teachers really concentrate on learning strategies. It saves a lot of time.

    The other thing is that we don’t only study about our own country and our own customs. I know many people will be angry at me after saying this but this isn’t so uncommon comment in Europe: Americans are ignorant. All the kids learn about American history and many don’t even know where India or Japan is. Even Germany is hard to locate. (A lot of exchange students have seen this so…). If there would be more about the customs of other countries, history of other countries, more languages, information about other religions (I think this war between religions is just f*cking stupid) and other general knowledge, kids would be wiser. Our country isn’t perfect but neither is your’s.

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