Stop going on about Finland

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When it comes to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), it sometimes seems that there are two kinds of people in the world. The first group are eager to jet off to whichever country has topped the latest table, have a look around some model schools and generally schmooze with bureaucrats from that country’s education ministry. The second group sees no benefit in PISA at all, declaring it part of a global conspiracy against good teachers by big business, Satan or perhaps a coalition of the two known as ‘neoliberalism’. I would like to stake a claim for a third camp.

My view takes a little more explanation so please bear with me. The fact that one country performs above another in a league table is pretty meaningless. There could be all sorts of reasons for this. For instance, all thing being equal, poorer people tend to do less well educationally than rich people and so countries with more poor people should be expected to do worse, even with an equally effective education system. That may seem obvious but there are other, more subtle, factors. Some countries, for instance, have many more students participating in out-of-school tuition. If you jet off to one of those countries, visit their model schools and then try to replicate those schools back home, you may be doomed to failure because you are not replicating the thing that makes the difference.

However, trends within schools systems, such as the association between different teaching practices and PISA performance, are interesting because they control for cultural factors (well, to an extent – this is messy data). And although we might not want to look at a school system’s ranking and conclude too much, we might be able to infer something from the direction of travel. If a system is improving relative to the control group (again, loosely defined) of the OECD average then it might be due to some policies that we can identify. And ditto if it is declining.

Finland is declining:

Finland PISA scores over time

Yes, Finland still does well compared to many other countries – and let me be clear that I wish the students of Finland every success – but it is tracking downwards. So why do people keep going on about it? Why do folks who have spent around five minutes thinking about education declare that we should aim to copy Finland? It’s not even as if Finland is at the top of the PISA tables. In 2015, Finland was 13th in Maths, 5th in Science and 4th in Reading. Singapore beat Finland on all three counts and Hong Kong did on two. I wouldn’t advocate trying to copy these two countries either but something funny is going on. Why are people so keen on Finland, forsaking all others?

The answer is that, of all the countries near the top of PISA, Finland is currently pursuing the most ideologically correct strategies. If you read about the recent history of education in Finland then it might seem like an odd choice. There has been quite a lot of standardisation and its only relatively recently that some of this has been given away – which may be a factor in its PISA decline. The irony is that the very stuff Finland is being lauded for, such as its alleged focus on ‘capabilities’, might be the cause of its decline. I use the word ‘alleged’ because I think there is a fair amount of projection going on when it comes to Finland – I find it hard to square the idea that it is the groovecat hipster of the education world with tales of didactic classrooms and heavy textbook use.

And this is where the tales becomes a little dark.

I recently commented on a piece in The Conversation and the Finland line was presented in response. When I queried why we should look at Finland and not other high performing countries, the person I was discussing this with suggested, “Interestingly when some comparisons are made to other countries such as South Korea, their youth suicide rates are raised as a concern for adopting a similar system of high-stakes assessment.”

Personally, I would never try to draw a causal link between suicide and education because of the likely effect of cultural factors. I also wouldn’t necessarily point to South Korea as an example to follow given its own decline in PISA results. However, something about this statement bothered me and I decided to look into it further.

So far, the latest I can find on youth suicide is this data from the OECD dating back to 2012/3. While teenage suicide does appear to be rising in South Korea and declining in Finland, the rate in Finland is actually higher than in South Korea, with 10.1 deaths per 100,000 in Finland compared to 8.2 in Korea. The OECD average is 6.4 deaths per 100,000 and, as an aside, we could probably discuss at length whether it is valid to compare rates in this way.

Following this up leaves me with this interesting question to ponder: Why would someone promote education in Finland, know that youth suicide rates in South Korea are relatively high and yet not know that, according to the available data, they are even higher in Finland?


32 thoughts on “Stop going on about Finland

  1. Great piece Greg. You might be interested in this quote, particularly the first paragraph:

    ” As a product of Finnish school system, I have always found it very surprising that they keep awarding our schools.

    In my opinion, Finnish schools are extremely boring places to study and they don’t support creativity at any level. Specially that is true at higher level. There is zero innovation and enthusiasm amongst students and teachers. I studied one semester in Canada and I can prove that it was totally different there.

    Education is actually huge problem here. People are extremely over educating themselves. All schools here are “free” plus government gives some money for rent and living. That is not very much, but you can make pretty easy living for 6 years. And many people do so. Result is that most people won’t start working until age of 26.

    And people don’t find very good jobs any more. There is just way too much educated people. Actually best jobs are now at low level like construction sector. Plumbing, electrical work and others don’t require any higher education. These field are well payed and there’s ton of work to do.”


  2. “Real Finnish Lessons: The story of an educational superpower” by Sahlgren makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in Finland’s historic educational success. What I found interesting is that among other factors, the dominant pedagogy to be found in secondary school classrooms leading up to their PISA 2000 debut as educational superstars was very traditional direct instruction. You can get a copy of it here

  3. They might choose the Finland model because it fits with progressive methods. They might also note that Finnish rates are falling and, comparing with South Korea, conclude that progressive methods are causing the fall. They might forget that correlation does no equal causation.

  4. Statistics is a dark art, one that is ripe for plucking easy answers from, but for real information hard work, dedication and statistical scepticism are required. Thanks for lifting the lid.

    • Tempe says:

      Interesting that people (progressives) have been championing Finland for years & holding it up as proof that their beliefs regarding education actually work. How did they know this? They pointed to PISA results. But now that the results aren’t so great – as Greg’s post shows they are in a pretty rapid decline – we start seeing statements like, PISA isn’t all that matters. Nobody actually said it was except for all the progressives who kept pointing to Finland as their shining light because of it’s PISA results.

      I agree with this post in that there is probably a lot about the system that we don’t really know, such as heavy use of textbooks. Sounds pretty traditional. Also, we do need to see what their system was like prior to them posting such good scores earlier on.

      As for suicide rates, I have also come up against the argument again & again whenever I point out that some Asian countries are better in PISA. The argument goes, “yes, but they are all committing suicide because of their education system.” I was interested to read an article not long ago that the suicide rate among youth in Finland is quite high.

      • John Perry says:

        “How did they know this? They pointed to PISA results.”

        They were saying plenty of other stuff but people wouldn’t listen to that. It was the rest of the world that sat up amazed when Finland topped it a couple of decades ago – how could a highly equitable school system, committed to social justice, achieve such results?

        Finnish educators themselves are very upfront about what is lacking and needs to be fixed – and then get on and fix it. I wish Anglophone countries were so circumspect.

      • Always worth returning to Tim Oates when someone make claims about how progressive the Finnish system is:

        Click to access 207376-finnish-fairy-stories-tim-oates.pdf

        Here are a couple of quotes:

        “Thirty-seven per cent of pupils attend free schools in Helsinki (source: Gabriel Sahlgren) and admission by test score dominates admissions to upper secondary education – something which sends down through the system strong messages regarding the importance of high attainment in education. Competition, high stakes assessment and admissions, school choice. Not things usually present in any of the common narratives about Finland.”

        It is notable that this selection takes place at 16; one year after PISA testing takes place. It sorts students into vocational and academic streams with the latter being lower status and therefore students compete to get into the academic stream:

        “As for “no tests” – all Finns understand the importance of doing well in the Finnish Abitur – the university-oriented ‘finishing’ examination taken by 19-year-olds. The academic pathway (upper secondary to university) is considered of higher esteem than the vocational pathway at 16, into which over 40% of pupils go. On scrutiny, the Abitur examinations are just like English A Levels, although pupils may study seven or eight subjects, they only take four subjects – one of these in native language. The other subjects are just like A Levels – six hour, nationally-moderated tests in individual subjects. And these exams have been in place, and relatively unchanged in form, since the end of the 19th century.”

      • John Perry says:

        “Always worth returning to Tim Oates when someone make claims about how progressive the Finnish system is.”

        And that’s exactly what Finland-haters tend to do: return to Tim Oates. As well as to … um … no, just to Tim Oates.

    • If you don’t like the Tim Oates source, try the following: [sorry I don’t know how to copy them as links}

      Finnish Mathematics Teaching from a Reform Perspective: A Video-Based Case-Study Analysis – 54a53c180cf256bf8bb4c7db.pdf

      Analysing Mathematics CurriculumMaterials Microsoft Word – Hemmi_Koljonen_etal_Final.docx – WG11_Koljonen.pdf

      Schools observation Week – Jyväskylä – fi-report_sw_en.pdf

      [Page 313-314] untitled – Changes in Nordic Teaching 06.pdf

      Interestingly, I have found other links in the past to blogs and reports produced by progressive visitors, which deplore the lack of progressive practices they have observed in visits to Finnish schools, but these have unfortunately ended up deleted by their authors.

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  6. Taisto Leinonen says:

    Here in Finland we do not worry about PISA ratings. In our society a plumber or electrician is highly appreciated. The latter does not anymore connect the three wires of an outlet but rather is specialist capable of handling alarm systems, communication networks and other facilities up to IoT in buildings. No wonder Finland has a world record on patented innovations per capita.The first 5G trials are beginning in Finland and the market will be divided between Nokia of Finland, Ericsson of Sweden and Huawei of China.
    As a former lecturer of biomedical technology, ex Chief Editor of two technical magazines, I can guess the above terms are entirely gibberish to most of the commentators and understanding that the goals and scopes of Finnish education are weird as they are definitely not directed to good spelling capabilities to keep #1 position in PISA tests.

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  8. Rob Craigen says:

    Thanks for Tweeting this out again, Greg, it’s a great summary. Especially the point about looking at the trend lines for an education system, not its absolute rank among PISA participants. I’ve been harping on this point for ages and still people reply “…but we’re one of the best school systems” and then they cover their ears when I say “look at the heights from which you’ve fallen. Aren’t you concerned about the direction things are going?”

    • John Pierry says:

      looking at the trend lines for an education system

      What about the trend lines from the past few decades? Based on their results of several international tests since the 1960s, research has shown that rather than falling from “heights”, they’ve actually risen substantially from the depths of the poorly-performing system they had in the 1950s and 1960s. Interestingly, that was a time when their education system was segregated through selective as well as heavily-subsidised private schooling – much like Australia’s now! And we’re seeing PISA scores drop in Australia over the same time that private school share of enrolments significantly increased. Correlation? Let’s see how our PISA scores look after the trend has reversed, which is what is happening at the moment.

      Can’t wait to see Pasi on Q and A.

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