How we teach our children: The methods and myths behind Finland’s education success

Finland’s emergence as a world-leading education system surprised even the Finns. But there are also many myths about how they did it, writes Pasi Sahlberg.

How we teach our children: The methods and myths behind Finland’s education success

IMAGINE reading this story in the year 2000. News about shining educational innovation included how literacy and numeracy strategies had caused steady rises of student test scores in England, how free schools had vitalised education markets in Sweden, and how higher external expectations for all children promised closing the achievement gap between those who have and those who have less in New Zealand.

National assessments, digital technologies, and standardised teaching were the key ingredients in education reforms around the world.

At that time in the northern-most corner of Europe, a nation with a population of around 5m, had been building its education system using its homegrown approach instead of following others.

Schools needed great teachers and wise principals to get better, of course. They also thought that trust is better than surveillance and control if people are to be encouraged to try new things and supported to succeed.

These same people knew from their past that if everybody thinks the same way, no one probably thinks very much. They often pointed to their crown jewel as a living example: Nokia.

Indeed, if this was the year 2000, you would probably be able to think of the world’s leading mobile phone brand as the only thing associated with Finland. Even if you were an educationalist, you would not likely have heard that Finland’s schools were anything special.

If you were an educator at that time, you might have heard about the new international student assessment that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) had inaugurated that year.

PISA, or Programme for International Student Assessment, compares all OECD member countries school systems by measuring what 15-year-olds know and can do with what they have learned in reading, mathematics, and science. It is the most common international yardstick used to compare school systems to one another.

There were many education ministers back then who thought their own country would be on the top of PISA when results were released. High hopes and big political promises made in England, Germany, Sweden, and New Zealand made these and some other education systems favourites to win the global education race.

Up in the north, Finns kept on building their education system based on broad consensus and belief that, to pay off, education reforms need consistent, smart investments, and perseverance. The Finnish adage became that to rush education reform is to ruin it. If there was any expectation among Finnish educators regarding their rank in PISA, the Finns admitted, tongue in cheek, that it was to be better than Sweden.

The news from PISA 2000 hit all by surprise, including the Finns. Top performer ahead of all other OECD countries was difficult to accept and harder to explain. This high international performance has continued until today and Finland has repeatedly been tested to be among the top of the OECD and the best EU country in school education.

Students in the cafeteria of the Hiidenkivi community school on the outskirts of Helsinki.
Students in the cafeteria of the Hiidenkivi community school on the outskirts of Helsinki.

THERE are no short, simple answers to frequently asked questions about what makes Finnish schools so good. It is important to keep in mind that the Finns never planned it that way, it was an accident. Here are three commonly mentioned factors of success.

First, just like in any other walk of life, decisions regarding how to do your best should happen as close to the practice as possible. Therefore, Finland’s education policies have pushed the authority from the central administration to local communities and schools.

Furthermore, teachers in Finland enjoy a fair amount of professional autonomy compared to their Irish peers, for example. This independence in schools is not a total freedom to do whatever teachers want. It is rather autonomy that is built on professional collaboration and trust within schools.

External inspection of teachers’ work and testing of students’ achievement have also been over time transferred from national authorities to be central aspects of the teaching profession, as well as school leadership. School inspections and student tests have not disappeared, they simply have new forms under the responsibilities of the schools.

Second, again, if you wish your business or football team to flourish, you need to invest in your people. Long ago the Finns understood that the best guarantee of making your education reform succeed is to educate all teachers better than before. As a result, the basic requirement to teach in Finland is a master’s degree issued by one of the research universities.

Unlike in Ireland, where the Government doesn’t regulate how many new teachers are prepared each year, Finland’s universities graduate students so that they will all find a job. Teachers are viewed as professional akin to doctors and lawyers. They are organised under one professional association and are paid adequately.

No wonder that in the recent national survey, the teaching profession was valued by the people in the top 10 among all 450 jobs.

Third, Finland’s education policy has had a strong focus on securing equal opportunities for all children to do well at school.

There’s a strong focus on equal opportunities for all children.
There’s a strong focus on equal opportunities for all children.

Schools that are the main players in implementing education reforms have been able to focus on betterment of equity in their schools.

One government after another since the 1970s has invested resources to equip schools that have more children with special needs, so that they can level up disadvantages that some pupils have due to their family backgrounds.

Education reforms that address equity in schools include paid school meals and healthcare services for all children every day, balanced curriculums that give arts, music, manual skills, and other non-academic areas the same importance as traditional school subjects.

Local curriculum design, where schools are the chief architects of the work of their schools, has played a critical role in strengthening equity of education.

Interestingly, international evidence today suggests that, according to that Finnish instinct, the best education systems are those that combine equity and excellence.

Local curriculum design has played a critical role in strengthening equity of education.
Local curriculum design has played a critical role in strengthening equity of education.

News around the world recently reported that Finland will scrap traditional subjects in schools and replace them with project-based teaching. Take heart, it is a myth.

There are also other ‘urban legends’ about Finnish schools. For instance, some believe that students have no homework. Others think that the Finns have invented supercharged teaching methods that lead to stellar learning results.

Then there are those who believe that it is Finland’s mono-cultural society that has paved the way to educational greatness. If you want to understand what Finland’s education is all about, busting these and other myths is a smart point of departure.

Lessons for learning in Ireland

Is there anything that Ireland could take from the Finnish education experience? Naturally, writes Pasi Sahlberg, who also says trying to imitate Finland in any way is a ticket to failure.

Finland and Ireland have similarities in their education systems: attractive teaching profession, a system of small schools, and education as a condition for the nation’s prosperity and survival.

Lesson 1:

Ireland needs to build education policies on these characteristics. Imitating neighbours or transporting education models from overseas have proved to be bad ideas. Learn from others, but find your own path.

Lesson 2:

Helping schools and teachers to collaborate, experimenting with new ideas, and learning from one another, are probably better strategies than further standardisation of teaching and tighter grip of the control over schools.

Lesson 3:

Children need more time to play in and out of school, especially now when so much of their time is spent sitting and staring at all kinds of screens.

One hour of physical activity and play each day for all school children, together with a license from parents and teachers to be children, would be another milestone along the Finnish way to happier and healthier children.

Finland facts

Top-performer in OECD’s PISA study (15-year-olds tested in reading, maths, science) since 2000.

All 6-year-olds attend half-day preschool, 75% of 3-to-5-year-olds in kindergarten.

Compulsory education is from age 7 to 16 and it is provided by publicly funded basic schools.

No private schools, no school uniforms, very few religious schools.

No stream or tracking during basic education.

Upper secondary education has two pathways: academic and vocational.

About 95% of basic school leavers attend upper secondary schools of their choice (close to 50-50 split between two pathways).

No external census-based standardised tests before matriculation examination at the end of academic upper secondary school.

Finland spends 5.7% of national wealth (GDP) on institutions in primary to higher education (2013).

Teachers earnings at the national average salaries and at the international average teacher salaries.

Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish author and scholar, is visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. Twitter: @pasi_sahlberg

More in this section

IE logo


The Business Hub

News and analysis on business, money and jobs from Munster and beyond by our expert team of business writers.

Sign up
Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd