Why Finland?

One of the first questions I receive when I mention to anyone that I will be moving to Finland for the next 9 months (and the question I asked myself when I made the decision to apply for a Fulbright scholarship) is: Why Finland?

My work in various spaces of education (e.g. teaching, research, community organizing, etc.) has been focused primarily on the American education system. This is the context I was educated within, and it is the space that I feel the most personally invested working within in the long-term. More specifically, I am passionate about working towards making the American system more equitable (in access and outcomes) for students, independent of their socioeconomic status, race, religion, etc.

So then, why study the Finnish system, only to work for change in the American system?

The answer is manifold, but what initially drew my attention to Finland is what draws anyone’s attention to their education system: Finland has become a sort of poster child in the world of comparative/international education because they were able to rapidly mitigate their socioeconomic educational achievement gap and rise to become one of the so-called “top performing” education systems in the world. 

Because it is challenging to make cross-country comparisons on the quality of education between countries–especially between those that employ vastly different measures of educational quality or prioritize certain types of outcomes over others–any such international ranking must be taken with a grain of salt.

However, the fact that Finland was able to achieve this relative level of success is striking, given that their pedagogical approach to teaching is seemingly quite differing from other “top performing” nations like South Korea, Singapore, or Japan. For example, while other nations’ schools pile on extra hours of homework and extend the school year to push up their national performance, the average Finnish student spends only 3 hours a week on homework. Given my own high school education in the Bay Area–where most students felt pressure to fill up every minute of their time with studying or activities that might benefit their college admissions, the Finnish approach immediately struck me as intriguing.

So, I dug a little deeper to better understand what was behind the news that Finland had one of the best education systems in the world.

The most commonly employed measure to normalize countries’ “educational outcomes” is their PISA score. Introduced in 2001, PISA–or the Program for International Student Assessment–is an international assessment created by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), that measures its partner countries’ educational outcomes every three years by testing 15-year old students in the areas of math, science, and reading. The tests also measure for things such as students’ “equity,” “well-being,” and “financial literacy.” [For those interested in the methodology of PISA, more information can be found here.]

From 1962 to 1999, Finland consistently ranked below average in math and science. In 2006, Finland ranked first among all 65 PISA countries .

There is a lot to be said to decode what the mechanisms of change behind this shift might have been, and what the nature of that change actually was. I will not get into the specific policy history here behind these policy changes, in part because I hope that my research in Finland will give me the chance to read through the noise of current mainstream news accounts of their success.

However, a few critical policy changes cannot be ignored, even at a first glance at these findings. The most significant of which seems to be the introduction of a common or comprehensive school system (into which private grammar and public civic schools merged into) in the early 1970’s.  Finnish educational specialist, Pasi Sahlberg, notes that this change reflected a deeper shift in values: “In the early 1970s policy makers realised that if we were to successfully implement this very ambitious comprehensive school reform, bringing all Finnish students into the same school and expecting them to master the same curriculum, it would require not only different systems of support but a very different level of understanding and knowledge from each and every teacher.”

As someone who has considered being a K-12 teacher in the US, but have been continually frustrated by the lack of support available for such teachers, I am most fascinated by the way that these reforms affect the way that the teaching profession is valued in Finland.

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Image from Darling-Hammond, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, New York: Teachers College Press, ©2010 by Teachers College, Columbia University.

For example, in light of the shift to the comprehensive school system, teacher training programs were shifted from separate training schools into regular universities, and teachers (at the primary through upper secondary level) are all required to obtain a masters degree.

It seems as though it is inherent to the current American ethos to either blame teachers for the short-comings of our education system, or to valorize them for their many sacrifices. I found myself conditioned to believe that any teacher (particularly public school teachers) simply have to “deal with” the terms of the job if they accept it, because doing so is in line with “their calling.” I thought that maybe the minimal pay, the long hours, the emotional labour, etc. are all just “a part of the job.”

Reading about the Finnish model struck a chord with me, because it tapped into a feeling I had all along, but never considered too seriously in our current political system: Why not invest more in teachers? I started feeling that the existing rhetoric that “teachers are called to their work” was ultimately based in truth (at least for most of the teachers I have had), but I also sensed that this same rhetoric serves as a sort of cop-out for actually providing better supports for teachers at the national level.

So with these initial thoughts, I joined a research project with Dr. Maija Aksela of the University of Helsinki/LUMA Centre Finland interviewing teachers about their experiences with the teacher training programs affiliated with the nation’s most recent STEM education policy changes. I am excited about this opportunity–not because I believe that the US should simply “adopt the Finnish model”–but because conducting this research would give me the context to think more ambitiously about the possibilities of education reform in the US context.

That all being said, I understand that are more than a few critical national differences that make the adaptation of their model to the US context a little more complicated: Finland is an incredibly homogenous society with a comparatively much smaller migrant population (though there are also some schools where immigrant students compose roughly 50% of the student population). Finland has a population roughly 1.5 percent of that of the US. The Finnish government ensures universal health care and covers the costs of higher education. The list goes on, which is to suggest that Finnish sociopolitical context has profound differences from that of the US.

My goal in the next 9 months is, therefore, to better understand the nature of Finnish “educational success” in the context of its other social policies, and to better understand what the critical driving forces are behind Finland’s shift to equity. Only then will it be possible to better understand how much of the Finnish story is about what is happening within classrooms, and how much of their performance has to do with the social conditions across the nation.




If you are interested in reading more of the existing literature on the Finnish model of education, stay tuned for the next post, which will feature an introductory “Recommended Reading List” on the topic of the Finnish education system and social policies more broadly.


6 Replies to “Why Finland?”

  1. Waziuddin Chowdhury

    You might also consider the variegated population in Urban School Districts which are different from the suburban School.
    Here in San Francisco, the differences in the student body are both socio and economic.
    For instance, San Francisco Unified absorbs only 75% of the students in its system.
    Rest are going to private schools or parochial schools.
    As such it is hard to really figure out which factors are dominant in resulting in such student achievements that we have here.

    • mayakaul

      Yes, absolutely. Also so closely tied to those socioeconomic effects are the effects of race, so urban school districts often show some of the distinct effects of inequality. You’re also very right that it is important to distinguish school and student-level effects.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Donna

    Maya, fascinating points on how we should invest more in our teachers. Looking forward to reading more about the Finnish system.

  3. Tanaz Sutaria

    Interesting and I look forward to reading your findings..
    Also, the impact of both parents working and other home factors might make a difference. I have heard about how the parents and teachers there really value reading beyond the curriculum. Everybody has public library membership on a wider scale than here. I find that aspect interesting too since strong reading comprehension is needed for all subjects.

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