Bodong Chen

Crisscross Landscapes

Why the quality of Finland's education system can exceed the quality of its teachers?


Assessing one single student is not easy, not to mention an education system. Yet, OECD has been running a Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) since 2000 to evaluate education systems by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds around the world.

Because of its superb performance in PISA since 2000, Finland’s education system has been celebrated worldwide. It had been holding the top spot in PISA’s overall ranking for years, attracting other countries to study and imitate its model. However, Finland has fallen from the top in 2009 , and has further “declined” more recently in 2012 – in all three subjects including math, reading and scientific literacies, leaving some Finns feeling concerned. Equally concerned are some Canadians, especially with their math performance.

In contrast, several Asian economies, including Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, have taken the top spots. Shanghai is now widely celebrated as the best education system, pretty much like Finland was years ago. Western countries, especially those declined in recent PISA tests, are looking into Shanghai for keys to “success”.

However, educational scholars Yong Zhao called it a mistake to assume that the Asian systems have made significant improvement and surpassed Finland, and criticized PISA test for shifting the world’s attention away from Finland to Shanghai (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). He even joked that to become globally competitive, we should all begin to use chopsticks because chopsticks produce better education outcomes as measured by PISA. Grown up from a same southwestern region of China as Zhao, I share the same sentiments. While western countries are curious about Chinese students’ academic performance – measured by test scores – they might be less aware of declining physical health of students in China, as well as parents’ weak confidence in school system and growing inequity. It is interesting to witness China’s efforts over the years to learn from the West and to free students from tests, and western countries’ contrary movement towards more tests-and-drills, which I would call as the “Abandoned Chinese Way.”

Learning Finnish Lessons

So it was a great pleasure to hear Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator, scholar, and the author of Finnish Lessons, talking about Finland’s education system and the spread of GERM last week (PDF slides).

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He started by clarifying that he would not be talking about Finland as the best education system in the world and he would not tell people to copy Finnish model in their own countries, because “educational reforms are poor travelers.” His talk was about reasons why Finns like him were still so confident in their school systems – reasons that cannot be captured by PISA scores.

Teacher education

It was not new to hear that top high school graduates in Finland choose to become a teacher. According to Sahlberg’s personal story, his niece, who was a top student when she graduated from high school, applied to a teacher educational program but got rejected for not giving a satisfactory answer to a tricky interview question: ‘why you chose to become a teacher?’ The competition to get enrolled in a teacher education program is tough. Out of 8500 applicants, according to Sahlberg, only 750 get selected. In a country where most people go to college, that’s quite a battle.

It was also no secret that it normally takes five to six years to prepare a teacher in Finland (pdf). All their teachers have an academic master’s degree, with a major in education or special education and meanwhile a minor from a specific subject-related department (e.g., math, biology).

Plus, their teacher education is free!

The key components of teacher education in Finland, as Sahlberg summarized, included:

So what else besides teachers?

Sahlberg moved forward to talk about the first myth of educational reforms:

Myth #1: The most important single factor in improving quality of education is teachers.

He pointed out many factors behind Finns’ success. First, Finns share a common vision of education in their country. They work towards “great education for each and every child,” rather than “the best school system in the world.” Such a common vision does not exist in many other countries.

Second, Finland has an equal society. As he demonstrated in the following figure, inequity seems to be negatively correlated with student achievement.

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And when equity gets enhanced, quality of education system measured by student performance also tends to go up.

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Third, Finland as a country does well in various areas. It excels in many social indicators, ranging from economic competitiveness, to mother index, and to happiness index.

These factors explain why Sahlberg has faith in “The Finnish Way,” which emphasizes collaboration, personalization, trust-based responsibility, equity, and professional capital. In contrast, the global educational reform movement (GERM) is moving towards competition, standardization, test-based accountability, choice (e.g., school choice, online learning), and human capital (teacher preparation).

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Sahlberg warned that GERM is spreading around the world, and has actually been counterproductive to the improvement of education systems, reflected by change of PISA math scores in several OECD countries since 2000.

Move towards professional capital

The second myth of educational reforms Sahlberg discussed was:

The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.

Sahlberg posed the interesting question of “what if Finland’s great teachers taught in your schools?” To help teachers to flourish in teaching, the culture and policies need to be right. So he urged education reformers to think beyond improving human capital (by training individual teacher), and raise attention to the other two dimensions: social capital and decisional capital. To improve the effectiveness of an education system, improvements should be made in all three dimensions. In other words, the quality of an education system does not depend on its teachers, but the production of these three factors.

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He also made an analogy between teaching and playing hockey, which both Canadians and Finns are good at, and pointed out that taking collective responsibility and leadership was key to success. So the Finnish lesson tells us:

The quality of an education system can exceed the quality of its teachers if teachers work as a team.

ICT in Finnish Schools

During the Q & A session, someone asked how Finns handle digital learning in their education system, noting that mobile phones are banned in NYC public schools. In his response, Sahlberg noted that Finland has one of the most advanced tech infrastructure in the world and thus suffers less digital gaps. However, he said Finnish schools are not making wide use of technologies. As one recent EU survey in ICT in education found:

Students in Finland enjoy among the highest levels in Europe of ICT infrastructure provision, high speed broadband connectivity and ‘connectedness’, yet frequency of ICT use by teachers is above EU means only at grade 11, and by students consistently lower at all grades. Levels of teacher confidence in operational use of ICT are, curiously, below EU means but above when considering their confidence in the use of social media. On the other hand students’ confidence in ICT is around the EU mean (except at grade 11 vocational where it is lower). Support measures for teachers in terms of training and an ICT coordinator appear uneven across grades.

He remarked that teachers identified the main obstacle of using technologies was inadequate pedagogical advancement of tech. So the lower level of ICT application may indicate higher level of professional preparation which helps teachers be clear about what works in their classrooms.

Some critiques

Sahlberg’s ideas here offer a significant counter-argument for current move towards standards and test-based accountability, or GERM in his words.

However, there are underlying methodological issues with the visualizations in his presentation. First, those two plots showing relations between student achievement and equity (measured by either Gini coefficient or the strength of the relation between achievement and ESCS index) are blind to other possible impacting factors (e.g., GPD per capita). Without controlling such strong predictors of educational performance, a single correlation does not tell much and could be misleading.

My second critique is around the use of PISA scores to prove success of an educationl system. While one could argue PISA is one of the most widely used measurement out there, presenting Finnish’s success in spite of widespread “GERM” with PISA scores sounds somewhat ironic to me. Finnish stories around how they managed to keep human, social, and decisional capital improving in parallel, or how Finnish education system could develop professional strength and moral health to keep itself immune from “GERM”, would be more interesting to me.