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How history influences education practice in Finland

We know broadly what it is that leads to successful schooling!

Amongst the critical factors are teacher competence and collaboration, a challenging curriculum and engaging delivery of it as well as a degree of freedom by teachers in how they deliver the curriculum. Also critical are attention to the individual progress of students, especially those having difficulty, and demanding superior achievement. Education-focused leadership by the school principal drives much of this.

PISA has been criticised by some education researchers who claim it leads to league tables, invalid comparisons between schools and students and encourages competition. Certainly tests in a few subjects don’t address the diversity of learning gains, especially “deep” learning. But as Dean Ashenden has said, reading, math and science, the subjects in which student literacy is examined by PISA, importantly provide tools of learning in other areas. PISA results have been used to elucidate some of the factors critical to successful schooling.

Recently, Finland’s PISA scores have declined somewhat, as have the scores of students in some other countries: Finland’s students have been overtaken by those in some East Asian countries. Finland’s response to declining scores is not to focus on math and reading but on how the whole system can be improved as Pasi Sahlberg, a Director General at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, explains.

The specific influences which have contributed to Finnish reforms have lessons for all educators interested in the reform of education. Reform is not simply a matter of applying market economics and demanding responses to a set of metrics any more than is the case in any other domain.

Simola observes (in Comparative Education 41(4), 455-470, November 2005), “In accounting for success in education, we tend to look to individuals, their psychologies and pedagogies, rather than to phenomena characterized as social, cultural, institutional or historical.” Finnish culture still incorporates a meaningful element of the authoritarian, obedient and collectivist mentality. (Here he alludes to a similarity with Asian cultures such as in Korea, whose students also are high performers in PISA.)

Comprehensive school reform in Finland was initiated in the 1970s and involved a reconfiguration of teacher training. In 1987, Prime Minister Holkeri marked the beginning of a new era after almost fifty years of an economy dominated by traditional agriculture, by redefining the very concept of Finnish education policy in terms of equity rather than equality: differences between people in their capacity and equality meant every pupil had the right to receive an education corresponding to their prerequisites and expectations.

Finnish parents, more than those of other Nordic countries, feel strongly about equality and equity and do not support the market ideology of competition and giftedness. Finland, though a small country, is not as culturally homogeneous as often asserted: it has two official languages and four national cultures. The Nordic welfare-state political economy is an essential element.

Simola’s book is in four parts. The first deals with policy-making and governance and addresses the features of Finnish society and how inspecting, testing and ranking are absent. Antipathy is a more appropriate explanation than conscious and articulated principles. The second part is a socio-cultural analysis of teacher education and the impact of educational scientists: there has been a striving to make a distinction from rival disciplines.

In the third part schooling and pupil behaviour is addressed: innovations “seem in some ways to have strengthened and particularized traditional behaviour assessment”. There is a comparison of the individual practices of Nordic countries. In the fourth part the Finnish system is described not as a miracle but as “a contingent intertwinement of specific socio-historical dynamics” in education politics, governance and classroom cultures.

The last chapter emphasizes three ‘truths’: a belief in schooling as an essential source of welfare; a belief in teachers as rather solid and stable suppliers of this common good; and finally a belief in schools as institutions that deserve certain levels of autonomy, trust and industrial peace free from quality-assurance and evaluation systems. These beliefs have been constructed through historical processes in which both actors and coincidental factors have converged and intertwined.

Simola delivers a refreshing counter to the unproductive invasion of education by the New Public Management people in several European countries: suffocation by central control in the name of accountability.

In Finland there is genuine interest in deriving critical lessons from other countries: as Sahlberg has observed recently in the US there is not. Finnish teachers given the opportunity to teach in the US would give up after five years in the face of the tightly controlled standardised teaching regime and uniform curriculum regime.

The recent history of Finland has shaped the approach to education just as the beliefs about independent effort and responsibility (which are not those enshrined in the Declaration of Independence) which drove those Europeans invading 16th century North America continue to dominate the US approach to education (and everything else).

A belief in equality of opportunity has produced radically different outcomes in the two domains! The difference is that in Finland what works is recognised and intelligently applied.