Reflection on the Finnish education system – Anne Knock

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

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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.

Race to the Finnish – by Mark Sparvell

A Scandinavian country is achieving great results in its schools by focusing not on competition but on co-operation, writes Mark Sparvell.

The international benchmarking convention in Winnipeg, Canada, on March 2 bought together educators from countries whose students do well on international measures of achievement, such as the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) and Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

The countries involved included Finland, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

With support from the Principals Australia Institute, I packed my winter woolies and headed to where the temperature hovered around minus 20 but education reform was on the boil.

Organised by Mindset, the Manitoba Network for Science and Technology, a program of Manitoba Innovation, the organisers strategically selected presenters from the field, notable educators who have recent direct involvement in the business of leading learning in schools but also were identified as influencers or systems thinkers. The agenda was to explore how education policy is translated into practice, the social contexts of the education system and the drivers for improvement.

Finland has a very successful education system, so even though I had a heavy presenting schedule, I gathered questions for my Finnish colleague from Australian educators via the <b>> Thought Leaders, Twittter and Facebook.

I was overwhelmed with inquiries. From system leaders to classsroom teachers across states, territories, sectors and levels of schooling the Australian education community generated questions around inclusion, early literacy, class sizes, performance pay, governance, disability and, the big one, accountability and testing. I strapped on my ice skates (first time) and joined my (highly accomplished) colleagues from Finland and Canada for a three-hour skating interview along the frozen Red River … it was worth every blister!

Merja Narvo-Akkola has more than 10 years’ experience as a principal in a multicultural environment with special education and language immersion. Narvo-Akkola is a highly respected professional and she is one of the key contributors to the Global Education Leaders Program in Finland.

She noted that she felt “no-one was more surprised by the PISA results and Finland’s relative high standing than the Finns themselves!”

Finnish schools quickly found themselves under an international spotlight with visitors attempting to work out how a system which has short school days for teachers and students (the day finishes about 1pm and teachers have about 26 contact hours) and engage in no system-wide testing of literacy, numeracy or science can do so consistently well.

Narvo-Akkola believes that the conditions for success in schooling are interconnected, like a double helix with the Finnish culture. “Finnish schools achieve excellence by focusing not on competition but on co-operation and achieving equity,” she says.

Students may attend pre-primary from age six but most begin compulsory schooling at seven. Narvo-Akkola believes that at this age students are developmentally ready and able to achieve success. Great emphasis is placed in the early years on play, oral language and social skill development. All schools are government schools and all schooling (including tertiary) is free. Students are provided with hot meals for free.

Whilst school finishes at about 1pm, students can involve themselves in after-school clubs. Homework is very much a foreign concept.


I raised the comparison with another high achieving nation, Singapore. It achieves high PISA results and has an educational climate of regular high stakes testing combined with a national explicit curriculum. In Finland, the only national testing occurs as part of university entrance matriculation. Narvo-Akkola noted the drivers for Singapore are, like Finland, deeply connected with the culture. Similarly, those working in education are seen to be in positions of great prestige and are, accordingly, highly valued. With no natural resources (Singapore even buys its water from Malaysia), a highly educated workforce is a critical asset.

I asked Narvo-Akkola about curriculum design and student achievement information. She explained that whilst Finland has a broad national curriculum overview, the “living curriculum” that is delivered in a school is shaped in consultation between the staff and principal – a very customised and contextualised curriculum.

Narvo-Akkola, like other Finnish principals, recognises their staff as highly skilled and competent professionals. She said she wouldn’t expect her doctor’s daily work to be overseen and case managed by another person, she trusts his professional capacity as she trusts her staffs to make local decisions.

When the teacher identifies a student is underperforming, additional support is provided by the class teacher, a modified curriculum plan may be developed or the special education teacher may be involved (all schools have these and they are outside of the staffing costs to the school). Most students with disabilities or learning difficulties are fully integrated and supported, in some schools special need classes provided targeted support.

In Finland it is harder to become a teacher than it is to become a lawyer or a doctor. To teach, you must have a Masters in Education. Narvo-Akkola believes that the research element to the masters program makes the critical difference. Teachers exit university with the skills of researchers who are able to read and understand research,

I received a few questions for Narvo-Akkola around the management of language and cultural diversity, and in particular, how the indigenous Sami language group are represented in the schooling sector. The Sami people have a degree of autonomy and their lands stretch across the far north, across borders with other countries. The representation of indigenous Sami in Finnish schools is minimal.

Religious education is provided two times per week. If the school has four or more students of a particular religion then lessons in that religion are provided. With an increasingly diverse multi-faith cohort there are some movements to replace religion studies with ethics.

Narvo-Akkola was quite perplexed by education systems where teacher professional judgment was not valued, and where literacy and numeracy were a focus instead of an outcome from a socially just, creative and student wellbeing-focused curriculum.

When asked in the forum about how teachers’ accountability for student achievement was measured, Narvo-Akkola paused and looked perplexed before saying that, in Finland, there is no word to translate that concept and that they trust the work of their teachers.

I received many more questions for Narvo-Akkola from Australian educators than I could politely impose in a one skating encounter. Narvo-Akkola has agreed to provide a webinar through Palnet Events <b>> later this year to provide more information.

Mark Sparvell is executive consultant – ICT capability and innovation at Principals Australia Institute. [email protected]

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