Is Finland really an educational paradise?

I am lucky to have had first hand experience of several of the world’s most highly rated educational systems: as a primary, secondary and university student in the UK, a university exchange student in Singapore, a teacher in Japan, and a university student in Finland.


PISA is undoubtedly the most recognised national ranking for educational systems, and was what originally made Finland’s educational fame. Although the most recent versions of PISA have seen Finland fall to around 12th place in Maths, 5th place in Science and 4th place in Reading, Finland still has an amazing reputation for education. Whenever you hear of Finland’s educational practice it is always in relation to things like this video that was popular on Facebook (it’s a heavy handed treatment of school but makes some valid points). Finland is touted as an educational paradise where students out achieve other nations because of radical ideas like shorter school days or no homework.


So is it true that Finland is an educational paradise? Spending 2 years on the international Master’s programme at the University of Jyväskylä gave me some insights into what it is that Finland does that works, and what is perhaps over hyped a bit.


One of the first things that normally appears in an article from the US about Finnish education is the lack of homework, the shorter days, and the larger number of breaks. This is true to an extent. One of the great things about Finnish education is that the amount of homework and lessons in a day starts out relatively little but increases as a student gets older.  Especially for younger kids there is far less than scheduled time than in some other countries. Harris Cooper and colleagues conducted research into how much homework is good for students and found that for elementary students the only real benefit could be developing good study habits, so 10-20 minutes a day for young children is fine. Finland takes this to heart. Allowing breaks through the course of the day also aligns well with what we know about the ability of humans to concentrate in general. The Pomodoro Technique is a popular way to get more work done for adults, splitting the working day into 25 minute work sprints followed by 5 minutes breaks. If this is an effective way for adults to work, then it makes sense that younger students would find it harder to concentrate solidly for an hour and would need a break after each lesson.


However, is this shorter day what really makes the difference in Finland? In a previous blog I mentioned that getting into teacher education in Finland is incredibly difficult, and this is probably one of the largest contributors to Finland’s high quality system. A very good read for those looking to know more about what makes a real difference in a classroom is John Hattie’s Visible Learning. Hattie took over 800 summary articles (a.k.a. meta-analyses) to try and understand what has the biggest effect on students. The biggest impact seemed to be a quality teacher, so it follows that Finland’s teachers needing to go through a competitive selection process alone could be what propels it to near the top of the table. However, there are several other elements to the teaching profession that aid Finnish teachers, such as continual professional development and more freedom over what they teach than in other countries. The relatively free reign of teachers is perhaps only made possible due to the fact that students have few large assessments through the course of their education. As far as I know smaller tests are still a part of the educational ethos, but seen as a way to give feedback, rather than the ultimate goal. A society that trusts and respects teachers is likely to produce quality education.


This can also be observed in Japan, where teachers are seen as civil servants (as each teacher is in fact a government employee). Currently PISA is dominated by Asian countries, with Singapore topping the tables in Maths, Science and Reading. I believe that at least part of the reason for that is because of the status afforded teachers in society in many Asian countries. However, PISA isn’t everything, and if I had a child I would rather send them to a school in Finland than to a school in Japan. The Japanese system has some fantastic points, not least the sense of responsibility and community that it ingrains into its students. Every member of every class has a role of some sort, whether it is being in charge of delivering school lunch to their peers or recording the homework from English class. This sense of each person having their place and a role to play is great, I think it really helps students to learn the importance of responsibility. The difference, however, comes in the number of hours that are dedicated to education. Students in Japan work long and hard, usually spending a couple of hours doing club activities after school, before heading to a cram school to study some more. Korea I hear is pretty similar. The high suicide rates in Japan and South Korea due to huge pressures placed on students are well known, and I would guess have a lasting effect on youth. While I was living in Japan I remember my parents visiting me and one of their first questions was ‘why are there some many students wearing uniforms on the weekend?’ Education is a lifelong pursuit, but I don’t believe that enforced formal education should be a person’s life. As Mark Twain famously said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”.


One element of Finland’s education success that I haven’t heard spoken about often is a cultural factor. Finnish schools are free, in fact it is for the most part illegal to charge tuition fees. Finland is also one of the countries in the world with the smallest gap between the rich and the poor. This, combined with such high entry requirements for teachers, means that schools across the country provide relatively consistent education. As I previously wrote about, there are a number of advantages to ensuring that students are not divided by income with the rich attending better schools.


So, as Finland appears to fall in the PISA ranks will it lose its reputation as an educational wonderland? I think not, but as many countries develop their own education systems it may not shine quite as brightly. There are certainly many things it could learn from other systems as well, such as the community spirit of the Japanese. Really there are no ideal education systems, as each country must strive to create something that will help them to develop and prepare their societies for their own unique situation. It is certainly a good system, nonetheless, and one where many others could find good ideas.

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