As coronavirus restrictions have obstructed access to education across the world, the fundamental tenets of our education system have come under renewed scrutiny during the last year. Distanced learning has highlighted inequality in education and the public versus private school divide into sharp relief.
Standing apart from the rest of Europe, however, the Nordic education model has long been championed as a beacon of inclusivity.
Finland is consistently ranked one of the highest countries in the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates education systems worldwide by assessing student performance in reading, maths and science. But narrow academic studies like PISA may fail to capture the spirit of education and the holistic approach to learning in Finland.
Selective recruitment programs across the country attract students with high academic credentials to the teaching profession. Finland requires that teachers obtain a master’s degree in education, valuing what Dr Jari Lavonen, director of the Finnish National Teacher Education Forum, describes as “control of input”. A culture of trust and professional prestige combine to award teachers with the autonomy to choose pedagogical method and content under a framework curriculum.
If you don’t have highly educated teachers, it doesn’t work
Narrow academic studies like PISA may fail to capture the spirit of education and the holistic approach to learning in Finland
Leading Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg explains that cultural consensus about the role of education sets the Finnish system apart. A balance of academic achievement through formative assessment and promotion of life outside of school is essential. “The view that we have on humanity – what people are and particularly what children are – is very different from the rest of Europe. In many ways, we have a much more humanistic view on life and human rights is an extremely important part of the way people think about life and the world.”
“When you put this human rights aspect and social justice into practice, you begin to understand more why Nordic countries [including] Finland have less homework and have a little bit of a lighter workload, [why] school days are a little bit shorter and we are not testing children unnecessarily.”
Sahlberg emphasises how the Finish education system is centred around what it means to be a child: “To understand what childhood is, we understand the lives of children.”
Santeri Palviainen, the chair of the Union for University Teachers and Researchers in Finland, discusses the emphasis on cultivating a learning environment that is supportive of children from an early age. “Our approach to schools is child-centred … we don’t see children as machines who need to be tuned but we see them as human beings who have achieved a set of skills. And our whole approach stems from that.”
Although operational difficulties persist, the Finnish cultural outlook is based on functionality. Sahlberg explains: “Education systems in Finland or the Nordic countries are results of a design process, just like architecture or furniture.”
We don’t see children as machines who need to be tuned but we see them as human beings who have achieved a set of skills
When questioned on the focal point of the Finnish education system Sahlberg says: “It’s very simple … everything unnecessary is removed.”
Although this Nordic design analogy holds intuitive appeal, the process of achieving such a straightforward educational framework required political commitment and a comprehensive overhaul to address the access inequality. Commitment to the development of a single comprehensive school system – known as “peruskoulu” in Finnish – in the early 1970s cultivated the egalitarianism at the heart of the Finnish education sector. The pandemic has revealed that the core issues plaguing education systems around the world exist in Finland, including access inequality.
Political commitment to reforms has led to a €68 million pledge by Finnish Education Minister Jussi Saramo to address socio-economic disparities exacerbated by the pandemic and remote learning. For Palviainen, however, key questions persist. “How are we going to repair the damage that was caused by the COVID epidemic? I think the schools and the universities or vocational institutions are still very much in a sort of crisis mode.”
The difference, he explains, lies in procedural response to distanced learning and the role of educators. With a high level of evaluation independence and relatively limited school closures, teachers in Finland were able to adapt or minimise their assessment methods but maintain their curriculum structure.
The process of achieving such a straightforward educational framework required political commitment and a comprehensive overhaul to address the access inequality
Programme Director of Education Finland Jouni Kangasniemi explains that since the success of Finnish students in international education assessments, foreign delegations have sought to emulate the success of the Finnish system. As part of an effort to promote Finnish education policy for global use, Kangasniemi indicates the importance of dialogue and cooperative development between potentially conflicting systems.
“Nowadays, we have lots of requests from different schools from many countries, and they are always asking: ‘How could we modify our school into a Finnish school?’”
“Everybody thinks that the Finnish approach to schools is similar, or as easy as it is to establish a British school or an American school or an Indian school. But since we don’t have these centralised testing systems, we always say that it’s a bit more complicated than just introducing the model.”
Misconceptions abound surrounding the operation and nuances of the Finnish system. For foreign teachers participating in programmes to introduce Finnish pedagogical techniques, he explains that this “two-way learning process” requires long-term implementation. “The Finnish model has been such that we always help the schools to redevelop their curricula, localise it so that it gets the best elements from Finland, and also best elements that are required by the local government so that the school has an operating plan.”
Nowadays, we have lots of requests from different schools from many countries, and they are always asking: “How could we modify our school into a Finnish school?”
Positive reception by teachers participating in programmes to implement Finnish teaching techniques, however, has not always been reflected by the parents or national education administration of partnering countries. Cultural differences – and consequent expectations – raise scepticism about the effectiveness of the Finnish model.
The central difference, according to Kangasniemi, is found in the role of summative, rather than formative assessment. “[In] many other countries you need to produce evidence for the parents or for the school inspectors. And in Finland, maybe the approach is that you need to produce evidence for the learners themselves.”
Whether the Finnish education is capable of direct exportation may depend on cultural preconceptions. But commitment to pedagogy and holistic education are important lessons to glean from a national system that uplifts students and teachers alike.