Since it was reformed 40 years ago, Finland’s education system has frequently been held up as one of the best in the world.
Today, that changed. Tbe OECD released its PISA global rankings that showed how students in various countries were doing in reading, science, and maths. Finland ranked 12th, just behind Estonia.
That’s a big drop. Finland had topped the PISA rankings in 2000, 2003, and 2006, and consistently ranked near the top in other years. This year, however, Finnish students had dropped by 2.8% in mathematics, 1.7% in reading and 3% in science.
“The golden days are over,” Finnbay, a Finnish news organisation wrote just after the results came out.
The results may be tough to swallow for Finnish educators.
“The general downturn in learning outcomes shows that we must take strong action to develop Finnish education. We will bring in not only experts in research and education and political decision-makers but also student representatives and parents,’ Krista Kiuru, Minister of Education and Science, said today.
It’s also depressing for those who had looked towards Finland for education reform. Finland was perhaps unique amongst the top achievers in PISA as its education system had many quirks which other countries could imitate; a late start to schooling for children, a lack of focus on examinations, more recess time, more teachers (who are also better paid than their U.S. counterparts), and strict rules and limits for private schools. All of these could, in theory, be exported to the U.S. — a country which ranked below the OECD average in every category — or others.
So what happened? Over at the Washington Post, Pasi Sahlberg, author of the best-selling “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland,” offers some perspective. Here’s one key passage:
The unexpected position as a global educational leader and role model may have disturbed Finland’s previous commitment to continuous improvement and renewal. Some argue that complacency and focus on explaining the past to thousands of education tourists have shifted attention away from developing Finland’s own school system. Others contend that the high-profile of PISA have led other nations to alter their curricula. Such observers point to the usage of PISA questions to shape lessons and coaching students to take PISA-like tests. As a norm-referenced test, PISA is graded on a curve. What other nations have learned from Finland and put into practice has necessarily brought down Finland’s results.
The OECD’s own John Bangs, chair of the OECD trade union advisory committee’s education working group, offered his own explanation:
“My belief is that Finland and Sweden [another Nordic state that also saw its ranking drop] are suffering from the strains of declining economies and the social pressures this causes.”
It’s also worth noting that Finland’s high PISA rankings had caused some controversy amongst Finnish educators. The problem was especially acute in mathematics, where many educators disagreed with the method by which PISA ranked students (PISA focuses on everyday knowledge, rather than curriculum-based knowledge).
For example, in 2005, more than 200 Finnish academics issued a warning about complacency as a result of the PISA success. Business Insider recently emailed with two Finnish education experts — Markku Halmetoja, chief editor in chief of in mathematics magazine Solmu, and Matti Lehtinen, Finnish team leader in IMO (International Mathematical Olympiad) — who offered this explanation for Finland’s mathematics problem.
Following a political decision made in 1985, there is only one maths pro- gram in the compulsory phase of education, in the first nine school years (age 7 to 15). We consider this quite natural in the primary level: everybody has to acquire the basic arithmetic skills. But the present situation means that almost all formal algebra and geometry has disappeared from the curriculum as too difficult for a major part of the student population. A consequence of this is that upper high school maths has to start almost from scratch, and there is really a long way to go if one hopes to reach a level sufficient to university studies in any subject involving mathematics. One indicator of the low level from which the part of student population to which mathematics is or would be important is the consistently low results obtained by Finland in high school level international competitions like the International Mathematical Olympiad.
This aspect is usually ignored by supporters of Finland’s education reforms. Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, a Swedish academic writing for the Spectator, points out that the “Finland fan club” rarely talks about another survey called TIMSS that focuses more on curriculum-based knowledge. Interestingly, the biggest drop in Finland’s results came this year in maths (the focus of the PISA exams for the first time in 10 years), and Finland ranked just 12th in maths.
Finland’s educators themselves are not really surprised by the rankings, Kai-Ari Lundell, an elementary school teacher who recently became “teacher of the year” in Finland, explains, but they are disappointed. “We teach mathematics only four times a week,” Lundell adds. “It’s not a lot, especially when we compare how much they teach maths in some Asian countries.”
Of course, everything is relative, and Finland still ranked highly in reading and science, where it was the top European nation. But the domination of PISA rankings by Asian countries looks complete, with countries from the region holding all the top seven spaces in maths, the top five in reading, and the top four in science. Ultimately, this success might come down to something simple and harder to imitate — hard work.
“Some teachers think that our life in Finland is so easy, our pupils have forgotten how to work,” Lundell says. “You won’t learn mathematics if you don’t work enough.”