Finnish experience should teach us a lesson or two

Jane Silloway-Smith

For Web Edition-Finnish experience should teach- Jane Silloway-SmithSpend any time with an education reformer and you are likely to hear something about Finland. This Scandinavian country of 5.5 million has been the toast of the education circuit for much of the 2000s, regularly topping the international charts in student achievement.

Educationalists around the world have, over the past decade and a half, tried to figure out what it was that made Finnish education so great, and how they could bring those things to their own countries.

Student-led learning, no standardised testing, a system-wide focus on equity, and short school days and years were the often cited secrets to Finland’s, and presumably one day everyone else’s, success.

Sliding scale

But this decade-and-a-half-long orthodoxy is now being called into question.

In the last two rounds of PISA testing out of the OECD, Finnish students have slid precipitously out of the top spots in mathematics, reading and scientific literacy.

A new study from the Centre for Policy Studies in the UK seeks to discover why this is happening and what lessons this may have for education reformers around the world.

Gabriel Heller Sahlgren finds in ‘Real Finnish Lessons: The true story of an education superpower,’ that all the things traditionally cited as the ingredients of Finnish success are actually more likely the seeds of its current downward trajectory.

Vanishing excitement

Before Finland became the shining star of the educational firmament, its education system was a highly centralised one in which hierarchical and traditional schooling dominated in classrooms around the country.

The exciting, creative characteristics educationalists saw in the system when they flocked to Finland in the 2000s were the product of mid to late 1990s education reforms.

Observers saw these reforms and assumed that since they correlated with Finland’s topping the charts, they must have caused the top rankings.

Converse effect

Not so, says Sahlgren backed by rigorous causation models; not one of these things has been found to have a strong causal relationship with Finland’s past academic success.

In fact, some of these things such as student-led learning, in particular, prove to have had a strong negative causal relationship with Finnish academic success. That is, they have been bad for Finnish students and their achievement.

The real story of Finland’s educational success, then, is one in which its pre-1990s education system produced outstanding results. It is only now that we can accurately assess the results of a system fully transformed by the reforms of the 1990s.

Some pointers

Sahlgren’s findings have lessons for us here in New Zealand.

The first is that the traditional teacher-in-the-front-students-learning-in-the-back model of education may have more going for it than it has lately been given credit for.

Secondly, we should never mine another countries’ educational system for hints about how to fix our own without doing due diligence on why that country has experienced the success it has. Correlation, no matter how attractive and easy it may be, does not necessarily equal causation.

If we are looking for our own secrets to educational success, we should pay attention to this very important lesson.

Jane Silloway-Smith is Research Manager at Maxim Institute, Auckland

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