Does context & culture play a part in the Finnish education story?

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After writing the post on phenomenon-based learning in Finland there was a great discussion, comments on the post and a LinkedIn thread. It really makes ideas come alive when we engage in discussion. So thanks to Seetha, Bernadette, Kristina, Rebecca and Matt.

The emerging themes were:

  • Curriculum review has collective responsibility and ownership
  • 15 minute break before next class
  • Autonomy is built on trust and ownership
  • Prioritising what matters when implementing a new system
  • Going against the grain – starting school later

And a comment for further discussion from Bernadette: I have seen context/culture not being addressed in educational discussions on Finland’s educational system

This is an important point. The photograph (below) accompanying the recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald portrayed Finland as an amish-style community, not really reflecting a modern culture. Was this how they meant to portray the nation today?

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Source: SMH 25 March, 2016

My grandfather was from Finland and I have visited numerous times, professionally and to meet family. So my thoughts on this are based on my own experiences, there is something quite unique about the Finnish society.

Culture: There is a strong moral code and societal expectations that is the glue of society. Many traditions are held as they reflect the uniqueness. Visiting a school in an area with a large immigrant community they explained the responsibility to teach and model the Finnish lifestyle expectations to the new community members.

‘Nordic’ not ‘Scandinavian’: Have you noticed? I haven’t referred to Finland as ‘Scandinavian’. This is a point of contention across the region, as Norway, Denmark and Sweden don’t seem to consider Finland as part of Scandinavia, hence ‘Nordic’ as the collective term.

Finance and the Euro: Within the Nordic regions, Finland was the only country to adopt the Euro as their currency. This has led to much internal dialogue and doubt concerning its ongoing benefits to the people and businesses. My friends tell me that there are economic pressures at the moment.

Language: Finland is a country of only around 5 million people and a language all of their own. Swedish is taught as the official second language. English became the unofficial second language long ago.  My ‘small cousin’ and I are both in our 50s, and have been writing since we were 10. Kaija started learning English in 3rd Grade. 

Climate: It’s cold in winter and dark for long periods of the day between November and March. If you must stay indoors for long periods, you may as well put your head down and get your school work done.

Geography: Earlier this year I attended a briefing at the Finnish National Board of Education. Our host said that many describe Finland as an island because the longest border along Russia is almost impassable (at least from the Finnish side). History shows an ability to stand up to Russia.

Gender: Women are well represented across the society, especially in leadership  roles. Along with their neighbours: all Nordic countries have closed over 80 percent of the gender gap, making them useful as both role models and benchmarks. Huffpost. Finland gave women the vote in 1906, and have long-provided the conditions for women to return to work.

Brain drain and the Nokia-effect: In 2012 students weren’t interested in Nokia phones, they just wanted an iphone. Much has been written about the decline of the former tech giant. This has led to a brain drain. At a recent conversation with some young friends, they said that many of their peers see more opportunities outside Finland, and they are leaving.

This is completely subjective and could apply to many places in the world. But I do believe that these are a unique combination of elements that help make the Finns who they are today. They do need to work hard and make their mark in Europe and beyond, they need to address education to keep the best and the brightest in the country and, unlike Australia, a lot of time is spent indoors. Working hard to maintain their identity appears significant – way of life, traditions and societal codes.

Above all – education matters. It is the key to a better future.

I would love to receive comments, reflections and downright disagreements to help up all find out a little more about what makes Finland tick.



4 thoughts on “Does context & culture play a part in the Finnish education story?

  1. In Finland English is not enough. Small country needs more languages. We must show to the world that we can do things! We old people know many European languages, which we need when on travel. Due to the joy of enjoying languages, I make my blog, in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. I understand German and Swedish, but ale to make posts in them. I wish that someday Finns could leave obligatory Swedish and to learn some other language instead of it.

    Have wonderful day!


  2. Hi Anne,

    Thank you for these discussion points, they raise some thought provoking ideas.

    I thought it easier to address some of these, and my own ideas, in dot points.

    1. A few years ago I began my Masters and one of the units I undertook was on leadership. One of the assignments required us to choose two other nations and compare their education system to Australia’s. I chose Finland and Singapore. At the time I was working in an inner city Brisbane school. It was remarkable the difference in academic results (taken from standardised tests) in the schools that were within blocks from each other. They had relatively the same clientele i.e.high-socio economic area etc. It got me thinking as to why this difference was so dramatic. We regularly participated in cluster meetings and it didn’t take long to work out what part of the reason was – leadership. Those schools that were performing well above had leaders that were innovative, open to change, welcoming of discussion and new ideas from staff, risk-takers, need I go on. The schools that were performing considerably lower were those schools that were clearly micro-managed with ‘it’s my way or the highway’ leaders. This opened another discussion based on the idea where they leaders or simply managers? I then looked at how perhaps the leadership in Finland contributed to their consistent high results. What I found fascinating was that the leaders of schools were not solely responsible for their own school. Leaders worked together with both leaders (executives) and staff from neighbouring schools to help each other consistently deliver the best education possible within a region. They worked together as ‘suburbs and towns’ to together achieve, not simply the ‘one school for themselves/we are only trying to promote us’ attitude. I applauded this collaborative effort.

    2. Geography/Climate: I can understand how the Finnish would choose to stay indoors and therefore work during the colder months, personally I would have no problem doing this either in that cold weather, but I don’t think that can be used as a reason for performance. When you look at education in Asia, they don’t have these same drastic climatic conditions, yet it is ingrained in their culture to ‘head down, hands down’ rote, rote, rote learn. They have also produced impressive results, but it’s their culture and how they are made learn. Australian kids have an absolute plethora of resources at their finger tips compared to children in Asian countries. In hindsight, I believe, in many ways have more opportunity to engage with the environment, cities, habitats, animals etc. This could only be a positive opportunity for learning couldn’t it?

    3. I found your point of culture very interesting; you mentioned that the immigrant community are taught the cultures etc of the Finnish. This I believe is a depleting occurrence in Australia. I have been blessed to travel to many countries and the one consistent I see when talking to people within those countries is that Australia is seen now as ‘that multi-cultural’ nation’. I don’t want to express my opinion as to whether I feel this is a possible positive or negative thing, but I did find these numerous comments interesting. Perhaps this patriotism and identify of who they are does play a role?

    4. I think one of the biggest problems with our education system isn’t the system in its entirety, but the attitude of society. In many other countries/continents i.e. Finland, Ireland, Asia etc, to be a teacher is a looked at as a respected profession. In Australia, teaching is looked at as that profession that anyone could do, and not regarded highly at all. I will say that it infuriates me when parents pull their children out for a week here or 3 weeks there to take them on holidays, because it is once again saying ‘whatever, I can give my child just as much of an education doing this as what the teachers could’. It devalues the effort and persistence that teachers invest doing the absolute best job they can. They toil and sweat and often other areas of their lives are neglected, but it’s seen as ‘whatever’. At my current workplace, one thing I love is that teachers are looked upon as professionals. Why? Because this is bought upon by the Head. There are strict rules and regulations in place regarding teacher/parent contact, meetings etc that truly work. Parents see staff as professionals and the large majority of the time show considerable respect and appreciation for the dedication and long hours staff invest in their daughters learning. Parents dare not ask could they have one week holiday here or a long weekend there because they know that leave will be immediately denied. Has this impacted our schools results? I believe yes, dramatically, and is one of many reasons/ways and methods the school has implemented to consistently be one of the best performing schools in NSW.

    Thank you again for your post.



  3. Very interesting conversation. Role of Culture and context in education system of a country ! Is Finland in discussion because of PISA or is there any other evidence to speak about as the outcome of their well thought over system ? I wonder if the batches of students who earned the credit to their country are being tracked . What are they doing now and what contributions are they making to their country’s economy. Marshmallow experiment of Stanford and it’s follow up study revealed that those students had high perseverance leading to sucessful careers and life. A PISA result alone cannot be the determiner for anything.
    I often wonder if the same students can attempt any other exam and achieve similar outcomes.
    I remember a conversation with a professor of education from Sweden. When she visited our school in INdia, she was surprised that children as young as 4 or 5 years, read and write and also add and subtract. She said that children in Sweden do not start formal learning until the age of six although they go to school from the age of 1or 2 years. When I asked on what do they do in schools from such an young age, her reply was that they are taught self management skills and social skills.

    Personally for me that is the best model. Unless children learn how to handle themselves and find harmony with others, there is no point in beginning a formal learning program. However in India formal learning begins by the age of 3.
    Coming back to Sweden, my question to the professor was, if the children are beginning formal learning at age 6, with a sound background in self management and social skills- do they come out to be extraordinary learners and do they show any exemplary performance in tests? Well she could not give me an answer as they did not look at it through my lens.
    If culturally and ideologically a nation plans to start formal education at the age of 6, academically what advantages are being noticed in such plans???

    My second question to the people reading this blog and to Anne, do you think that those students who topped in PISA can write other tests and perform with equal brilliance ???

    Although my questions may sound a little critical, my respect for a systematic development of education system in Finland is high.


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