Investigating Education in Finland and Sweden

Dr. Marilyn Sudsberry is the Director of the Experiential Program for Preparing School Principals (EPPSP) at Butler University. She’s partnered with us for over two years on her uniquely designed education program in Finland and Sweden that was partly inspired by her students. 


A Principal Passion

Before Dr. Marilyn Sudsberry began teaching students how to become effective school principals, she was a passionate principal herself. Once she started teaching at Butler University, she began using the school’s Experiential Program for Preparing School Principals (EPPSP) to share that passion in new and innovative ways.

Part of what gave Marilyn the freedom to create a short-term study program from scratch was the EPPSP’s focus on experiential learning: a cross-disciplinary philosophy that is seeing some resurgence in higher education. In addition to conventional classroom learning, the program focuses on learning through action and experience. For over 30 years, this has meant letting students assume the responsibilities of a principal while being mentored by administrators in a school setting. Dr. Sudsberry and her students, however, had some new ideas about what kinds of experiences could make a great principal.


Dreaming Big

Before Marilyn thought of designing her program in Finland and Sweden, her course had already been evaluating the differences between educational systems. “In 2012,” she tells us, “we were studying why American public school systems were performing so poorly.” At the same time, her students were buzzing over a newly released documentary called The Finland Phenomenon, which explores why Finland has one of the best national educational systems in the world. They began to wonder why Sweden’s educational system—which is close in rank to the United States’— is so different from Finland’s despite sharing so many regional similarities. “In class, one of my students asked in kind of a joking manner, ‘Why don’t we just go to Finland and see what they’re doing differently?’ It just kind of triggered something in me, and I thought, ‘What better way to find out than going there to see for ourselves?’ That’s where Justin Bruegenhemke, one of EF Study Abroad ‘s Directors of University partnerships, fits in. “I told him what I wanted my students to experience and what we needed to meet our learning goals—and EF helped me put it all together.”

Education in Action

The success of the EPPSP program is built on six defined standards for training effective administrators. One relies on an individual’s ability to identify how the social, cultural and political climate impacts education. Realizing that an investigative journey abroad would be the perfect opportunity to explore this standard, Marilyn created a syllabus that took a critical look at the education systems of Finland and Sweden. “ We reached out to EF to find people in Finland and Sweden who were in educational roles for us to meet with—whether it was political involvement or teachers in the classroom—and they did an amazing job. The first year, we met with the former Minister of Education for dinner, and he gave us a historical overview of Finland and how it’s helped shape the current educational atmosphere.” By hearing from people intimately involved in Finland’s educational system across many professions, students were able to determine the connections between Finnish culture and their exceptional academic performance. Marilyn’s students found that Finnish teachers take a holistic approach with students—including daycare services, afterschool help and a communal desire to see the child succeed.

To achieve this, teachers are thoroughly and continuously trained, and are regarded as trusted professionals in the community. “ We also met with a former professor in Sweden who told us about what education was like there,” Marilyn says. “She studied in the U.S. so she knew where we were coming from, and had a lot of knowledge about the Finnish system as well. She really helped to tie everything together from an administrative perspective.” Some have criticized the program for taking place when class is out of session for Finnish students, but Marilyn says that having Americans sit in on classes isn’t the point. “By the time the students are ready to travel, they’re well aware of what goes on in the classrooms overseas. We know the great instructional practices they are using, and we’re using them, too. What needs to be witnessed and investigated is the culture’s impact on education through local interaction—and that’s truly where we’re finding the big ‘aha’ moments.”


Sharing the Knowledge

The students kept a blog addressing reflective prompts that Marilyn provided each day, as well as journals to be submitted at the end of the program. All students were encouraged to talk with locals while they were out and about. “The real learning came from moments of reflection, discussion and being unafraid to step outside of comfort zones and engage people.” During the trip, three students took it upon themselves to create a video about life in in the small Finnish town of Porvoo. Students interviewed locals to find out how highly everyday people regard teachers in their country. Inspired by their initiative, other students joined in and started sharing their personal learning experiences in creative ways once they returned. Armed with a collection of stories to share in the form of music, design and video, they took to the press. It resulted in a 21-student presentation at the Indianapolis Public Central Library co-funded by Butler University’s College of Education and WFYI-TV.

Passing the Torch

As Dr. Sudsberry prepares for retirement, she has left her program and role as Director of the EPPSP in the capable hands of Dr. Jill Jay, a former adjunct for Marilyn and principal. Jill has been involved with this program from the start, and even helped create the current blog. Marilyn is now an adjunct for Jill, and continues to share her passion for grooming the next generation of principals in experiential ways.


Take the next step and bring your students abroad or follow in Dr. Sudsberry steps and help us create a custom itinerary based on your curriculum. Let’s make it happen.

Read our other academic related blog posts here.