Reflection on the Finnish education system: More questions than answers #SCIL

Having spent a little time in Finland I have gained an impression of the educational culture and the system’s achievements. Educators from all over the world are travelling to Finland to learn from their PISA success. Some to try and improve their own country’s outcomes, while some nations are keen to topple them from the top of the PISA perch.

I first went in October 2011, visiting a primary and secondary school, and in February 2012 I went there again with a group of curious Australian educators. We heard from the Finnish National Board of Education, met with forward thinking school leaders and researchers, and attended a conference with school-based educators, policy-makers and academics.

The Finnish system is characterised by key elements

– Education in Finland is focused on quality and equality.

– Schools produce very small variation between the most successful and least successful students.

– The government has a clearly articulated an educational pathway from school to work, with vocational and tertiary education options for young people.

– There is a very competitive entry into teacher education, with high entry scores

– There is no national formal assessment

– Schools are not inspected

– A school’s curriculum is framed around minimal curriculum guidelines

– There is local autonomy for decision-making

– Content taught in subjects/disciplines

– There is equality of education delivery for all students

My own passion is to help schools, educators and leaders develop learning environments that fully engage the 21stC learner and help young people be inspired to pursue their interests and aspirations. In Finland I have observed schools and talked to academics, school leaders and policy makers, but remain perplexed.

More questions than answers
I believe we need to reinvent schools for this generation, understanding that our society has changed so significantly, that schools need to think differently in order to inspire and engage students.

My experiences in Finland left me asking questions, and my observations are at odds with my understanding of 21stC learning. So while PISA is only one measure, it is highly regarded and internationally recognised. Herein lies the tension.

1. Do educators recognise that outside school young people live in a dynamic connected world and how are schools responding to this challenge?

2. Do traditional classroom environments better suit the culture of learning in Finland?

3. How are schools in Finland addressing the ubiquitous nature of mobile technology?

4. Does the work/study culture of Finland mean that young people and their parents expect teaching to be formal?

5. Does the six hour exam regime at the conclusion of the final year of school mean that despite the minimalist curriculum requirements and lack of national assessments, a wide range of content must be covered through didactic approaches?

6. Are there opportunities for multi-disciplinary project-based learning?

7. Do students have the opportunities to pursue self-directed projects?

8. How are talented students encouraged and challenged?

9. How are teachers prepared for the changing nature of learning in this globally connected world?

10. Does the school experience vary sufficiently to be able to meet the diversity of interests that students possess?

11. Does the learning culture of schools in Finland actively encourage collaborative and team-based approaches to learning, or is individual achievement more commonly supported?

12. Are students typically passionate about learning, are they self-motivated and curious?

Finland’s position on the PISA rankings seems to be at risk as Singapore, Shanghai and South Korea rise up the ranks. These nations are actively seeking to claim the top spot. In a nation such as Finland, where there is significantly less emphasis on formal assessment, the ranking on PISA is an important benchmark. One academic remarked to me at the conference that he will be happy when Finland is no longer at the top, so they can focus afresh on what is important in education.

Joining the dots
Perhaps the success of this small nation, now on the international stage, is a result of a combination elements:

– Finland has a culture of hard work and knowledge acquisition is necessary for academic progression

– Each young person must decide for themselves that education is important

– Attracting high calibre candidates to the teaching profession

– The high esteem in which teachers are held

I seem to think that there is no formula for success in the PISA rankings and for the past 10 years, Finland has been able to effectively connect the dots and are enjoying the accompanying status.

Of course, these thoughts are an amalgam of listening to presentations, having conversations and making observations, so if debate and discussion ensue, I am happy to engage and hear the thoughts of others.

5 thoughts on “Reflection on the Finnish education system: More questions than answers #SCIL

  1. 13. How do the parents handle these changes? How puzzled are they, can they fully support the change, how good is the interaction between the school and the parents, do parents fully trust the independent teachers while they introduce new teaching/learning strategies etc


  2. John, the interaction between the school and the parents has been made super easy and smooth. The parents have an access to a website with online information of their child. You will immediatelluy notice if a child has been late or absent from a class, or if the student has done exceptionally well, or if the teacher has any information he or she wishes to tell the parents immediatelly. You can leave messages to the teachers and get swift answers, and you can arrange appointments if necessary. Parents and techers meet on a regular basis when the kids are young, and the progress of the child will be discussed and estimated in a short conversation twice a year. And of course there are parties with the kids and other less formal situations where teachers, childen and parents meet. There are also group activities where parents are placed in the same group with their kid’s classmats, so they get to know each other as well. This is common from the grades 1-6.

    In most cases parents fully trust that their kid has an excellent teacher and it is seldom if ever questioned if the teaching strategies are the best or not. Parents are represented in the governing body of each school, so they can also take part in the decisions very easily. The parents also have a voluntary association that works for the best of the kids, arranging clubs and collecting money for small scholarships for kids that have acted for the goals of the school, like “most trusted friend” chosen by the kids in the class. Scholarships for academic achievement are handed out for older pupils.

    I would say that the interaction between the school and the parents is very good during the early years, and less so in the later years, when the kids more and more take esponsibilty of their own actions. After the kid is 18 – as often happens before the senior year for kids that have been foreign exchange students – it is illegal for the school to give parents any information of the student without his or her permission.

    Education is seldom an issue for parents in Finland. There is a keen interest in the early years, but soon it is understood that the school can handle it perfectly well, and it is widely known that the schools do a pretty good to excellent job with the kids. If the child has any problems, then there is wide co-operation between the school, parents and city authorities. There is always help available.

    The 1960-70’s great school reform was a major issue in Finland and there were some very bitter arguments; the reform was considered leftist if not out right a communist plot. However, during the years eveything leftist in the curriculum faded out as majority of the teachers were conservative and they simply ignored what they did not consider right. The structure of the school system was well thought and it survived. It is no longer a political issue, and the smaller changes that have taken place later are all widely accepted without any major disagreements.


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