Many are fascinated by the fact that Finland has been able to transform its educational system from something elitist, unknown, and inefficient into a paragon of good learning, equity and efficiency. Foreign visitors have been particularly surprised to find out that Finland doesn’t employ any corporate-style education reforms or allow private money to pay for education of its children. Many wonder how teaching has become the number one profession among young Finns—above medicine and law—and how primary teacher education in Finnish universities is one of the most competitive choices of study. Some still ask: Can Finland be a model for educational change in other countries?
There are those who doubt that Finland has much relevance to other educational systems. The most commonly presented argument is that since Finland is so exceptional, it hardly provides anything meaningful to the United States, England, Australia, France, or other much larger and different nations. Two points are often emphasized when the relevance of Finland as a model for educational change is considered.
First, Finland is culturally and ethnically rather homogeneous and thus too far apart from United States, for example. Fair enough. But the same holds for Japan, Shanghai or Korea that are also used as inspirations for education reforms. The proportion of foreign-born citizens in Finland is barely 5% in 2011 and the number of non-Finnish speaking citizens about 10%. The largest minorities are Russian, Estonian, and Somali. The diversification of Finnish society since the mid-1990s has been the fastest in Europe. Ethnic diversity concentrates in urban districts; by 2020 the capital area is expected to have about one-fifth of its students with immigrant background.
Second, Finland is considered to be smallish, and therefore not a good model for whole-system reform for large nations in North America or elsewhere. Population in Finland is today 5.5 million. It is about the population of Minnesota in the United States or Victoria in Australia, and just slightly more than the size of Alberta in Canada or Nord-Pas de Calais in France. Indeed, about 30 states of the United States have a population close to or less than Finland. These include the states of Maryland, Colorado, Oregon, and Connecticut. The states of Washington, Indiana, and Massachusetts are also smallish and close to Finland in size. In Australia, only New South Wales has a slightly larger population than Finland; all other Australian states are smaller. In Canada, only Ontario is significantly larger in population (and land area) than Finland; all other provinces are similar in size. All these jurisdictions have freedom to set their own educational policies and conduct reforms as they think best. Therefore experiences from an educational system of the size of Finland should be particularly interesting and relevant to them.
Finally, one point of view is that academic achievement tests, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), focus on areas too narrow to capture the whole spectrum of school education, and thus ignore social skills, moral development, creativity or digital literacy as important outcomes of public education for all. This skeptical group argues that chosen measurement methodologies in current international tests favor Finland because they match better with the culture of teaching in Finland. These include both Finnish and foreign scientists and experts. Recently, Harvard professor Howard Gardner told his audience in Finland that it is wise to treat these student assessment studies with caution. He contended that results in the studies like these always depend on the subjects of study, i.e. selected methodologies and overall point of views.
We all are different and can learn from one another. An important lesson from Finland is that its educational success is a result of deliberate and continuous learning from other education systems, their practitioners, policy-makers and researchers. Most of the innovations in Finnish classrooms are initially from the United States, England, Germany or Canada. If Finland had used the excuse that these countries are irrelevant as sources for its educational improvement because they are too different, I wouldn’t be writing this blog now. Yes, Finland is different but there are many interesting lessons to other countries in the way Finland provides good public education for every child.