The cause of Finland’s educational decline

Simplicio: We should look to Finland for ideas about how to improve our education system – their PISA results are amazing!

Sagredo: But I thought their PISA results were in a significant, long-term decline?

Simplicio: Standardised test results are not everything!

In the early days of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Finland’s performance was an outlier, ranking top or near top on assessments of reading, mathematics and science. The first test in 2000 set the benchmark of 500 as an average scaled score. Finland performed around half a standard deviation better which is massive. Somewhat inevitably, this prompted a mass pilgrimage of educationalists from across the world who visited Finland, stared long and hard into its magic mirror and saw exactly what they wanted to see. Much of this was misguided or based on the assumption that whatever Finland was doing now, or planned to do in the future, was somehow a cause of its past success.

However, since the mid 2000s, Finland’s PISA results have been in significant decline. This is a key, indisputable fact. And in many ways, it is more significant than any particular ranking in any given year. Why? Education systems vary greatly in terms of their size, demographics and even such factors as the orthography of the language of instruction (more later). When we compare Finland’s performance with, say, Australia, we cannot be sure that it is any particular education policy that has caused the difference because it could be a combination of any of these other factors. However, when we compare Finland with itself over time, we can perhaps make stronger inferences because these other factors are likely to be a little more stable.

So Finland’s dramatic decline provides an opportunity for learning. What initially appears to be bad news – because we all wish Finland’s students the very best for their education – could be good news in the sense that it potentially provides relatively rare evidence about the impact of educational policies at scale.

First of all, however, we need to be able to see it. Just last week, The Conversation, an outlet that is supposed to, “Inform public debate with knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence,” published an anachronistically breathless piece about Finland. The author, a Canadian education professor, visited Finland, toured schools and spoke to students. He writes of Finland’s PISA success but does not mention its decline and we are invited to believe that a progressivist inquiry learning approach known as ‘phenomenon-based learning’ is somehow associated with Finland’s success, despite it only being around since 2017. It’s all to do with John Dewey or something, even though the Finnish teacher he spoke to didn’t think so.

There is a colourful vignette:

“On my trip, during a visit to a third-grade classroom, all the students were engaged with a particular phenomenon: How would we respond to a loss of electricity? Children were chopping wood, deciding how to divide resources and making paper airplanes.”

Exactly how making paper airplanes would compensate for a loss of electricity is for the reader to contemplate.

Yet as Canadian professors fail to grasp the real issue, there are signs that the Finnish people are asking the right questions. There are moves to replace the apparently vague assessment criteria introduced in 2014 with a new numbering system that is standardised across schools from the fourth grade onwards. Yes, Finnish students do sit assessments, despite what you may have heard.

And in this piece, Finnish teachers and academics discuss the factors that may have contributed to the country’s decline, one of which could be the very same phenomenon-based learning that so impressed our Canadian professor. One proposal for improvement is to have longer school days.

One additional point made in the article actually passed me by in the intial buzz of PISA results: The 2018 Pisa survey results showed Finland has the widest gender gap in reading among the 79 countries that participated in the assessment. This should be a subject of interest to reading researchers. Has this gap widened over time? If so, what policies are associated with this? For reading researchers, Finland is an interesting case because it has a particularly transparent orthography i.e. there is a very clear and consistent relationship between the written letter of Finnish and the spoken sounds they represent. That helps us whittle-down the possible causes of the gender gap.


10 thoughts on “The cause of Finland’s educational decline

  1. Matthew says:

    “And in this piece, Finnish teachers and academics discuss the factors that may have contributed to the country’s decline”

    Yes, one of the factors that is discussed is the pedagogy, but mostly they talk about funding cuts, economic changes, low scoring immigrants etc etc

  2. David F says:

    Hi Greg,

    I have a bookmarked this 2016 interview with Pahsi Sahlberg in the Singapore Straits-Times specifically on Finland’s PISA declines.
    What’s interesting is that he points to devices/tech: “Finland used to have the best primary school readers in the world until the early 2000s, but not any more. Pisa test items rely heavily on the test-taker’s reading comprehension. Appearance of handheld technologies like smartphones among school-aged children in this decade has probably accelerated this trend.”

    But then, how should Finland respond to its PISA decline? Sahlberg responds: ” Pisa is not seen in Finland as a trigger for education reforms. There will be no new policy changes that would be inspired by Pisa in Finland. The Ministry of Education has launched a national programme that aims at improving primary and lower secondary education. This includes more student-centred pedagogies, strengthened student engagement in school, more physical activity for all students and more technology in classrooms.”

    • Chester Draws says:

      The phone thing looks like a cop out to me. Every country has had phones appear, and not every country has fallen as precipitously as Finland.

      • David F says:

        The absurdity is that he points to digital tech as a problem, but then wants more technology in the classroom….

  3. The countries with the biggest declines are rich western countries which have WAY more phones in their society. There is also an OECD graph from 2015 showing a correlation (causation?) between IT devices in a country and PISA decline.


  4. Pingback: Finland, schools, and PISA | justbargain

  5. John Pierry says:

    “Exactly how making paper airplanes would compensate for a loss of electricity is for the reader to contemplate.”

    I’m a reader. I imagine that the point is that children can’t play computer games without electricity so they find alternatives. Ta-da! Conundrum solved.

  6. John Pierry says:

    “there is a very clear and consistent relationship between the written letter of Finnish and the spoken sounds they represent. That helps us whittle-down the possible causes of the gender gap.”

    How, exactly?

    Also, I recall the gender gap being discussed in previous years by Finnish educators, so they are on to it and it has been a thing for some time.

  7. Pingback: Pasi Sahlberg’s diagnosis and cure for Australia’s ailing education system – Filling the pail

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