Finnland's schools

04 May 2013

Phil Greenspun reviews the book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley, his review is here ; it is full of praise for Finland’s schools - the PISA test compares student performance between countries and here Finland used to be very good .

The secret sauce is said to be that teacher training colleges are very selective and that they only accepts the top 20% of applicants. Teachers are well respected and in good pay. Teachers in Finland are not micro-managed and do not have to follow a detailed curriculum.

My question is this one: how do they educate teachers so that they are able to work independently, without the usual micro management? I know of some engineers who are not very independent thinkers, despite the good grades that they must have had. So it must be more then just the selection process.

Maybe its time to learn Finnish …

Some more details on Finland’s school reforms are in this article:

The Secret to Finland’s Success: Educating Teachers by Pasi Sahlberg

Here it says that even Finnish basic and high school teachers must have an MA degree; preschool and kindergarten teachers can do with a BA; An aspiring teacher is supposed to be trained in doing research on his own; so they do teach them to be independent.

Really impressive. I wonder who was the person who pushed for such massive change, and how did he/she succeed to persuade decision makers.

However Prof. Hannu Simola says that there is no secret sauce, also this is all not quite applicable to the rest of the world.

The Finnish miracle of PISA: historical and sociological remarks on teaching and teacher education

  • In Finnish society they have a strange mix of authoritarianism and collectivism; attitudes seem to be similar to those in Russia - well Finland was part of the Russian Empire from 1809 until 1917. Finland has a history of an ‘agrarian and pre-industrialized society, the ethos of obedience and subjection that may be at its strongest in Finland among late modern European societies’ So there is just no problem with maintaining discipline in class. I guess discipline is also easier to maintain because Finland does not have any big cities with a multi million population; the largest city is Helsinky with one and a half million , it is the only city with more than a million people in it.
  • Finish teachers were always conservative and identified with the upper middle class (almost no leftist teachers even during the Finish civil war ) Professionally they are also very conservative: “Finnish teachers spoke to their pupils mostly as adult models and keepers of order and safety in the classroom. Rather than encouraging intimacy, some experienced Finnish teachers emphasized how important it was to keep a certain professional distance from their pupils and their homes and problems”. Unlike in Sweden, most Finish teachers are said to be standing in front of the class and are strictly following the textbook.
  • The reforms of the seventies: unified the school system; raised the entry bar to the profession + education requirements for the teacher profession (must have an MA degree). The side effect of raising the status of teachers: “people have been awakened to the fact that it is only through education that it is possible to climb the social ladder, or even to keep up one’s position.”
  • Reforms of the nineties: no individual teacher assessment, but the results are measured; Therefore teachers are stressed as they are measured by results, not by compliance with instructions. The ‘paradox is that the politically and pedagogically progressive comprehensive school reform is apparently being implemented in Finland by politically and pedagogically rather conservative teachers’
  • as a whole Finnish teachers are still very satisfied with their job.

Prof. Hannu Simola’s research interests are now in the area of ‘effects of quality assurance and evaluation (QAE) as a new technology of governance in education and educational policy transfer’ . Very interesting topics, unfortunately most of his research is out of reach for me; still this is all very interesting.

The lesson here is that each society gets the school that it deserves; A very good school system has a positive influence back upon society, in this event we would get a positive feedback loop. An example of this feedback: Finnish society respects teachers and therefore education as a whole is receiving a higher standing.

Another lesson is that the PISA evaluation does apply objective criteria to measure student performance; Because of this it seems to be favoring schools in societies that enforce strict norms of obedience; Sort of: “Here is the stuff you are supposed to learn by the end of the grade, now please be so kind to toe the line”.

As a measure of performance PISA does not measure such things as intellectual independence or ability to work in groups. Prof. Simola seems to be quite fond of the Swedish effort here. In the more individualistic society of Sweden they seem to have put a lot of effort into this direction; these are the traits valued by Swedish society, so they train their kids accordingly.

In the words of Jethro Tull:

“Cause you were bred for humanity and sold to society — one day you’ll wake up in the Present Day — a million generations removed from expectations of being who you really want to be.”

all together now:

“skating way on the thin ice of a new daaaaaaay”.

The problem is that ‘creative thinking’ and ‘ability to work in groups’ are categories that are impossible to measure objectively; if an education system focuses on such things then it becomes impossible to measure its performance in any meaningful way.

By focusing on objective criteria the Finns seem to be giving their education system a good shake up, of course it serves them well to have well trained teachers to address this challenge; I guess without this stimulus it would have been easy for Finish teachers to become complacent and inefficient.