The Inside Agenda Blog

Why Are Finnish Kids So Smart?

by Eric Bombicino Tuesday October 23, 2012

Update: TVOParents' Cheryl Jackson interviewed Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, quoted extensively in the blog post below, about the Finnish education system in November 2011.


In the lead-up to TVO's Learning 2030 event in Kitchener-Waterloo this weekend, producer Eric Bombicino looks at an educational superstar: Finland. 

Finland is seen by many as an educational superpower. Their students have placed at the top or near the top of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) over the past decade. The PISA tests a random sampling of 15-year-olds from 65 countries on reading, math, and science comprehension.

Since the test was introduced in 2001, Finland has increasingly been held up as a model for educational reform. But, what exactly are they doing that is so different? Let’s take a look.

Standardized Testing

Students do not have any mandatory exams until, as a high school senior, they are required to take an exam for entrance into university. In the first six years of school – beginning at the age of 7 – children are not even given grades.

Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility, and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, says the first six years are not about academic success: “it’s about being ready to learn and finding your passion.”

In a visit to Stanford University in early 2012, Dr. Sahlberg spoke about the role of testing in the United States: "If I could change one thing in policy, I would seriously rethink the role of standardized testing.” It’s not that he thinks standardized testing, in and of itself, is a bad thing, but "the way it's done [in the United States] is simply leading to so many negative consequences, in the form of narrowing curricula and reshaping the way teachers and schools are working."

The Prestige of Teaching

According to The New Republic, in Finland "high school teachers with 15 years of experience make 102 percent of what their fellow university graduates do. In the United States, by contrast, they earn just 65 percent." Every teacher is required to have a three-year master’s degree, which is a coveted and difficult degree to receive. "It's harder to get into primary school education than a medical program,” Dr. Sahlberg remarked. In fact, only one in 10 applicants are accepted.

In Finland, teaching is a prestigious career; as a childhood aspiration, it is mentioned in the same breath as any other career.

"When we compare teachers to other professions in society, we compare them to lawyers or doctors or architects," Dr. Sahlberg said. "Not as [in the United States], where they are compared to nurses or therapists, or something like that, that require lower academic training."

Teacher Autonomy

Schools receive full autonomy, with principals and teachers receiving considerable independence when creating their own individual curriculum. Teachers design their courses and lesson plans with a national curriculum as a helpful guide, not a cast-in-stone blueprint.

Teachers assess their pupils using independent tests they create themselves. Students receive a report card at the end of each semester, but it is based on individualized reports that the teachers create.

This sort of system, inevitably, raises the question of how to keep schools and teachers accountable, which Dr. Sahlberg doesn’t see as a problem. "There's no word for accountability in Finnish," he told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."

Dan Pink, friend of the show and author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, would applaud this level of autonomy, arguing that it is a better motivator than the carrot-and-stick incentives that teachers in the United States receive. His book, drawing on decades of research, claims that our standard economic reasoning of bonuses and cash incentives might not be the be-all and end-all motivator we think it is. It turns out, we are more strongly motivated by intrinsic incentives, which Pink argues are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 

Emphasis on Comfort and Familiarity

The Finnish school system brings new meaning to the "No Child Left Behind" policy. There is no advanced or remedial placement until grade 10; all classes contain a mix of ability-level students with most classes having two or more teachers present who can provide additional support to those who need it. Since 1991, the Finns have rejected the practice of holding back underachievers and making them repeat a grade. The stigma and loss of self-esteem was seen as too big of a drawback for grade repetition to be considered an effective practice. Instead, these students are tutored by specialists in the area of their academic weakness.

Primary school students often stay with the same teacher for several years, which allows the teacher to understand each student’s learning patterns and better tailor lesson plans and one-on-one learning. The transition from primary school to secondary school can often be very unsettling and jarring, which is why many institutions in Finland combine both primary and secondary schools. Students, also, do not wear uniforms, address teachers by their first names, and are encouraged to relax in their surroundings.

Cooperation over Competition

Competition is often seen as a necessary ingredient to propel people, institutions, and businesses to success. However, as Dr. Sahlberg points out, almost nothing makes the Finnish people feel more uncomfortable. In his book, Sahlberg quotes the Finnish writer Samuel Paronen: "Real winners do not compete." There are no special lists or even methods to discern the best schools or the best teachers. Their policy focus is not competition between teachers and schools, but cooperation.

Equity over Excellence

Decades ago, the Finnish school system was a shell of what it is today and badly in need of reform. The goal of the massive overhaul of their system was never excellence, but equity, the idea that every child should have the same opportunity to learn regardless of geography, family background, or income. Their policy was an instrument to even out social inequality, not a production system for wunderkinds.

There are no private schools in Finland – all students receive a free education from the age of seven until they complete their university studies. Yes, you read that correctly: university education is completely state-funded. They also all receive free school meals, resources and materials, transport and support services.

Student excellence was never a particular priority – so when Finnish students topped the first ever PISA tests in 2001, it came as huge surprise to both the Finnish government and the international community.

As Dr. Sahlberg points out, “education policies [in the United States) are always written to be ‘the best’ or ‘the top this or that.' We’re not like that. We want to be better than the Swedes. That’s enough for us.”

Applying the Finnish Model

Adam Lopez, a primary school teacher in South Wales, writes in The Guardian: 

The Finnish system's success is built on the idea that: "less can be more." This may appear counter-intuitive to many within other educational systems in which standards and effectiveness are measured in standardised data and evidence trails. The absence of corrosive competition and an egalitarian ethos inherent in the Finnish culture has surely played a role in shaping this very impressive system.

The latter part of Lopez’s statement is particularly important to consider if we are to ask the inevitable question: how can we apply the lessons learned in Finland to our educational system?

The system they created in Finland was tailored for their unique cultural disposition. It is a country of 5.3 million people, only 4 per cent of whom are foreign born. Could a multicultural country like Canada, six times the size of Finland, with a vast range of differences from coast-to-coast, benefit from a model like Finland’s? Is it even possible – let alone beneficial – to apply the Finnish model, whole stock, to the entire country? What about province-by-province? Which provinces, given their size and diversity, are most likely to benefit from a model like Finland's?

All of these important questions aside, Finland's education model is well-worth exploring and ripe for policy options that could be custom-tailored to our unique national and cultural landscape.

Sources: The New Republic, The New York Times, Stanford University News, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Finland Phenomenon.

Image credit: The Center on International Education Benchmarking.