Are Finland’s Schools Really the Gold Standard?

Are Finland’s Schools Really the Gold Standard?

It is a given that at some point during almost any discussion about school reform, a reference to Finland’s education system will arise. Finland’s education model in recent years has been championed by educational progressives for a variety of reasons. The Finnish education system has, for instance, become synonymous with being highly personalised and student-focused. Its strong results in education league tables such as PISA has also been touted as proof of its success. However, a closer look at Finland’s more recent recent PISA standings and a contextualisation of its education system and reforms raises questions about the popular narrative of its education system.

Firstly, despite much fanfare to the contrary, Finland does not have ‘the best education system in the world’ in terms of achievement in maths or science. While this may have been true at one point, it has been declining in terms of reading, maths and science scores since around 2005. Once at the very top of the rankings, Finland has fallen several places in recent years. In 2012 for instance, Finland ranked 6th in the world in science and outside the top 10 in terms of reading. Boys in particular have fallen behind in recent years in Finland relative to girls. This is by no means exclusive to Finland – this is a trend that has emerged in recent years across the world. However, the gap between boys and girls in recent PISA results in Finland is larger than in similar countries.

A recent study from Helsinki University raises further doubts about Finland’s highly progressive educational system. The study focuses on the effects of sweeping reforms enacted in 2016. Among these changes was a new digital and phenomenon-based curriculum. Research has found that the increased use of digital technology in classrooms correlated with lower achievement. Students would often become distracted by the technology and use if for reasons other than schoolwork.

Phenonemon-based learning, which de-emphasised subject-based learning and encouraged collaborative, project-based learning was also scrutinised by the report. This form of learning has much in common with inquiry-based learning which is popular in many countries’ school systems across the world. While phenomenon-based learning is useful for more advanced students, for students who are less academically gifted or do not have strong support from home, this form of learning is not optimal. The disparity between gifted and non-gifted students taught through phenomenon-based learning has been particularly pronounced in maths and the sciences.

There are also issues about the data, or lack thereof, specifically tying the high scores Finland attained in the early 2000s to its much-vaunted progressive education agenda. Tim Oates, writing for Cambridge Assessment points out some of these issues. In his piece ‘Finnish Fairy Stories’ he argues the wrong conclusions were drawn about Finnish school success from ‘education tourists’ from across the world in the early 21st century. Where much of the confusion about what lessons to take from arises from the fact these education tourists focused on the education system in 2001, when they first began to arrive in Finland – not on the previous decades, where the reforms which made Finnish education among the best in the world were enacted. The nature of these reforms was, contrary to popular belief, quite conservative and traditional. For example, Finnish education in the 20th century was highly centralised and did not have much autonomy for either teacher or student. Instead, a clear top-down structure prevailed, with a standardised curriculum and consensus on how to teach it.

A lack of empirical data to back up common assertions about Finnish education also complicates what lessons to take from the Finnish system. According to the Economic Policy Institute, these claims do not stand up to scrutiny. Instead, myriad socioeconomic and cultural factors are primarily the cause of the rise of Finnish education. In many cases, the singling out of ‘best practices’ as the cause of Finland’s educational success are a case study of confirmation bias – researchers and policymakers seeking out policies they are already likely to support.

Apart from the policy issues, there is also the issue of attempting to replicate Finland’s unique culture and attitude toward education. Finland is a highly homogenous nation with a relatively small population. There is a high degree of consensus within society about many aspects of Finnish education. Finns also have a relatively high level of trust in institutions such as schools relative to much of the rest of the world. Finland’s education system, though declining, is still above average by most measures. It would be unwise to dismiss it altogether. There are some things which other countries can replicate from the Finnish experience. One of these is to ensure that resources are distributed equitably between schools. Reducing the gap between rich and poor schools in terms of resourcing has demonstrable, significant effects on educational achievement. In this regard, Finland is among the best in the world.

When examining what lessons the world can take from Finland’s school system, it is important to take a holistic approach. There are many, many factors which play a part in the success or lack thereof of schools. Cherry-picking single policies or reforms, divorced from a broader context and empirical data is not the way to go.

Scott J Davies

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Scott Davies is a freelance writer and tutor. He is currently studying a Master of Education. He is interested in education, economics, geopolitics and history. He's on Twitter and has a Medium page.

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24 thoughts on “Are Finland’s Schools Really the Gold Standard?

  1. Why is Finland rather than Hong Kong, Singapore or China the relevant system that Americans ought to learn from? There is a kind of racist subtext where you can only ever learn from other white people and never from non-whites. I know that our (as in Singapore’s) primary school mathematics syllabus has been adopted by some schools and homeschoolers but the impression I seem to be getting is that the teaching establishment in the US does not seem to be as eager to look to Singapore or other east asian models as to Finland even though Singapore consistently outperforms Finland in PISA rankings. So, what gives?

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    • Could it be as simple as Finland’s system includes an 11-week summer break, and Singapore has a 6-week winter break? A lot of behind-the-scenes stuff goes in during the summer break. Eg, our local school district’s pay structure rewards teachers for finishing a Masters or PhD degree; many of the classes for those are offered over the summer break. The construction industry is geared towards doing large maintenance of or additions to schools during the summer break.

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      • How would the timing of any given break affect pedagogy styles and syllabus construction? In addition to the 6 week winter break, there is a 4 week summer break in june, a 1 week march break and another week in September. I know that schools in the US and UK tend to have most of their breaks in the summer (and a week during christmas*), but the total amount of break time should not be too different. And insofar as schools in the US have a more contiguous school year, they should have more flexibility in how they teach. After all, if it would be detrimental to have a month break come in the middle of teaching a particular topic, then that would limit your options compared to having your holidays all at once.

        *do you guys have a full week break during the easter period?

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        • I don’t know. I do know that papers used to be published regularly claiming that the US system could get better results by “simply” changing to a trimester system with each consisting of three months in class followed by a one-month break*. Such proposals were inevitably shot down because too much of the adult world would have to change to accommodate such a schedule. It is possible that those experiences lead to favoring other systems that already have a US-style summer break. It’s also possible that it’s all racist.

          * As I recall, most of them based on experiences like my family had shortly after we moved to Colorado. Due to a huge burst of in-migration, the school district ran a trimester schedule where in any given month, one-quarter of the students (and teachers) were on a one-month break. That stopped as soon as enough temporary classrooms were built because it was uniformly hated.

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    • I don’t know if I’d call it racism, but perhaps cultural bigotry? Finland is seen as Euro* and thus people think it’s culturally similar enough that what they do would fly in the US. Singapore, being Asian, would be too radical a departure to be workable.

      *And certain progressives just love almost everything Euro.

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      • Asian school systems are rightly or wrongly seen as pressure cookers devoted to pounding facts in their students heads with no more for personal growth. Finland’s school system is seen as more humane and focused on the good of each child rightly or wrongly.

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        • I don’t even know where to start. Wouldn’t you say that there’s a big difference between the culture of Singapore and that of the US? There are similarities due to British influence, I’m sure. But they have very different histories, religions, languages, et cetera.

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          • Well, everyone, especially the younger generation* speaks english. While everyone is supposed to be bilingual, actual facility with non-english languages like Mandarin or Tamil has bee decreasing and is an ongoing concern for the state. On he other hand, english is still a second language with most Finns. We get the same television programs that you do, perhaps we only get it a year after it comes out in the US, but I doubt that makes a difference. Anyway, with netflix and other streaming services, I don’t think what we get on cable matters anymore. Religion-wise, sure, the demographic mix is somewhat different, but I don’t see how that makes a difference. Singaporeans are a lot more socially conservative on average than Americans, but the Finns, if I’m not wrong are a lot less conservative. I could go on and none of these differences would seem to matter.

            Here are a few more plausible options:

            Singapore is very conformist and less individualistic. However, Finland also seems to be so. For instance Finland has laws which require people to give their children traditional Finnish names. While exceptions may be granted for religious and ethnic reasons, a cousin of mine who had moved to Finland for his job (he used to work for Nokia) encountered problems in that aspect when his second son was born.

            Singaporeans on average tend to value education/respect teachers more than Americans. Even if this is true, So, according to the article, do Finns.

            Any consideration as to why Finland is a better model for the US than Singapore is should not just posit some superficial difference, but a) point to an aspect that is plausibly linked to educational outcomes, b) be an aspect in which Singapore really differs from the US and c) be an aspect in which Singapore differs from the US significantly more than Finland does.

            *language facility in english might be lower among my grandfather’s generation, but that’s not really an issue for the younger generation except for recent migrants and guest workers from china and bangladesh.

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            • Singapore has a high population density and limited natural resources. And it’s small. Such countries have to put an emphasis on trade and education. There simply isn’t a large population in Singapore that has traditionally made a living off the land. That’s bound to affect the culture.

              I also think that you’re underrating the importance of historical religion to a culture. It’s going to be hard to quantify, sure. But the patterns across the map are undeniable.

              But let’s go back to your original comment, where you tossed out the accusation of racism. That was a lousy thing to say, and it was wrong. They diminish the credibility of the writer.

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              • But let’s go back to your original comment, where you tossed out the accusation of racism. That was a lousy thing to say, and it was wrong. They diminish the credibility of the writer.

                A lot of europhilia comes from a very ugly place*, which, even if not exactly racism, is about just as bad. Let’s call this a kind of ethno-cultural chauvinism. When you pick the european who is no 6 on the list instead of any of the asians who are placed 1-5, it does look like an expression of an ugly kind of europhilia. This is especially true if the proferred arguments supposedly justifying this choice are really weaksauce.

                People who think that the Finnish model is better for the US than the Singaporean model better have a better story to tell than what they have said so far.
                *The same kind of ugly place that birthed colonialism and slavery. So, very ugly even if understandable and all too human.

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  2. Murali: Singaporeans are a lot more socially conservative on average than Americans, but the Finns, if I’m not wrong are a lot less conservative.

    Another group that’s probably a lot less socially conservative than Americans on average, is American education researchers. So in looking at Finland, they see a culture they agree with more.

    And I suspect you’re right that racism or Eurocentric cultural chauvinism plays a part. As mentions there’s the perception of East Asian education systems as cram-focused hothouses. Which while it may have done truth to it, is doubtless considerably reinforced by that racism / cultural chauvinism.

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      • FWIW, what I learned in my bookselling days is that Saxon Maths is considered far heavier on practice drills than any other US system, which is generally seen as a selling point to those homeschoolers that use it. Homeschoolers, generally, are people who are *very dissatisfied* with the US system, that’s why they are doing something else. So looking at homeschooling reviews is relevant to curricula, but there are a lot of weird biases baked in that don’t necessarily match what the average person, let alone educational expert, thinks about US curricula.

        Also FWIW, 1) my assumption was that the writer was looking to analyze why everyone else is so excited about Finland, rather than preferring it himself, given that the essay is pretty skeptical, and links to at least one article that makes the same point you do (and I did think you were talking about Americans, not this writer, but still I want to mention that); 2) I think the reason why Americans are reluctant to look to Singapore is because the *perception* in the west is that it’s not a democracy (common and very disqualifying in US eyes) and did shady things to Malaysia (less common, less disqualifying, hey, America does shady things too). Rightly or wrongly, that is the perception, and thus people are averse to looking to emulate its systems – similarly, China is perceived as Communist and b/c of the Cold War will never be touted on any kind of large scale (Hong Kong is perceived as Chinese, same problem); on the other hand I grew up hearing about how Japanese educational systems were or weren’t superior to American ones and I know that I have American friends who grew up hearing the same discussions; I’ve also heard conversations about what in South Korea is or isn’t useful in US contexts, more often over the years than I hear about Finland (neither of which I hear about that often; IME Americans mostly argue about which states are good and bad and whether Canada is doing something cool, which arguably b/c provincialism); 3) I nonetheless agree with you that racism (systemic, not the writer’s) plays a role in why people in the US are way more excited about Euro educational systems than Asian ones. Particularly as it may or may not play into the individual points of 2).

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        • Right, I didn’t mean to imply that Scott thought Finland was the relevant gold standard. I was commenting only on the general american tendency to be more excited over euro systems than asian systems.

          did shady things to Malaysia

          Now, I’m curious. What shady things are we supposed to have done to malaysia?

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          • Blaming y’all (not whollly but mostly) for the racial riots, etc that resulted in Singapore backing out of Malaysia when it was being formed in the 60s. Or, not so much FOR the racial riots, as for not doing more to fix things instead of pulling out of the alliance completely. I’m sure you know more about the details of that than I do, so I’m not making a claim here about the truth of it, but that’s the perception I’ve heard from folks (those few folks who actually even pay enough attention to have an opinion, frankly most Americans don’t). A perception of selfishness/untrustworthiness thereby resulting. That Singapore basically cut itself out so it could prosper while Malaysia suffered, instead of participating in making things better for everyone.

            I know a few Malaysians (not that they all agree with this account, by any means), Malaysian-American immigrants, etc, so it’s possible my own perception of American perceptions are skewed. But that variant of the story is the only one I’ve heard over here, and I’ve heard it from folks (including American military members) who aren’t at all acquainted with my Malaysian friends, so I think it’s fairly prevalent (again, among that subset of people who have an opinion on the topic at all).

            As I said, this is on the vague personal perceptions of people level, not the “reasoned opinion of educated historians” level.

            My own personal perception is more like “Wow, I know very little about all this and will continue to periodically read and study more because I think it’s an extremely interesting region with an extremely complex history,” also, so please don’t think I’m uncritically endorsing this view.

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            • PS I would say “has an opinion that Singapore is a dictatorship and thus shouldn’t be emulated” is about 100X or more prevalent than the “did Malaysia wrong” thing. Far more people have a reflex “american-style democracy or bust!” reaction than have ever paid any attention to Singaporean or Malaysian history even in passing. Which is part of what I think reflects systematic racism… in that few people in this country (or most parts of Canada, frankly) seem to have ever paid any attention to Asian history, in broad strokes, even in passing, even though most people in the world live in Asia, and even if they have a decent number of friends whose parents immigrated from an Asian country … but that’s a whole different curricular area :).

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            • As far as the history is taught to us, we did not pull out, we were kicked out. And the reason was because the PAP (along with its Malayan branch, the DAP) was extremely competitive in Penang, Singapore, Johor and Selangor (including KL). The reason that it was so competitive is because the PAP pretty much locked in the non-Malay vote and these areas either had a non-malay majority or it had a sufficiently large non-Malay minority as to seriously threaten UMNO (the main party in the Barisan National coalition) dominance in parliament. The reason why it had locked in the non-Malay vote was because the PAP supported a policy of racial and religious equality whereas UMNO supported a policy of special privileges for the indigenous Malay/Muslim population (Bumiputra policy). The 1964 race riots in question were in fact instigated by UMNO. Radical right wing groups backed by UMNO had handed out anti-chinese and anti-PAP leaflets. Malaysian claims about the PAP not doing enough to stop the riots amount to claiming that the PAP should have acceded to the Bumiputra policy and the non-Malays (and non-Muslims) should have just accepted second-class citizen status. Singapore ultimately left because of a) irreconcilable policy differences and b) UMNO felt electorally threatened by the PAP.

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              • I appreciate your perspective on the matter. It is no doubt relevant that the Malaysian people I know are mostly non-Malay Malaysians and thus the descendents of the folks who decided it was worth taking the deal of being 2nd-class citizens rather than (or because they couldn’t) fleeing to join Singapore? Maybe not, but it seems so to me.

                In the US, they call the folks who were against the Revolutionary War, and eventually left the country, traitors. (Benedict Arnold being the most famous example.) Where I grew up, we call them Loyalists and most of us number them among our ancestors (while recognizing many of them were sick of fighting more than they were “loyal” to any British crown – most of my ancestors are Scots and most of the ones whose famillies left the US at that time were immigrants (religious refugees, actually) from Germany or France). I realize there are multiple perspectives on history, particularly on any history that involves both people parting ways and violence.

                And as I said, I appreciate you sharing yours. But you asked what the perception was, so I told you. FWIW, most of the people – again, mostly not Malaysians, but Americans – who’ve shared that perception with me would also *discount* your version because they don’t believe Singapore has a free press and they don’t trust the PAP’s version of history (and when I’ve pointed out that Malaysia’s press is not more free, they just tell me “well then they’re probably both wrong”). The dictatorship thing is *far* more disqualifying than the Malaysian thing…

                And again, I’m not saying it’s disqualifying in the sense of believing that it means you don’t have a good educational system. It’s disqualifying in terms of democracy-or-bust Americans ever adopting it. Do you know how much crap I get just because Canada is a constitutional monarchy? A fair amount. For a *constitutional* monarchy….

                Of course at that point I usually point out that not only are we a constitutional monarchy, but also not all provinces have signed off on the constitution, but the prime minister currently comes from the province that hasn’t, and also we have two completely separate sets of civil law, along with several self-governing first nations that also have their own laws (but not entirely), and …. at which point the person giving me crap tends to get distracted by wondering wtf, and if they don’t, I just bring up the history of Social Credit.

                Everybody’s history is complicated. The US is perhaps not unique in being fairly confident that theirs is better than anyone else’s, but their confidence does grate.

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        • A bit off topic but just to shed some light on Saxon, I can testify that there is a lot of dissatisfaction with Saxon among homeschoolers because there is TOO MUCH pointless practice. A huge number of now-adult homeschoolers despised Saxon growing up and believe that it led them to hate math and not understand some concepts despite having spent countless hours on busywork.

          You have to take homeschool reviews with a massive grain of salt. Not only are they not representative of either the average person or the average homeschooler (I’ve never written a homeschool review in my life and I”ve been homeschooling for 20 years) a lot of people will review a product they get before they’ve even really used it. And a LOT LOT of people start homeschooling for a month or a year and then give up – but will still have written reviews. So a review doesn’t really equate to an expert opinion. (Obviously, the amount of practice drills is an objective measure.)

          Among homeschoolers the Singapore math has a “new and unproven” veneer and I believe that is why it’s less used than other math curriculums are (it was also quite expensive when I was picking a curriculum for our younger three, so I never seriously considered it) I suspect it will continue to grow in popularity. I don’t think people are particularly opposed to it, just that it hasn’t caught on yet.

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