No Dead Ends: Finding One’s Purpose the Finnish Way

Angel Menefee
Sixth Grade Dean Angel Menefee shares her experience from her trip to Finland, where she observed Finnish students.
No Dead Ends. I kept hearing this phrase as I toured an array of Pre-K through 9th grade schools this summer in Tampere, Finland. I learned that it meant that students would never be met with the feeling that they had come to the end of their education. From the earliest years, Finnish students are carefully guided toward self-discovery through a curriculum that includes not only the basics like math, reading, and science, but also textiles, handiworks, and home economics. Walk into any school in any neighborhood on any day and you will find students cooking, doing laundry, and cleaning; working with wood, metal, electronics, or 3D printers; and sewing, knitting, or weaving. Educating for life is the Finnish way.

Several years ago, I learned that since 2000, Finnish students have continued to rank among the top in the world according to their Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, a test taken by 28 million students from 72 countries triennially that measures skills in science, math, reading, collaborative problem-solving, and financial literacy. (Students from the U.S. rank somewhere between 27th and 40th.) I was curious to find out what makes a Finnish education so different. What I quickly spotted was that students were both fully engaged and self-sufficient. From the preschool years, students spend their school days exploring nature, building, playing, drawing, and baking in an environment that promotes choice. The belief is that having a choice increases motivation. From age two, students are taught to dress and undress themselves independently in snow pants, coats, and boots, as much of the school day is spent outside. By middle school, students in home economics classes are charged with budgeting for a chosen meal, traveling independently by bus to a local grocery store, purchasing the necessary ingredients, and then preparing, serving, and cleaning up from the meal. Curricular goals highlight knowledge and skills for a lifetime.

While independence and self-reliance are key concepts, this holistic approach to learning also fosters each child’s sense of purpose. By engaging in a wide range of academic, practical, and artistic subjects, students learn who they are and what inspires them. Students are given power and responsibility in the classroom, often choosing the order in which they will accomplish their work. Learning outcomes and teacher-created assessments are coupled with a student’s own documented goals and plenty of self-assessment opportunities. Students are encouraged to step back and gauge their own interest and efforts in different areas of study and choose their course depending on what they learn from this self-reflection. These opportunities keep them fully vested in their own education and prevent them from reaching educational dead ends.
Calvert School is a coed independent lower and middle school.