What are the key things the Finnish education system can teach the world, and Australian education systems in particular?
Pasi: Finland has become one of the most investigated school systems in the world. At the same time, however, there are many myths about Finnish schools around the world. A rather common mistake is to think that Finland’s education system can be exported to other countries, or that copying elements of it would improve educational performance elsewhere. I have argued through my research and personal experience that there are much to learn from the Finnish story. The main lessons that Australia and others could take a closer look include:
(1) High value of and trust in the teaching profession. Teaching is research-based knowledge profession akin to doctors and lawyers. Entry into initial teacher education is strictly controlled, degree requirements are on par with other advanced higher education degrees, and clinical practice is seamlessly tied to theory and knowledge of teaching. Hence, teachers have more professional autonomy and schools can be trusted in their core work – teaching and learning.
(2) Special education support based on early intervention. All children have access to individualized support and help based on their needs from the beginning of their schooling. Curriculum and assessment of learning are personalized to meet the needs and interests of each child. Special education criteria are defined by developmental than medical criteria. Every child has some special needs, therefore special education is for everyone.
(3) Equity drives excellence. Education policy is built upon the idea that variation in students’ achievement in school is not a result of their parents’ or guardians’ education, occupation, or possession of power and wealth. This means that curricula that schools design and then implement have clear operational aspects that aim at coping with the inequalities that children bring to school every day. Healthy school meals, healthcare and wellbeing, special education, whole child approach, and access to play and physical activity are some of the important aspects of the work of every school.
Finland’s results slipped somewhat in the 2015 PISA tests. Why?
It is a fact that teenagers in Finland (just like in most other Western countries) do worse in reading, mathematics, and science in school than they did ten years ago. The problem is primarily with Finnish boys who read less, eat worse, sleep less, and spend much more time (alone) with digital screens. As a result, Finnish girls outperform boys in all measured domains in PISA. When the gliding started from rather high point in 2009, it also appears more dramatic than if it had started somewhere lower. In other words, Finland’s results have slipped because the boys spend time on and have interest in something other than school.
Another reason may be that while most of the 34 OECD member countries (like Australia) have adjusted their education policies and designed school reforms with higher rankings in PISA in mind, Finland has done the opposite. Priorities in Finnish schools have increasingly focused on equity, well-being, whole child development, arts, music and play. When so many other countries have moved towards deliberately trying to improve PISA scores and Finland has moved further from that, it is obvious that results won’t be as they used to be.
On top of all that, significantly shrinking education budgets have driven many school districts and schools to cut support functions to children leaving more students without individualized help in classrooms. It is noteworthy that explaining ups and downs in international rankings is a risky business. The 2015 PISA test was the first time when students used computers in answering the test questions. It seems to be so that this shift from paper-and-pencil test to digital test makes comparisons between 2015 and earlier PISA cycles uncertain.
Entire interview was published in SBS News on 31 January 2018