When people are asked what they associate with Finland, most still say: “Nokia.” According to Finnish diplomats next comes “Education.” In the end of 2011 Nokia still is the leading mobile communication company, with about one third share of all mobile phones sold in the world. The global reputation of Finnish education, in turn, draws primarily from peruskoulu, a 9-year comprehensive school model launched in 1972 that has become the bedrock of all other forms of education in Finland and one of th top-performing school systems in the world.
Both Nokia and the Finnish public school system have roots dating back to the 1860s. The story of Nokia begins in 1865. Fredrik Idestam, mining engineer and founder of Nokia Company, brought a new paper manufacturing process from Germany to Finland and built a wood pulp mill on the banks of the Tammerkoski River near the city of Tampere. Idestam is often referred to as the father of Finland’s paper industry.
The Finnish school system evolved at the same time. Pastor Uno Cygnaeus, a student of my grandfather’s grandfather’s father, Professor Carl Reinhold Sahlberg, and a travel companion of his son Reinhold Ferdinand to Sitka (Alaska) in the 1840s, was sent to Germany and Switzerland by the Finnish Senate in the 1850s to find out how public education in Finland should be organized in Finland. Cygnaeus recommended that the first teacher preparation seminar, based on what he saw in Switzerland, should be established in Jyväskylä, Finland. He also advised that the Finnish Folk School, as it was called, should be based on practical learning and the development of manual skills for all students, boys and girls. The first Finnish public school meant for all children was established also in Jyväskylä in 1866 following the model of German education. The pedagogy of Cygnaeus significantly shaped the future of public education and he has come to be known as the father of Finnish public school.
Nokia grew quickly and expanded its business from forestry to rubber works, cables and electronics. When European telecommunications markets were deregulated in the 1970s and 1980s and mobile networks became global, Nokia quickly took the leading role with some iconic innovations: The first international mobile phone network was built in 1981 and the first new technology GSM (global system for mobile communications) phone call was made by Nokia in 1991. Nokia soon became the world leader of the mobile telephone industry by the end of that decade. This transformation of Nokia happened in a relatively short period of time and is often cited as an example of dramatic organizational transformation.
Education in Finland has gone through a similar transformation, as is described in my book Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?. The transformation of the education system in Finland that kicked off from the introduction of the new peruskoulu was fundamental and rapid. It led to the immediate expansion of upper-secondary education and created pathways to higher education for two thirds of the age cohorts by the end of the 1990s. Building on the ideas of upgrading teacher education to the master’s degree level in universities, abolishing streaming and ability grouping, and investing early on in special education and student counseling positively affected the quality of education in peruskoulu and beyond. As a consequence, by the end of the 1990s, Finnish peruskoulu became the world leader in reading, science, and math. This shift from an elitist and socially divided system of education into the most equitable public education system in the world happened in such a short time that it has been frequently cited as an example of dramatic organizational transformation.
Smart phone sales became the weak component of Nokia in 2010. Nokia continued to make mobile phones that were smarter but they were also more complicated for users. These new products were not able to compete in North America with the iPhone and other hand-held media devices that could do more than traditional phones. Analysis of what went wrong at Nokia reveals some telling aspects of leadership that may resonate with education sector management later on. Some observers argued that 10 years ago Nokia had reached a state of complacency with its domination of the world’s mobile phone market. There were those who believed that Nokia had lost much of its creative capacity to come up with new ideas when set goals had been realized.
This is a also potential risk for the Finnish education system as it moves on as a celebrated model of public education in the world. The fourth PISA study in 2009 conveyed the first signs of possible turn of the course of the Finnish comprehensive school, although the overall performance is still excellent. Certain complacency and inability to build joint and inspiring vision of the future in Finnish education will serve as factors that inevitably lead the system into trouble.
Foreign visitors often ask where all the pedagogical ideas and innovations come from in Finnish education. The response is surprising: The source of many pedagogical innovations and research evidence for change are imported from elsewhere. Education in Finland depends on a truly open-source platform also because domestic educational change-knowledge generation is modest in international comparison. In 2009 Nokia spent 8.5 billion U.S. dollars on its own research and development work, with every third staff member employed as a researcher. Finland’s educational research and development hasn’t got necessary resource to keep up educational renewal. Therefore international partnerships are more important to the Finns than ever before.