Sunday, January 18, 2015

Why Finland is finished as role model in education

Everyone in education, from politicians to teachers it seems, is a fully paid up member of the Finland Fan Club. Finland has been portrayed as an educational paradise, topping or near topping the PISA tables, with a strong economy that makes it the envy of Europe. Big problem – it’s not true.
While educators fall for PISA envy, the truth may be somewhat different. While Finland had topped the PISA rankings in 2000, 2003, and 2006, and consistently ranked near the top in other years. In 2013 they were ranked 12th. There’s a clue in the recent maths league table on how to get success – be a small, racially homogeneous country that speaks only one language. Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Korea, Macao, Lichtenstein all feature in the Top Ten. The fact is, the leaning Tower of PISA has always been a false indicator, for many reasons, and here's why. But let's get back to Finland.

PISA trap
There's plenty to admire in Finnish education but don't believe the hype - even they don't. One educational critique has come from an unlikely source, a working Finnish teacher. She’s a whistleblower who exploded some myths with her book Wake up school! Maarit Korhonen, who has been teaching for 30 years, has pushed the leaning tower of Finnish PISA results right over. Scathing about PISA, she claims that the Finnish system is not world-beating but remains myopic and old-fashioned. She claims that, far from being a high performing system, it has become a slave to the PISA madness, happy to score well in these narrow, academic measures, while leaving far too many learners behind. According to her analysis, 2 out of 3 children get substandard education in an overly academic curriculum sitting in rows of desks, working slavishly through a dated curriculum, using dated textbooks. High academic standards among teachers may only promote an even more extreme form of academic education on all children. Many report that the vocational path is weak and exaggerated, not at all a parallel path with any sort of equal status.
This is a PISA chart you will never see at conferences. It shows Finland near the bottom of the league table when they measured how happy students were at school. Not exactly the utopian picture that's often presented of a system where the children are nurtured rather than taught at rows of desks to a fixed curriculum. Young people's suicide rate is high by European standards and it is not clear that the education system has had huge advantages beyond school.
Weakest economy in Europe
Wouldn’t one expect a country that has topped the education league tables for years and years to have seen the benefit from such attainments? Yet Finland is expected to be the WEAKEST economy in Europe in 2015. They have already indicated this month that they will object strongly to any debt forgiveness in Greece, as they have plenty of fiscal problems themsleves, which may lead to serious consequences for the whole of Europe. The much heralded education system came at a price, huge, public sector expenditure and rising debt.
At the same time another major cause has been an over-reliance on one major company – Nokia, which contributed about a quarter of Finland’s economic growth between 1998 and 2007. But Nokia was destroyed by its competitors, with jobs and the jobs of sub-contractors melting quicker than snow. Nokia once had a 50% market share, it is now less than 3%. The iPhone killed off Nokia and the iPad killed off the paper industry. It’s core industry, the pulp and paper sector has shrunk dramatically with considerable job losses. Angry Birds alone cannot support a whole nation and even they have been laying off staff. On top of this has come Russia and the falling Rouble. This is catastrophic, as Russia is Finland’s largest trading partner and tourism from that country has also fallen. It’s been double trouble – high spending, low tax returns. Finland is the new Greece.
I saw Pasi Sahlberg give a talk called What if Finnish teachers taught in your schools? He posed a few fascinating questions to show that you must tackle improvements in your educational system holistically. It is not JUST about quality teachers, the mantra we so often hear. It comes as no surprise that Finland is flaunted as being the ideal by educationalists, because it sees teachers as the sole key to success. We may have to rethink this. If true, why then have they performed poorly in TIMMS? Teachers alone are not a sufficient condition for success. In fact, Strahlberg doubts that the Finnish system is easily transferable at all. 
Will they listen? No. Nicky Morgan, only this week reiterated the fact that PISA will be her key to heaven and used to measure the success of recent reforms. Rather than look for good evidence-based practices in education, politicians heads have been turned towards PISA, as if it were some utopian, objective benchmark. It's not that Finnish education is bad, it's just time to drop our membership of the Finland Fan Club and look at evidence beyond PISA.


Mark said...

Hi Donald

A thought-provoking blog post about Finland, it will be interesting to see how people react to it. Certainly the headline and the vocabulary are provocative. There is so much to respond to in the post that I am not sure where to start, but I thank you for raising so many important issues.

As Blogger has a limit on the length of comments, I am going to have to post in parts.

For those who do not want to read the longish reply in full below here are some key points to my response;-

• It is true; Finns are concerned about their education system.

• We all know that there are many faults with PISA.

• You are quite correct that no education system can be duplicated in another context because of the societal, cultural, historical and political variables that surround the system. This is about more than just teacher education and most people in Finland know that. But please do not blame Finns because other governments want to take the parts that suit their agendas.

• Pupils here start school at age seven and before that have day care and preschool based on play. No sitting in rows and no academic curriculum.

• Finnish pupils have more breaks (recess), more play, more time outdoors (even in the cold Finnish winter), more exploration and PBL, no school uniforms, less homework, longer holidays, no private school option, no tuition fees, full support of mother tongue for non-Finnish speakers, free hot meals for everyone.

• There is a strong vocational sector, so Upper Secondary (Sixth form) can be either academic or vocational with plenty of bridges across one to the other. In higher education this vocational focus continues with the Universities of Applied Sciences, which are the vocational HE providers. In these Universities of Applied Science you have to go to work in real jobs doing real tasks to get a degree, which is why they are called ‘applied’.

Given your own posts about uniforms, vocational education and private schools, do you still feel Finland is finished as a role model?

Mark said...

Part Two

The longer reply -

As you know I have worked in education for over 25 years, in the UK, Middle East and for the last two years living and working in Finland. So here is my perspective –

I think most educators and many citizens in Finland are worried about the education system, no matter what the results in PISA. That is surely a sign of a developed and well educated society; they recognise that education impacts everyone. In my time here working in teacher education I have met plenty of educators critical of PISA for all the reasons that you list. We all know it is a not good measure, but we did not choose it or develop it and I really think that the vast majority of Finns were surprised when they did so well in 2000. You mention some possible reasons for that in your post (“be a small, racially homogeneous country that speaks only one language. Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Korea, Macao, Lichtenstein all feature in the Top Ten.”) There is something to that argument certainly – but of course Finland has two official national languages, Finnish and Swedish and three official minority languages, including Sami and Karelian and of course everyone speaks English as well because television and cinema are shown without dubbing. But to be honest that is not really the point and I digress. I do agree with you that it is complex and I do agree that it is difficult for other countries to ‘copy’ or mimic what Finland does.

I am not at all convinced that Maarit Korhonen is a ‘whistleblower’ who has ‘exploded myths’ in her book. I was involved with Finnish education in the year before I lived here and even then in 2011, some of the issues she raises were being discussed. So perhaps it is not as sensational as it would seem? I also really strongly argue that it is not Finland who has promoted the so called myth of the Finnish education system, which would be completely out of character for Finns. They dislike hype, sensationalism so much and really are the most modest people I have worked with. In fact that is a problem, as they really are not so good at promoting themselves and what is good in Finland. Most of the superlative publicity has come from those who have visited from overseas and have an agenda of their own to promote, in fact, apart from Pasi Sahlberg that you mention, there are not too many Finns hyping Finnish education on the professional speaker circuit.

Mark said...

Part Three

Now I have to pick up on a few things, both as a teacher educator and parent –

You talk about the ‘picture presented’ of the education system - I really do not think the Finns present a picture Donald - visitors just get taken to visit schools and see how it is. The visitors create the ‘picture presented’ in their own heads. I say this as I was guilty of doing that before I came to live here – I imagined what the system was like, but the reality is very different, something I see as a parent as well as an educator. This is not some flashy, high tech learning environment, many buildings are quite old and the spaces designed when there was a different view about how learning took place. However,the picture painted in the blog post of teachers tied to fixed curriculum and focused on academic excellence is not quite a true picture either. How can it be? Finland has no school inspections, no OFSTED or its equivalent and thus no direct political meddling either. Teachers are professionals who are free to teach and assess how they feel is most appropriate for their learners. Does that mean each teacher is perfect? Of course not, there are kids in rows I am sure – but is it better than over assessment via standardized tests and a focus on ranking pupils, teachers and schools? By a million miles I would say. I am sure that there may be teachers constrained by the curriculum guidelines as Maarit claims, perhaps she is one of them, but that is not what I have seen so much when I have been into schools. I am going to be ageist here (and I feel can as I am in my 50’s myself) but I think it is teachers of my age group who might feel constrained, but that is because they were trained at a different time and have not perhaps updated or changed over time. I have heard some admit that they feel overwhelmed by technology and the pace of change, but that is hardly a Finnish phenomenon is it?

Mark said...

Part Four

I also want to say something about living in Finland, the reality is that it seems quite old fashioned in many nice ways. Kids still walk and ride bikes to school, the nearest school, because that is pretty well as good as any other school. You cannot buy a ‘better education’ unless you choose to go overseas. Kids walk on their own (like we used to Donald?) at age 7. There is no school run in the car to the local academy staffed with fast tracked teachers who have never learned how to create an authentic assessment. When children go out on school trips they go on public transport, on the bus, even at nursery and preschool age and they go out a lot. This is because there is no bureaucratic overload for a trip. Parents are also welcome in school, you just drop in, no pass, no security, no vetting. I really hope it stays that way as well and that here the media do not create the all-pervasive culture of fear that exists for example in the UK.

I mention this last part because I think that is also important as far as education is concerned. Kids take risks here and are allowed to. In winter play grounds become ice rinks on purpose (imagine that in England) and parents do not have to sign indemnities. I honestly think children are more independent because of this (and not full of fear) have less of a sense of entitlement; they solve a lot of problems themselves.

So yes, Finland is small, in some ways old fashioned and quite conservative. It is quite socialist and people generally are not hierarchical, there really is not a class system as we know and understand it. There is a large public sector and most of us are quite happy about that because really, I like using public transport and having health care and a good education system for my kids.

Mark said...

Final Part

I lived in a country with no tax system and no social system for nearly 2 decades and I now live in the opposite. When I left the Middle East I could have taken up a job offer in the UK, in London. Instead we chose to bring my 2 and 5 year olds (then) and here because it has more of the things that we think lead to a happy quality of life. Sure it can be a drag having day light for only 4 hours a day in winter (if you are lucky) – and I would say that is a factor on the suicide rate you mention, rather than schooling - but then again the white nights in summer are great. But that is not a man-made thing that can be changed. However we came here because although things are not perfect there are still more things that I think they do right than they do wrong. Come on Donald, in my situation would you choose to put young children back in the UK system under Gove (at the time) or any of that lot you have there, or come here and nurn their uniforms and ties!

I think Maarit has done Finland a big favour with her book and her motives are good, real debate is a good thing when it does not become a polarized shouting match with no listening. But would she prefer to work say in England and send her own kids to a system in any other country she could think of? Has she ever lived and worked in another system for an extended period of time? Sometimes you cannot see what is good about a system that you work in, you only see the negative.

One thing I like here is that education is generally valued by everyone and there is, by and large, a recognition that society as a whole benefits from a well educated population, even if we all pay for it with taxes. I like that.

I am not sure any policy maker in the UK is a member of the (real) Finland Fan Club you describe – I really do not see anyone in the UK arguing for vocational education, no uniforms or ties, shorter school hours and the abolition of the private sector, with free meals for everyone and more respect for teachers as professionals with no OFSTED - so I do not even see a Finland fan club at all to be honest.

I really do thank you for raising this, I mean it, because it has provided an opportunity to set the record straight from the hype. I agree Finnish education is not Super Power system, no one here really claims it is, but it has pretty neat aspects as well that many could learn from.

*Note. I have chosen for this post not to open the debate about the economy as this is too long already – perhaps another time, but again, I agree that the outlook is not good.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Mark. Don't disagree with much here, although the evidence from the teacher's book I mentioned would suggest that sitting in rows is still common and that the curriculum is still largely academic. That aside, the reason I wrote this piece was to attack the idea that Finland's PISA results were something to be emulated. There are some things in the fuel mix I admire but to set Finland up as the Gold Standard is the mistake. Finland itself set itself up for a fall now that it is falling down that same table.

Donald Clark said...

On Part 3. The picture painted by the teacher I mentioned seemed very different from that painted by others. The absence of inspections is not in itself proof of a better system. In fact, a poor system can exist, with or without inspections regimes. Similarly wit teh lack of assessent. Again, my point is that there is not enough proof, especially given this more realistic picture of Finland educational system, recent PISA results and economic performance to say that the rest of the world should emulate it.

Donald Clark said...

Part 4 - In one sense this is great but Finland is not as urbanised an environment as many other countries. On the public sector spend, one could argue that this is now coming at a cost - a perfect storm of economic circumstances that make the public spending difficult. Have to agree that some of this is very appealing but it's not what I was tackiling in the post - namely the PISA driven notion that Finland is the system the rest of the world should emulate.

Donald Clark said...

Finally. This is where we really do agree. The whole Finland Fan Club thing is all about cherr picking. Gove and Morgan want to focus on PISA and Maths but refuse to look at uniforms, privaye education, vocational learning and so on. Thay want Finlands results (although that is now a questionable goal) but not the system. On that we agree. As you say - the debate is important. I'm against PISA but I am all for good practice been donut, identified and used in an evidence-based approach to education. We're on the same bus I suspect.

Donald Clark said...

Part 2 I agree that it is not the Finns themselves that are guilty of hype. In fact that's exactly what my post was about - the hype by others, namly politicians who want to use PISA for their own ideological ends.

Rita Conroy said...

Quality education promotes an inherent desire to learn more about everything and anything. It enables students and teachers to have fun....enjoy the learning process......after is how you bring the horse to water.....the process overrides the product as the product is very often finite. It is the skills acquired and the process involved in the bringing the learning about that is most valuable. A love of learning.....leads to lifelong learning..... and that is what education should be about.....not just exams and their results.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Donald!

As usual you promote thought in areas new even to thinking people. I have to confess that I read this article several times trying to find a vestige of something that, eventually I realised just wasn't there. For me, the main issue brought across in this post is the tall poppy syndrome, reporting the failing chinks in a system that, in general, appears to have been revered as hugely successful. Sure, there will be teachers in Finland that attack and criticise their own education system - but wouldn't you expect that in any body of teachers no matter how successful they were as a whole?

Catchya Later

Longshanks said...

I agree that ranking and testing systems are imperfect indicators of the quality of education systems, and that politicians certainly do cherry pick the stuff they like from these surveys. They especially ignore the emphasis on broad social equality in Finnish society that helps support the schooling system (no private schools, most schools give you a chance of a decent life, entry to a uni if you work hard etc).

However, I'm not sure about 3 areas of this article related to language, economic problems and suicide:

On the mono-lingual country point ... Finland is officially a bilingual country (Finnish and Swedish). Kids have to study both in school, and many Finns have a basic/reasonable competence in Swedish (even if they won't admit it!).

Also, I don't really see how problems with the Finnish economy are related to the main (education-related) point of the article. I'm sure there are many things which could be improved in Finnish schools, but it's difficult to link this with the problems experienced by Nokia, increased popularity of e-readers, ... (or the EU embargoes against Russia related to the Ukraine which have apparently also really hurt the economy).

The points about suicide also seem a bit of a low blow if a link to schooling is implied! Long hours of winter darkness, fairly high rates of alcoholism, and a disinclination to share their problems (imo) seem more likely causes (and not just for school kids!)

Donald Clark said...

1. On the langage issue, I may have been a little unclear there. "There’s a clue in the recent maths league table on how to get success – be a small, racially homogeneous country that speaks only one language. Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Korea, Macao, Lichtenstein all feature in the Top Ten. The fact is, the leaning Tower of PISA has always been a false indicator, for many reasons, and here's why. But let's get back to Finland." I was referring to the countries that now top the table then list them(exclusing Finland) then say "Let's get back to Finland".
2. Politicians use Finland as an exemplar often linking gtheir education system with econimic syccess. My point was that the economic success is now failing, so that the last ten years of PISA success does not necessarily produce successful economies.
3. On suicide, I'm saying that Finland is much like the rest of us and should not be held up as some sort of exemplar in terms of well-being and happiness. Again, this is part of the promotion of Finland as an exemplar.
I've been to Finland, I like many aspects of their education system and have nothing againts that country. Mt beef is not with Finland, it's with those who see PISA as an important educational, policitical and economic benchmark. Our Sectretary of State stated publcally that PISA will be the benchmark agaist which she will judge our Government's educational rforms. That's my target.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

It is now become clear on reading your last comment, Donald, that it's not Finland, it's PISA. Thank you. You've just mentioned (several times) what I looked for in your post and explained why I couldn't find it.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks. Some of my writing could have been a bit clearer!

Roger Schank said...

right, right and right

Finland has hyped a lot of the same old stuff; their major advantage is that their culture is very uniform, unlike the Uk or the US for example

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Just stumbled across this post, and read it with much interest. I'm British, but lived in Finland for well over decade until last summer. My kids started their schooling in Vantaa (Helsinki) and I even did a bit of supply teaching there after ten years of working for a think tank doing policy research (not education related though). We now live in the UK and I'm doing a PGCE so am teaching in South Yorkshire schools and my kids are in primary here.

Finland has tried to sell its education model internationally - there was (is?) a department in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs tasked just with dealing with educational visits. In my old job I worked a lot with MFA diplomats so heard much about this. I'm sure it was demand led to some degree, but the govt. took it and ran with it; part of the interminable debates on "brand Finland" etc.

There are also known (to parents) differences between schools and people do try to get their kids into perceived better schools, although this maybe predominantly a capital region phenomenon. Sadly, if the reporting of Helsingin Sanomat is to be believed, in the last decade this has been to quite some degree "white flight" from schools with high ethnic minority intakes. Helsinki is NOT a particularly homogenous city anymore - it's not London, but immigration is a major factor now. It's also not completely true that there is no private education - there are a few, and perhaps the best school in country (where my missus went!) although free to the kids is actually and independent foundation school and has been for a long time (sort of like a proto-free school?!).

During the uni based parts of my PGCE course it seems that in almost every lecture we've had Finland gets mentioned in almost-utopian ways, so there does also seem to be something of a fan club in Britain! After years of following the BBC/Guardian reporting of Finnish education, I came to the conclusion the realities of what Finnish schools are really like was somewhat secondary to an image of the system being used as a weapon in UK policy fights, and it seems all sides would use it at some point!

Donald Clark said...

Thank you very much for this. Enlightening. I agreed with every word. It's not that the Finnish system is bad, just that "the system being used as a weapon in UK policy fights",

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Just happened to see in today's Finnish news, discussion that class distinction is increasingly common between Finnish schools This seemed relevant to the discussion above!

Anonymous said...

Thankfully I've got a bottle of sisu to get me through the hard times.

Finland has led a charmed life for the past 15 years but now that it's cash cow has been laid to rest, tax coffers have taken a hit. It is the sick man of Europe. So when wages relative to GDP go up 20% since 2008, there will either be a rise in unemployment or mass wage cuts. I'm looking at local government for starters. Those with a "job for life". Espoo has some staggering budget deficits currently.

None of the above however much to do with the education system here. In my experience, the system is just fine, allowing teachers a more personalised approach without the bureaucracy. Let the educators make educated choices about education.

Hyvaa Suomi.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Hyvaa - as I say, I think the system is just fine, it's the hype that is the problem. Cheers!