8 Things You Might Not Know About Finland's Education System

Finland has been cited a lot recently about their successful educational system. As part of my current Master's course in comparative education I am required to write an essay comparing my current educational system to any other country. I decided to use Finland for a number of reasons, the most important being their success on international measures such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Through the many journal articles, research papers and books I have read in preparation for writing my paper I have come across 8 very interesting aspects of Finland's educational system that you may not have read before. It should be noted that for those looking to any other educational system for a "quick fix" needs to keep in mind the cultural, social and economic realities of their own context and the one they are studying. Can we learn from other systems? Absolutely. Can we transplant those ideas and practices into our own system and watch it flourish? Probably not. Conversations about what could work needs to happen, along with a deeper understanding on the why and how it works. Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman describes this idea clearly by stating that "separate elements of a complex system rarely function adequately in isolation from their original system in a new environment".

These are all from peer-reviewed journals or research papers.

  1. Although most articles note that Finland's educational reform started in 1990 with a recession brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union the basis of Finland's current system was actually implemented in 1972 and was called "peruskoulu", or comprehensive school system. The central idea of peruskoulu was to merge existing grammar schools, civic schools, and primary schools into a 9 year municipal school. All students, regardless of their domicile, socioeconomic background, or interests would enroll in the same 9 year basic schools governed by local education authorities.
  2. Finland's reform process assumed that instruction is the key element that makes a difference in what students learn in school, not standards, assessment or alternative programs. This created a new flexibility within the Finnish system that enabled schools to learn from one another and made best practice universal. As noted in the 2009 PISA results Finland ranks at the top (along with Canada, Korea and Japan) in producing consistent learning results regardless of students' socioeconomic status. 
  3. There are 3 areas in which teachers are certified in Finland, each culminating in a Master's degree. Classroom teachers (grades 1-6) are responsible for guiding the whole personal development of their pupils and subject teachers (grades 7-12) usually teach one or two subjects. Starting in 1995 kindergarten teachers are educated in their own distinct stream, also culminating in a Master's degree.
  4. Decentralisation is a key component of Finland's educational system. Local school authorities, schools and teachers have been given the responsibility for the curriculum-making process, which in the past has been the role of the authorities at the national level. This has been well received by teachers demonstrated by increased participation in managerial tasks and curricular decision-making thus opening new options and shaping school-specific policies.
  5. Teacher education programs have a principle that practice teaching should be initiated as early as possible. Along with this principle is the idea of a spiral curriculum with core courses integrated with research at every point in the program. This creates a rich and diverse training program where research, theory and practice are fused.
  6. As noted in many articles on Finland's educational system there is a policy of inclusion of all students regardless of ability. Ability grouping was actually abolished in all school subjects in 1985. However, the pedagogical issue most frequently raised by Finnish teachers was lack of knowledge and skills in supporting pupils with special needs. This results in the feeling of being unable to cope in the classroom and undermines their confidence. 
  7. The Finnish national policy promotes "active-learning". These approaches are characterized by: direct experiences, investigations and problem solving, collaborative small group-work and pupil ownership of learning. 
  8. Diplomacy, cooperation, problem solving and seeking consensus are hallmarks of Finnish culture. This results in an education system with special attention to social justice.

The free school lunches, welfare services and early support for those students that require it are all free of charge, but most importantly are now a fabric of the Finnish culture. Their system is unique because it has progressed from a mediocre system, to a system that is a strong performer with so many admirers. Maybe what Finland is showing the world is that when you focus on creating a culture where everyone is treated equally and that competition is not important it can lead to a system where all students learn better than they did in past.

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