Please don’t feel obliged to look at this video for too long – or at all in fact. I’ve only added it because for years this silly little song was the first thing I thought of if anyone mentioned Finland.
Things have certainly changed though. For the last 12 years Finland has been the envy of virtually all other nations worldwide in the area of education. If you pay any attention as to how well the system of education in [insert your country of interest here] compares internationally, Finland will almost certainly be raised as worlds best practice before the conversation ends.
It has done this through consistently elite levels of achievement in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests run by the OECD. If you’re interested in seeing the details on this you can do so quickly at Wikipedia.
The rankings wont tell you very much though. It’ll confirm that Finland is great but not be able to explain why very clearly. Actually, I’m a little bemused that very few people can explain why very clearly.
For example, five years ago I heard my Principal publically congratulating the Finns on having an education system that pays their teachers on the same scale as surgeons and judges. I thought, ‘Ah, so that must be how they do it. They pay the teachers well and hold them accountable.’
Then, four years ago, I sat in a public lecture of a leading British academic who pointed out that all the top PISA performers (including Finland) have two things in common; they are all small countries, and they all have heterogeneous populations. Once I’d double-checked a dictionary for a definition of the word ‘heterogeneous’ I thought, ‘Aha! They do it through micromanaging a student population that doesn’t have too much cultural variation!’
And then, three years ago I started a Masters degree in International Education Policy…and didn’t hear about Finland at all. I thought, ‘Okay, whatever it is they’re doing must be impossible to replicate.’
Finally, in the last 6 months I’ve come across some lecture and interview material by Dr Pasi Sahlberg, generally recognized as the Finnish Education Guru, and I think I’m beginning to see the full picture. The links to this material are at the bottom of this post if you’re interested but here’s what I believe are the important bits.
1. Finland made a conscious decision to address their education system 40 years ago. In that time they have had any number of governments and education ministers, but the principles they set out in the 1970’s have not been altered. They made a plan (a thoughtful one at that) and stuck to it. If Sahlberg is to be believed, and I see no reason why he shouldn’t be, they do what they do, regardless of their OECD rank. Obviously their success in PISA is something that they are proud of. But it’s not something they feel justifies tinkering with just to maintain their lofty status. Not many countries can say that!
2. They are really big on equality and collaboration. In other words, they encourage cooperation between schools, rather than competition. What this means is that they have worked very hard to create a system of education that gives all children, regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status, the best chance to succeed. Parents still have a choice in what school their child attends but this is not really important because all schools are well funded and “good”. Which brings me to the next point.
3. They put their money where their mouth is and fund their education system well. In recent years the Australian federal government has invested heavily in education also, but the great majority of this funding has gone into building infrastructure. Take that injection out of the mix and Australia still commits reasonable money to education, but the Finns commit more.
4. They have a comprehensive approach to education that means they don’t really ‘stream’ students. The term ‘streaming’ can mean a couple of things. In Australia it usually refers to sorting students into like abilities for learning Mathematics. In Europe the term refers to sorting students into like abilities as they are leaving primary school and then sending them to different schools or colleges. Streaming is quite common across Europe. However, I did notice that other Scandinavian countries, as well as Finland, prefer to remain ‘comprehensive’ and keep their classrooms and their school full of mixed ability students.
5. They have a focus on teacher quality and, once qualified, they trust them. The focus is on intense quality control at entry level. There isn’t a teacher in their school system (primary or secondary) that doesn’t have a Masters degree from one of 8 Finnish Universities. Every year they have something like 7,000 applicants for these degrees and after a selection process that considers applicant’s social skills as much as their academic ones, they accept a little less than 10%. Once they are trained though, the Government steps back and lets them do their job. Every school is free to construct their own curriculum and there is no standardized testing before university. If a school says their student is of an A+ then that’s what they are. If this isn’t unique to Finland it is certainly extremely rare.
6. They put enormous importance on early childhood learning. They embrace the concept of ‘learn through play’ and back it up by only starting primary school at the age of 7. In Australia it’s 5 and I daresay this is the same throughout much of the world. When children finally hit school, they are greeted by a teaching staff that all have Masters degrees, years of experience, and bundles of enthusiasm. Unlike many education systems, Finland’s teacher retention rate is really strong because the interview process I mentioned above is aiming to select people who really want to teach as a career rather than dabble in it for a few years and then move on.
So here then, is my take on Finnish education (and should the country pop up in polite conversation feel free to pass it off as your own). The Finnish system is awesome and I think it may even be replicable. But it’s an all or nothing package. They consistently rate highly in PISA because they have a very committed, organized, and effective education policy. If you are genuinely good, PISA will show it.
Beware though, often comparisons to Finland are being made by someone wanting to push an agenda. It would be wise to consider what exactly is being compared, because chances are, there’s only a small portion of the complete picture being discussed. As appealing as it is to think schools (like mine) would be better if they started paying teachers (like me) more money, I doubt it would work.
Lecture by Dr P Sahlberg
Lateline interview with Dr P Sahlberg
Uni of Melb Interview with Dr P Sahlberg
Do you think it is possible to implement a system like Finland’s in a larger country?
I think it is entirely possible but completely improbable. The key to all this was consistency and trust. The combination of consistently high levels of government investment and a ‘hands-off’ trust in an automymous education sector just doesn’t seem likely.