Comparing Democratic Free Schools and Finland's Education System

Jannica July 08, 2017 0

All I thought about Finland before hearing about their amazing education system, was that it is a Scandinavian country with beautiful tall blonde, blue eyed people who must be cold, like freezing cold, and that they probably wear fashionable parkas while sipping their coffee, talking on their Nokia phones and beating off modeling agencies. Obviously, I’ve never visited Finland and have no clue and honestly I never really cared to look deeper. So when I started researching education and alternatives, of course, Finland’s education system came up and I had the opportunity to learn more about this country, and people...boy was my mind expanded.

finland-map.gifNow I know that Finland is a country with more lakes and islands than anywhere else in the world. One-third of its land is within the frigid Arctic Circle (ha! I knew it was cold there!), including Santa Claus's official house and Post Office. Finns drink more coffee than anyone else in the world…my kind of people, I'd definitely drink excessive amounts of coffee if I lived in the cold Arctic Circle, too! I love coffee with a passion and should probably move to Finland so that I have an excuse to drink it all the time without people questioning my sanity. Ok, apparently, I need another cup of coffee so I can stay focused on the point of this blog which is to talk about the similarities between Finland’s education system and democratic free schools. 

So during my research on education, Finland’s school system was everywhere. Like in education blogs and top 10 lists and on hippy blogs and social media. I read and read and watched videos and looked at graphs and charts and tried to wrap my mind around these people who over the last 50 years have changed their country and the future of education. What bravery it must have required throwing away the traditional education system, the structured system so much of our world uses and say “We are done with that! Time to give our children what they need.” Not only are they a beautiful people, but they are smart and brave too (think SISU)!  SISU, a Finnish word, can be understood as "all the strong, courageous things as well as the resoluteness to go on trying despite the failures. It’s about being strong on the inside. Having the guts. Grim determination" according to Jacqueline Koay, a columnist on HuffPost Parent Voices.

So what does education in Finland have in common with Democratic Free Schools?

Finland has consistently been ranked #1 in education, yet has a non-traditional school system. Following World War II their country was devastated. Finns dedicated and committed themselves to providing a solid education for all children, despite rebuilding their communities and economy and coffee shops.

The Finnish education system has built their institution around trust, equality, play, and a multidisciplinary approach to applicable learning.

Democratic Free Schools also focus on children and education. Learning is self-directed, cooperative, and fun, while also overflowing with freedom and independence.

At a glance, both Finland and Democratic Free Schools seem like they are similar, but wouldn't an entire school system be vastly different than one single school model? Spoiler alert! It’s not!  The similarities abound between Finland’s Education System and the Democratic Free School Model. Grab a cup of coffee, sit back and be prepared to expand your mind about education.

Ability to learn based on interests

Finland offers their students a choice of two basic paths: a university path or a technical path. Then the student is able to select courses that will be most helpful to their future from a list of varied classes. Similarly, students at a Democratic Free School can learn based on their interests. Perhaps a child loves to work with technology and focuses their studies on computers. Another child may be passionate about nature and narrow their learning around biology.

Both types of schools afford the student an opportunity to study what they love.

Multidisciplinary approach to lessons

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 8.59.59 AM.pngI bet we all remember sitting in math class and thinking, “This is so boring. When will the bell ring? Will I ever use this equation in real life?” I also bet that students in both Finland and a Democratic Free School have never felt that way. Classes are not typically focused on one subject. Rather than simply teach math, the teacher will incorporate other elements such as engineering, science, art, and cooking. For example, instead of learning about multiplication by completing a worksheet, the class will do a hands-on gardening project. First, the students have to design a garden bed. Then they must do the calculations to figure out how much wood is needed to create a box and how much soil is necessary. Then they must purchase, assemble, and plant the garden. They could paint the box or design a sign using their artistic skills. While things grow, they can discover unique details about biology. Once harvest time rolls around, the kids can roll up their sleeves and get in the kitchen. Now, doesn't that sound way more fun than an algebra worksheet?

Students at Makarios Community School have the option to attend scheduled classes, and those classes may have a lecture component or be interactive. The difference is that students CHOOSE to participate in the class and they know ahead of time what they are getting themselves into if they attend.  Regardless, class content and daily learning opportunities are sure to expand their knowledge in a variety of fields and not just one subject area.

Little to no homework

Anyone who has attended a public school in the USA is probably not able to comprehend this point. But truly, they don't have homework. Young Finnish children are encouraged to use their time outside of school to:

  • play outdoors and climb trees
  • engage in sports and a variety of recreational activities
  • spend time simply being a kid who makes blanket forts, captains a pirate ship, puts on a dance recital for their parents, has sleepovers
  • see the world through a lens of imagination

Similarly, Democratic Free Schools are built upon these same values. Because kids learn by being kids. Their natural curiosities lead them toward seeking answers and learning along the way. Schools in Finland do assign homework in high school. Even then, assignments are minimal and typically require less than one hour per day.

Now take a sip, and dwell on the hours of time you’ll add back to your evening. Imagine this…it’s 3:30 pm on Thursday and you arrive at school to get your children. They come out of school with smiles and hop in the car babbling away about the gecko they chased all over the school yard, the diorama they made, the new motion that passed and why they disagreed with it and are contemplating how to get it reversed, the JC (Judicial Committee) consequence they had to do for breaking a rule, the walk they took to go geocaching and so much more that you can’t keep up and all you can do is hang on until they run out of breath. You pull into your driveway, and your kids run to say hi to their dogs and jump in the pool. You aren’t stressed, and you aren’t yelling at them to get their homework done. Do you know why? No homework!!! Because you know they don’t have homework to finish before you have to pack them all up again and get to football and soccer practice. So you sit and watch them swim, and you smile at the peaceful new life you have, and you feel joy in the new world of learning your kids have embraced.

No standardized testing

finland-test.pngClearly, Finland offers some sort of test to their students in order to consistently earn the top spot in education among the nations. They rarely deliver standardized tests (like every four that to what seems like testing every 4 months in the States!). When they do test, the results are only used for international standings, not to judge teachers or students. However, the Finnish government does give an exam to seniors in their final year of high school to reveal how much they have learned during their career. It's probably helpful to note that teachers test or quiz their students daily at the end of the lesson, rather than provide cumulative exams. Likewise, Democratic Free Schools don't test their students. Often high schoolers will study for the ACT or SAT for college applications, but that's about the extent.

Let me guess; you are thinking “If they don’t take tests, how will they learn how to take a test?! How are they going to pass the SAT or do well in college if they don’t learn now?” – right? That’s what went through your brain, didn’t it? Don’t worry! If you know how to learn and you learn because you are interested in the subject, the subject matter is more easily retained in your brain. Besides a test isn’t something you should study for, it’s a recap of what you’ve learned through your studies and activities and research.

Majority go on to college

finland-info.pngSo tell me, if Finland doesn’t really test its students and if Democratic Free Schools don't test their students, how do you explain these statistics?

Statistics reveal that 66% of Finnish students attend college, which is the highest percentage of any European country. Studies also show that around 75% of graduates from a Democratic Free School go on to a university or college. Hmmmm…..makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

More time outside to play

The occupation of a child is to play! They were created with a playful imagination and soaring creativity, not with the ability (or desire) to sit at a desk and fill out a worksheet. Finland requires classes to take a 15-minute recess break between every lesson, for a whopping average of 75 minutes of outdoor play per school day. Did I mention that elementary kids only go to school for an average of 20 hours per week? That means that roughly 6 hours and 45 minutes of their week is spent outside. They are kids, and kids love recess!

Our Democratic Free School takes frequent field trips and engages in daily excursions. Students and mentors alike enjoy being outside, exploring our world, and learning through experiences. At Makarios Community School, we have an acre of land to explore, we have a beautiful botanical garden a short walk away, and we have ample opportunity to explore. No limits are put on outside time, and students are free to wonder whenever they need to be outside.

Whether in Finland or Texas, all kids love to play outside, and their curiosities lead them to learning.

Teachers build relationships with their students.

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 9.00.27 AM.pngFinland's average class has around twenty students, and it's not uncommon for that group to remain with the same teacher for 2, 3, or 5 years in a row. This time shared between the teacher, and the student helps build a relationship and trust.

Our democratic free school strives to employ the best mentors who are dedicated to learning with our students, spurring on their passions, with a goal to help grow them into healthy, thriving individuals who positively contribute to society. What’s awesome about a Democratic Free School is that sometimes the students are the teachers. Our school mixes up children of all ages from 5 to 18; therefore the mentors are not assigned to only one particular group of children. The mentors become an important part of the students’ experience at Makarios and develop a stronger connection than is typically found between a student and teacher.

Inclusive of all children

The achievement gap among Finland's students is minimal, and they are proud to be inclusive of all children. Most of those with learning disabilities are streamlined into typical classes. Those with more severe handicaps are in a separate classroom but still given the same opportunities to learn, grow, and achieve. Likewise, Democratic Free Schools are geared towards all students, including those with giftedness or special needs disabilities. At Makarios Community School, we have a handful of students who would not be considered “normal” in a public school. These students are blended into our daily life at school and are truly normal within our community. There is no segregation or exclusion with these students offering them a true experience of community and offering the neurotypical students a true glimpse of how normal their peers really are. I believe this gift of ‘we are all equal” is one of the greatest gifts we are giving the students of Makarios.

If you don't happen to be Finnish...

If you live in Finland sipping your coffee and talking on your Nokia, the chances are that your children are receiving the best education in the world.

But if you are here in the USA…think of these carefree, beautiful Scandinavian moms with these happy stress-free kids and everyone is sitting around the table sipping their coffee and cocoa while chatting about their adventures at school as if they went someplace magical for the day. Sounds kinda awesome, doesn’t it?

Are you thinking -

“I want that life. I want to know my kids are loving every minute of their day in a stress-free environment with teachers who get to focus on the growth of my child instead of their scores. I want to hear about the tree rope that my child swung from and the game of tag they played. I want to hear how they stood up for something they believed in and made a motion in School Meeting. I want to hear the laughter and joy that comes with childhood. I am done with the stress of battling my kids to get them to a school they hate and at the end of the day bring them home to hours of homework. I am done with the traditional education system. I am done with stressing out my children. I am ready for my children to have the opportunity to be a kid and to learn about their interests and to grow in a healthy environment!” 

Well, if you are that parent, you can always move to Finland or if you want your child to thrive as if they were a Finn kid, consider a Democratic Free School. Both systems are focused on trust, equality, play, and take a multidisciplinary approach to education. Chances are that you won't be disappointed and your child will excel in all areas! If you have lots of questions and just aren’t sure where to start, read through our website and specifically the FAQ’s page, we offer tons of info on our school. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter where we post glimpses of our days. You can always Schedule a Tour, we’ll have our Keurig ready and you can grab a cup of coffee and sit down with a student or a staff member to learn more. Be prepared to expand your mind.







educational freedom, Free School, Posts by Janni, Self Directed Learning, Interest Directed Learning, Democratic Free School

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