Why are Finnish principals struggling?

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Finland is the subject of much myth-making. It’s performance in the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) in the early 2000s made Finland the preeminent destination for education tourists. Unlike the East Asian countries that also perform well in PISA, Finland gives the impression of having achieved its success with a more progressive approach. These arguments were revisited recently when Pasi Sahlberg, a former director of the Finnish education system, was appointed to a post at the University of New South Wales.

However, all is not quite as it seems. The 15-year-olds who sat PISA tests in 2006 began their schooling in the 1990s and Finland’s approach has gradually changed over time. It is an error to look at what Finland is doing now and conclude that this is responsible for past gains. That would involve time travel. Moreover, when education tourists visit Finland, they have often been surprised to find teaching that is relatively didactic and traditional. Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment in the U.K. has written about these issues.

In recent years, Finland’s performance in PISA has significantly declined, a fact that is often overlooked by its cheerleaders in academia and the press. This may be due to Finland’s adoption of new approaches to teaching and learning.

Now there are signs that these new approaches are also taking their toll on Finland’s school principals. According to a piece in The Educator Australia, Finnish principals are facing burn-out. One of the reasons, according to Antti Ikonen, the head of the Finnish Association of Principals, is new practices:

“Ikonen said that increasing digitalization, the need to find more ‘active’ ways of learning and recognising individual student needs are tasks that demand more from the country’s school leaders.”

This is not a surprise. The adoption of methods based upon the educational philosophy of progressivism are always likely to increase workloads.


15 thoughts on “Why are Finnish principals struggling?

  1. The success of both Finland and East Asian countries would seem to contradict each other. Yet little attention has been paid to what may be the actual cause of that success: both have wider cultures that venerate learning and respect teachers. The motivation to learn is therefore little to do with actual educational practices. It is typical of educationalists everywhere to grasp at any success and conclude that *they* must be responsible for it, but is often unlikely to be true. It is a shame if Finland is declining – but it may be doing nothing more than show the unavoidable – that it much easier to damage people’s education than to improve it. The latter comes from qualities intrinsic to the student body.

    1. I’d accept that up to a point. Having worked in challenging inner city schools though I feel that behaviour, teaching and learning can be improved through the trad methods, focus on healthy, stable adult relationships with children built on a set of rules that both understand and adhere too. I would also refute that characteristics can’t be acquired and learnt through school though I accept the limitations of such given home environment and society/culture is impacting all the time but it’s nowhere near universal as I was led to believe. I also think that we have denigrated our own culture of respect for teachers precisely because of the ideas of the education establishment. I look at the polls on bringing back corporal punishment into schools and I do think that reflects the fact that in some communities the last time they knew a well-ordered disciplined class/school is back in the 1960s. If children/grandchildren/great grandchildren come home with same old “class was disrupted by ‘x'” stories instead of what they learnt (I am primary remember) then it builds an impression of the education world out in the real world for some people. It’s a feedback loop that we can hardly refute without then lying to the outside world. One of the reasons why Andrew Old is so clamped down on is precisely because he breaks this omerta.

      1. I wouldn’t disagree with any of that, Teachwell. I think it is probably true that the respect for learning instilled in those countries is probably very traditional in its outlook and expectation – and it probably goes hand in hand with wider traditionalist views too. I am sure you’re right – suitable school environments can make a difference – but not as much as we would like to believe. And the truth is there is no alternative but to try. I think there is more than a grain of truth in the saying, “Give me the child for the first seven years….” Not that taking children away from their home environments ever earlier is a very desirable alternative either, in my view. The real key is to get early years home environments and parenting right – but that would not allow ambitious educationalists to claim the credit!

    2. “It is a shame if Finland is declining”

      If, indeed, they are “declining”. Look at their incredible ascent in internationally-recognised tests since the 1970s, when they got rid of segregated and stratified schooling and replaced it with the comprehensive program they now have:


      Any “drop” they had between 2000 and 2015 is statistically small compared to the rise they made in the previous decades. Aside from Maths they are still in the PISA top ten!

  2. One of the main things I noticed in the description of the Finnish education system (back then) was that their teachers had autonomy over what they taught (and that they all had masters). I think that is really significant for the argument that ‘didactic’ teaching works better because, although it sounds quite ‘fluffy’ (teachers get to choose what they love) in reality teachers (people) are going to chose what works best which is . . . ?

  3. “Finland gives the impression of having achieved its success with a more progressive approach”

    Actually, it gives a VERY strong impression of having accelerated in leaps and bounds after making their schools entirely comprehensive from the 1970s onward. The Patrinos graph that you yourself posted shows this unmistakeably:


    And I repeat here the comment that I made there:

    “New research… seems to show that Finland obtained most of the gains in its performance in the 1980s and 1990s. … It is worth noting that the Finnish system has changed over time and there was more control and a more traditional approach in the years when these gains took place.”

    It is also worth noting that well before the 80s, Finland made a very decisive move towards comprehensive schooling, away from the grammars and private schools:

    “Over the next decade [the 1950s] there was explosive growth in grammar school enrolments, which grew from 34 000 to 270 000. Most of this growth took place in the private schools, which in the 1950s began to receive government subsidies and come more under public control. This growth reflected the aspirations of ordinary Finns for greater educational opportunity for their children, a message that the country’s political leaders heard as well.”

    From: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/46581035.pdf

    Interesting, eh? Sounds like the malaise Australia is currently in (outrageous subsidies for private schools, growing educational inequality) and is looking for a way out of!

    Can I please ask, Greg, that you consider this fact whenever you discuss Finland and your feelings about it? It seems to me to be a VERY important fact that is not mentioned in your many posts on the subject.”

  4. Some friends of Tim Oates who echo his theories about Finland keep shady company:

    “[Gabriel Heller] Sahlgren was once a Koch Fellow at the US-based Competitive Enterprise Institute which describes itself as ‘a non-profit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty.’”

    and his findings are a bit flimsy, too:

    “Sahlgren … cites West and Woessmann Every Catholic in a Catholic School: Historical Resistance to State Schooling (summarised here) which used PISA 2003 (and a limited number of countries – 29 of the 40 which took part) to claim ‘larger shares of privately operated schools lead to better student achievement in mathematics’. But PISA 2003 actually contradicted their conclusion:

    “…these [international] comparisons show that the association between a school being private and its students doing well is at best tenuous. Thus, any policy to enhance overall performance only by moving funding from public to private institutions is subject to considerable uncertainty.”

    This has been confirmed by subsequent PISA reports – policies which increase choice and competition between types of schools don’t raise standards as claimed. And in 2009, the OECD found that globally, state-run schools (known as public schools in OECD jargon) outperform independent schools when social-economic background is taken into account.”

    Both from http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2015/04/finlands-slipped-a-bit-in-league-tables-therefore-finlands-system-is-failing-really

    Tim and Gabriel enjoy their echo chamber here:

    Be careful who you listen to on this issue.

      1. Next, you will be saying he is a member of The Bilderberg Group and the Knights Templar, that he helped fake the Moon landings and that he lives with Elvis in a giant teapot. Please stick to critiquing people’s ideas. Further personal attacks will not pass moderation.

      2. “a member of The Bilderberg Group and the Knights Templar, that he helped fake the Moon landings and that he lives with Elvis in a giant teapot”

        I’m really not sure why you consider this to be a reasonable equivalency to my pointing out Tim Oates’ background, those he supports and the very already public affiliations they have. I believe they are extremely pertinent to the argument and to reframe them as a “personal attack” is, quite frankly, an exaggeration. If you are annoyed by my rebuttals, then fine, but please don’t channel that into hyperbolic false equivalencies as it contaminates the argument. Instead, please express your annoyance directly.

        You seem to feel that it is legitimate to use Tim Oates’ findings as support for your argument – I’m puzzled as to why you don’t feel I have the right of reply to place Oates’ standing and his choice of data under scrutiny. Of course, if you strongly feel that your assertions should not be challenged, please make that clear as well.

  5. More from Sahlgren (https://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/critique_of_finlands_education_system_raises_eyebrows/7947814):

    “Finland’s success was due to “historic, economic and cultural factors that have little to do with the country’s educational system,” he says. “It is also clear that the country’s hierarchical educational culture, including traditional teaching methods, partly explain its achievements.”

    “This is now changing, which explains the current decline,” Heller Sahlgren wrote.”

    Wait, what? So changing the educational system from the ground up didn’t contribute to its enormous success, but changing the teaching methods DID contribute to its decline? Talk about having your cake and eating it too!

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