Let’s talk about Finland. There is a popular article circulating around about Finland’s “illiterate” kindergarteners. It has stirred up a lot of anxiety that we’re doing it wrong in the United States and started people asking: Should we adopt Finland’s kindergarten method? Maybe we should, but here’s what I currently know about it…
Finland has become famous for their play based learning for kindergarten aged children. This has turned heads because academically, Finland always ranks high on their test performance. And since the United States continues to place high importance on eradicating poverty through our education system, and simultaneously working to ensure our future workforce is the best in the world, the US is searching for the best methods of teaching our students.
First, I want to mention that literacy skills do not necessarily mean that students are sitting at desks learning their alphabet sounds, and reading short sentences. Literacy skill include understanding print concepts (like which way the book is read, that text has meaning, etc.), hearing rhyming sounds and rhythms, developing background information, exposure to vocabulary, and being able to verbally tell a short story. Most likely countries like Finland also have these basic skills in place at their kindergarten levels.
Vocabulary Gap or Economic Gap?
While the research is a little vague on whether early academic interventions and increased kindergarten literacy actually help students in the long run (read my previous article on 16 research articles I reviewed), we do know that students with increased vocabulary directly perform better in school and life. Students who typically lack vocabulary come from a low economic status. Increasing vocabulary can increase success, so preschool for students in poverty is used as a vocabulary intervention.
So does Finland have a vocabulary gap within their lower and upper economic class? Probably. But one important difference between our country and Finland is how we care for our society. Finland has more programs that help families pay for health care, child care, food, housing and other basic needs. (The US definitely has these programs, but they are not as extensive)
The US lower economic class typically has been poor for several generations, often has lived in the same area for their entire life, typically are stuck going to lower quality public schools, often have limited access to public facilities like parks, health care, and libraries, and often don’t have access to a grocery store. The quality of life for the poor in the United States is arguably worse than those in Finland.
Poverty creates a gap in living standards. Using a football analogy, some students start at the 50 yard line, while others haven’t even left the end zone. The gap between high economic status and low economic status in the United States is greater than the gap in Finland. This means that the gap in vocabulary is also greater in the United States than in Finland.
Since research repeatedly shows academic success is very tied to economic status, and since there has been little definitive evidence that kindergarten interventions increase academic success over time (again check out my previous post), Finland’s smaller economic gap has a significant effect on their test scores.
The Alliance for Children has a publication disputing this specific point. They argue that since countries like China and Japan also have high test scores and allow their young children to have more play time, success can be specifically linked back to learning through play. I agree that play is critical to development, but China and Japan are also notorious for very long and rigorous school days and heavy homework loads. This again places doubt that playtime has a direct correlation with increased test scores. Or in other words, there are probably still other things factors that are contributing to other country’s increased test scores.
This is not a commentary on politics or policy (I honestly believe there are many solutions to this problem). These thoughts are just concluding that our country needs to be careful not to adopt another country’s education methods before assessing all components that contribute to academic success.
Play Time Is Just As Important
We know that early intervention for students who are disadvantaged (from poverty or a disability) do benefit from early interventions. We also know that these early interventions seem to statistically disappear once students enter 4th grade (maybe because they fall behind again? maybe public school doesn’t keep supporting them? maybe their family situations out weigh the interventions?).
On the other hand, we know that increased play and increased emotional/social skills do translate into long term success. In a research article reviewed by Alliance for Children, HighScope’s Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study found increase success in all types of interventions in the short term, but by age 23, students who had increased play showed statically significant success rates. Another study published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes for Health, found a correlation with low social skills and the increased likelihood for arrests and to be on government housing lists.
At a minimum, these factors indicate that social and emotional skills that develop during play time have more long term effects on success than targeted academic interventions. Potentially, neglecting play time could actually hurt academic success. More high quality research (large sample, good statistics, over a long time) in this area is needed to be able to draw a definite conclusion.
Wrapping It All Up
There are too many outside factors to definitively say whether Finland’s lack of poverty or increased play is responsible for their higher test scores. However research has shown that both factors DO matter, and BOTH increase academic success.
My opinion is that the United States should be attempting to address both poverty and increased play learning. Not only should increased structured play time be incorporated, but we should reassess how we are supporting our families in poverty by increasing family education and family support. We also should look at combining methods from other countries that are tailored for our own country’s culture.