In 2000 the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) released its first PISA results (Program for International Student Assessment), and Finland has never been the same again. PISA 2000 showed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world, in 2003 the country’s youth led in math, by 2006 Finland was first out of 57 countries in science, and by 2009 Finland came second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide.
Even the country’s teachers were surprised. “I didn’t realize we were that good,” quipped Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school at the time.
Since then, with the 2015 PISA results, while Finland still hovers in the top five, they have to a degree been eclipsed by the likes of Japan, Chinese Taipei, Singapore and Estonia (perhaps another blog on that slight anomaly in the future).
Critics of PISA have pointed out that the PISA rankings have been adopted by some governments as a form of national prestige; investment and pressure is increasingly ladled onto students, parents and the system in order to perform well in global testing: for example in Singapore 60% of high school, 80% of primary school age students and a shocking 40% of preschoolers receive private tuition.
What some have called an “Education Arms Race” and others have labelled an undeservedly significant role PISA now occupies as a lever for educational reform, is no doubt affecting the schooling and educational experience of many students, particularly in Asia. As such PISA plans to reevaluate their evaluations. Future tests will additionally measure also for 21st century skills and learning environments such as creativity, digital literacy, collaboration and equity.
Exploring the characteristics of the Nordic education
With this context in mind we return to Finland, and the broader Nordic states. The prevalent irony of Finland, and other Nordic countries’ high rankings in measures such as PISA, is their stated and explicit dislike for standardized testing.
How are we to understand how countries that are not particularly interested in global test results, don’t believe in national standardized testing, categorically believe in equity across students skill sets, income and social standing, and by and large don’t even buy into homework, teacher stress or overtime achieve such consistent results?
There are at least two key factors:
A culture of learning and equality
I have traveled to both Sweden and Finland, and so can say first-hand that the societies there are organically and naturally oriented towards equality. The prevailing educational structure insists that when the average goes up, everyone benefits.
The tactic of streaming high performing and low performing students or focusing on smart kids is explicitly discouraged, to the point where students with special needs share the same class, teacher and space as children without. Furthermore, the system is not designed as a national emblem of equality, it is that way because that is how all Finns think and live:
When we all do well, we all do well!
The effect on education outcomes is significant. Nearly 100% of each age cohort in Finland completes the 9 years of comprehensive schooling, and 94% of those who finish the 9th grade of comprehensive school continue onto upper secondary general school or upper secondary level vocational education.
Finnish history, and even historical tales and myths such as the Kalevala, laud wisdom over strength. Learning has been a national priority since the Finns achieved independence from Russia in 1917. Soon after independence the Finns implemented a national 6-year compulsory schooling system and teachers were considered the “candles of the nation“, often educating the whole village through organizing choirs, theater performances and adult education in addition to their normal school work. The church also played its part; for example the Finnish Lutheran Church required proof of literacy prior to issuing someone with permission to marry.
Teacher training and teacher-led governance
Teacher training in Finland has been institutionalized for over 150 years and teachers are regarded in the same way some Americans may regard a lawyer or surgeon. Paid and treated well, teaching in Finland is competitive: only 10 - 15% of applicants to teacher training courses are accepted.
Since 2005 all teachers (even primary school teachers and vocational trainers) are required to achieve at least an MA before being allocated a class. School principals are not only required to have an MA, but additional certifications in management and administration.
Finland is also marked by a high degree of independence with regard to administration of schools and districts by municipalities. While the curriculum is set by national government, schools and individual teachers are given a degree of flexibility in how they collate that content, and transfer it to students.
The bottom line is that Finnish educational success is not an anomaly or indeed an overnight success, but borne of a deep respect and regard for learning, a culture of absolute equality in the eyes of the state, and its services, and a concerted societal effort to place learning first.
There are a number of other factors that we will explore in my next post including the role of play and a focus on early childhood (0-3 years) development and education.
Uhmmm… what about edtech?
Be assured I will take a more future-oriented view on the Finnish system in my next post where we will unpack the significant effects that edtech developments have had on the country’s educational outcomes.
Afterall, how can the home of Angry Birds not be a haven for exciting edtech?