April 2008

Vol 7 - No. 10
























Education | April 2008



What We Can Learn from Finland
Facts and Reflections on the PISA Study


Since the publication of the results of the PISA study, the refrain has been: “Finland sets the standard!” Like a well-oiled engine, the Finnish school system has been taken apart and its individual elements scrutinized. Individual gears have been identified as the reason for the good functioning of the machine, without an examination of the ways in which these individual components interact with the other parts. One might even conclude that no one is even interested in the interaction - or rather, that the Finnish school system is a quarry from which everyone extracts the element that is of personal interest or that can be used to exert political pressure in his or her own country.

In the process, the historic roots and geographical circumstances of the educational systems of both Finland and each observer’s country are forgotten or ignored. Equally neglected is a precise scientific analysis of both the Finnish PISA data and the data from the observer’s own country - and an analysis of the goals and purposes of the PISA study in general.

Down to brass tacks: A look at the reality of the Finnish school system

In light of the issues raised above, how can we actually explain the better PISA results of Finnish children in comparison to children in other European countries? Real insights into the day-to-day reality of Finland’s educational system can best be obtained by someone who speaks the language and is familiar with the cultural, historical, and geographic conditions under which the Finnish educational system operates.(1)

Geographic and demographic situation

Finland has an area of 337,000 square kilometers and 5.1 million inhabitants. The latter, however, are distributed very unevenly across the country. 1.5 million people live in the population centers of southern Finland; there, the population density is roughly similar to that of Central Europe. In the interior of the country only 16 people live on each square kilometer; in North Lapland, only 0.7 people. The country is officially bilingual (Finnish and Swedish), and the entire educational system must be conducted in parallel to accommodate both languages. In addition, the Saamen (earlier known as Laplanders) also constitute another linguistic minority. The foreign population is approximately 2%, but this population can be found almost exclusively in the southern population centers.

Schools based on the Swiss model

Even as late as the 1890s, only about 53,000 - that is, 2.5% - of Finnish children went to school. In comparison, at that time 20% of US children, and 16% of English and Swedish children, attended school. In Switzerland, mandatory schooling had already been introduced. As in Switzerland, where the development of public schools accompanied the creation of an independent democratic nation, mandatory education for all Finnish citizens was instituted in 1921, shortly after Finland’s independence in 1917. Finnish public schools were developed on the model of the Swiss public school system. Individual municipalities were given the responsibility for the creation and maintenance of their own schools, and were obligated to found schools wherever 30 or more children were registered. Moreover, no child was permitted to travel more than 5 kilometers to get to school. In the course of the ensuing decades, a well-developed network of public schools was created. Today, Finnish schools are governed by rules revised and adopted in the year 1998.

Education for all

The current Finnish system is based on reforms carried out in the 1970s, in which the original public schools were transformed into nine-year primary schools. The goal of the reforms was not the unification of the school system, but rather to provide equal educational opportunity to all citizens. Every Finnish citizen, regardless of place of residence or social status, was to have the same chance of graduating from college.

Peruskoulu - The primary school

Finnish children start school in the year that they turn seven years old.  Since 1996, pre-school education has been required for all children after the age of six. The question of whether children should enter school earlier is no longer a matter of discussion. The obligatory nine years of school are divided into a lower school (the first through the sixth years of school) and an upper school (the seventh through the ninth years of school), which together comprise the primary school. Across the country, there are approximately 3,000 lower schools (first through sixth grades) and 600 upper schools (seventh through ninth grades). After nine years, the period of required school attendance is over, and the child’s grades will determine whether he or she enters a college preparatory school (Gymnasium) or a vocational school. Approximately 94% of all students choose one of these two possibilities.

Diverse schools and curricula

In general, municipalities are responsible for managing schools, and have a large degree of autonomy, even in regard to the curriculum. 40% of school systems have fewer than 50 students, and 60% have fewer than 6 instructors. Only 3% of schools have more than 600 students. This intimate school setting is regarded by Finnish educational authorities as an important element of Finland’s educational success: students who are weaker academically can flourish better in such comfortable, familiar spaces than they can in larger, more anonymous institutions.

Every school is required to create a curriculum that is appropriate for the local conditions. This can be determined by very different criteria - for example, music programs vary greatly. There are also elite schools - for example, an ice hockey school with its own skating rink sponsored by the ice hockey industry in order to nurture future world champions, or the math/science oriented school at the corporate headquarters of Nokia, which then directly poaches suitable graduates for the company. In other words, schools in Finland are very heterogeneous. In the population centers in particular the quality of schools varies widely.

Keeping teachers’ hands free

Finnish schools are organized to allow teachers to devote themselves to the children’s education as much as possible, unburdened by other problems. For this reason, in addition to the school administration and the teaching faculty, each school also has a broader team of professionals (2). In large schools daily, and in smaller schools at least once a week, this team takes care of all the issues that arise in the course of the children’s in-school interactions. In this way schools keep the teachers’ hands free for teaching.

Finnish as the foundation

The schedule in Finnish schools is very language-heavy. Although Finland is a linguistic island, Finns regard their own language and literature as very important and take care to cultivate them.

In the first two years of school, children learn the fundamentals of mathematics and their native tongue (Finnish or Swedish) - in other words, reading, writing, and arithmetic. A strong foundation in one’s native language is regarded as a prerequisite for the acquisition of additional languages. In the third grade, in addition to history, biology, and geography, the first foreign language is introduced. Usually it is English (but it can also be German, French, or Russian). In fifth grade, students learn a second foreign language and, in seventh grade, a third. Every school, however, has its own curriculum and can determine the order in which languages are presented. Language learning is concentrated primarily on developing communication abilities. Foreign language instruction makes no attempt to introduce children to the culture or literature of the language being learned.

Classroom instruction for all

Except for foreign languages, the classroom teacher teaches almost all subjects. Nearly all teachers teach in the ex-cathedra style (the so-called ‘sage on the stage” model); in other words, the individualized learning styles that we so vehemently support are largely absent from the Finnish classroom. At model schools, foreign visitors are shown modern architecture and classes led by carefully selected teachers. This, however, is not the day-to-day reality of Finnish schools.

Spoiled for choice

Parents can choose to have their child attend any school they wish, but in practice the freedom of choice is relatively limited. There is only a large selection of different kinds of schools in the population centers in the south. It is very difficult for parents to find their way in the jungle of the school prospectuses placed before them. For this reason, they often simply send their child to the nearest school.

Why Finland performed well

As in every country, Finland’s educational system is influenced and shaped by different national conditions. If the many educational experts from the rest of Europe are going to travel to Finland to discover what makes an educational system work, they need to have a complete knowledge of all these conditions. Otherwise, they run the risk of getting mired in superficialities.

It is also important to be aware that Finland’s overall PISA scores were raised by the thinly-settled northern region of the country. The highest results, in fact, were achieved by rural girls. The southern metropolitan areas, in contrast, contributed very little to Finland’s PISA success. It is, therefore, certainly no accident that the Finns often explain the good results of the PISA study very differently than school administrators in the rest of Europe might wish. What follows is a look at some of the first attempts at explaining the results from the Finnish perspective.

Homogeneous values

The population of Finland is very homogeneous. The difference between the highest and lowest incomes has never been as great as in other European countries. This has to do with history, geography, demography, and social history. The vast majority of the Finnish population is firmly embedded in the traditional structure of values and norms, and passes this on to its children. The Finns themselves consider this to be a major factor in their good performance in the PISA study.

Tradition of reading

Finland has long, dark, cold winters, which have spawned a distinct culture of reading that hardly exists anywhere else. At the beginning of the 20th century, Finland had, at 3.8%, the lowest rate of illiteracy in the world. Today, reading still has a high social value. Even during primary school, reading groups outside of school are important, and library visits are a favorite pastime.

Television and computers do not offer serious competition to books. There are only a few TV programs in Finnish, so that watching television becomes another form of reading practice, because films are not dubbed, but rather given Finnish subtitles. Because of this, if they want to understand what happens on the screen, children have to automatically train themselves to read quickly and retain what they have read.

The Finnish language

During the first two years of school, Finnish has a clearly important place in the lesson plan. Although Finnish grammar is very complicated, the language is written just as it is spoken. For this reason, it is much easier to learn how to read in Finnish than it is, for example, in English or German or French. Every sound in Finnish corresponds to a letter. There are no letters that stand for more than one sound, for example, “C” in ”China” or “cinema”. Because of this, not only do the spelling issues that plague children in many countries almost completely disappear, but reading becomes much easier, most especially for the children that we designate as ”at-risk groups” and who did not even attain the lowest level in the PISA study. As a result, most of the Finnish children who start school in August can read by Christmas time.

Foreign language instruction

Although Finns learn foreign languages early, these lessons are not at the cost of instruction in their native tongue. Foreign language instruction is totally oriented toward the pragmatic use of the language. Literature is not read, and only a tiny part of the lesson is devoted to grammar.

Class size and class cancellation

The average class size is 19.5 students. There are hardly any lesson cancellations, because trained teachers take over their colleagues’ lessons whenever necessary. This is especially important for weaker students, who are particularly impacted by class cancellations.

Teaching is central

Because they are supported by a team of professionals within the school building, teachers can devote themselves entirely to teaching and do not constantly have to deal with non academic problems. In large classes with more than 18-20 students, assistants are called in. These assistants are not trained, but they provide support so that the teacher can give her attention to the class.

Integration of children who are not native speakers

Finland has a very small percentage (2%) of immigrant children, who mostly live in the southern population centers. In order to integrate them into the school system as well as possible and to give them equal educational opportunity, children who are not native speakers first learn one of the two national languages before they are placed in a regular classroom.

”As long as the support is right, everything else takes care of itself” (3).

No child left behind! The most important reason for Finland’s success is probably the support provided within the school for weaker students. The goal is to make sure that large learning deficits never have a chance to arise. If a child starts to have difficulty with something, he or she receives temporary supplemental instruction by a specially-trained professional. If this support is not enough to resolve the child’s learning difficulties, Finnish educational law requires that the school team take on the problem. Working together, the team determines how the child can be better assisted. The measures taken to help the child are reviewed at the end of four weeks. Hardly any children have to repeat a year and there are only a very few special schools. No attempt is ever made to single out weaker students for special help during regular lessons; rather individual, targeted support, provided by professional subject teachers, is given to each child as necessary.

On average, over the course of a given school year about 17% of students at each grade level receive, for a shorter or longer period, special tutoring or small-group instruction during the school day. The need, however, is greater. Ideally, a special teacher would be responsible for three classes, but today financial constraints often make that impossible.

This special tutoring contributes significantly to a supportive, encouraging learning atmosphere. A well-designed support system in every individual school means that learning difficulties and other problems are diagnosed early. Problems are remedied within the school, in a familiar, comfortable place, and by known and trusted adults. The stigmatization of weaker students disappears, because the specially-trained support teachers are often among the most beloved teachers in the school. The goal of the special instruction is always to return children to their regular classrooms as quickly as possible. In the meantime, the rest of the class practices already-introduced material. This is significantly different from the Swiss Integrated Special School (Integrierte Sonderschulungsform, or ISF), in which children are absolved of responsibility for attaining learning goals, are no longer taught with the rest of the class in one or more subjects, and lose their connection to the class.

What we can learn from Finland

If we compare the educational situation in Finland with our own, we must first include in our considerations the above-described geographic, historic, and demographic conditions that shape the specific Finnish character of the school system. Equally, we must take into account where, and by which children, Finland’s good PISA results were obtained. In addition to all of this, it is also worth noting several important psychological elements that are crucial for the educational success of a child. If a child is to approach learning boldly, and remain confident in the face of obstacles and more serious difficulties, then we adults must prepare the appropriate environment for doing so. This environment, so important psychologically and pedagogically, is clearly given more emphasis in the Finnish school system. So, if we want to learn something from Finland (as we are continually being urged to do), then we cannot overlook these decisive elements of the Finnish school system.

A manageable social environment, created by small class size, is important. It provides each child with a familiar, comfortable space.  Likewise, the fact that the majority of Finnish schools are small (see above) is also important because it allows children and teachers to know one another and build a community together.

A close relationship to the classroom teacher gives a child internal and external stability and the feeling that support will be available whenever it is needed. Finnish schools do an excellent job of fostering this relationship by having the classroom teacher teach almost all subjects. In this way, it is possible to create a real learning partnership with the child and to stand encouragingly by the child’s side. In addition, gaps in the child’s understanding of subject material, or disquieting developments in the child’s social interactions, can be quickly and closely observed and remedied.

A strong foundation in one’s native language means much more than mastery of the rules of grammar and orthography. A child’s acquisition of the native language is always deeply linked with his or her spiritual roots, the child’s connections to those around him or her, and his or her social and cultural environment. A strong command of his or her native language gives the child security and is the foundation for further learning.

Every child wishes and hopes to succeed in school and conquer the world of knowledge. Nothing is more discouraging for a child than when he or she is left to flounder because his or her problems are not recognized and addressed. The child loses confidence and gives up. That is often the starting point of other developmental problems, which can express themselves in serious mental and social irregularities. Quick and appropriate professional help can save a child from this dead end.

In this country, in contrast, there has been an observable decrease in the support provided for children with difficulties. The move toward psychiatric categorization and labeling, and especially the use of psychiatric drugs, are among today’s most questionable ‘support” measures.

The principle that “everyone comes along”, together with the kind of targeted support, tailored to each child, that is practiced in Finnish schools, is a truly viable pedagogical approach. It clearly demonstrates that schools take seriously their obligation to provide help, and this is not only encouraging to the affected child, but also to the child’s classmates, family, and to society as a whole.

All of these factors contribute to a confidence-building, encouraging atmosphere in the classroom. But in which direction are our reform-shaken schools developing? Let us look at the development of our schools over the past twenty years. Can our school administrators and school developers honestly reply “yes” when we ask them if, when they create their plans and projects, they also have children in mind? Or what is really their agenda?

Reference Notes

1. An excellent overview is provided by the articles of pedagogical expert Thelma von Freymann. Born in Helsinki in 1932, von Freymann attended school in Finland, Sweden, Germany, and Switzerland. Until her retirement, she was part of the faculty of the University of Hildesheim (Institute for Applied Educational Science and General Didactics). She published articles in various journals and newspapers on the subject of Finland and PISA (see reading list, below).

2. These include a school nurse, who has done nursing training and also supplemental training in preventative medicine; a general trustee with social/pedagogical education, who addresses all problems that are of a ’social” nature; a special educator, who first worked for at least two years as a classroom teacher and then returned to university for special additional training, and who works with children with learning difficulties; and a psychologist who counsels children with problems. In schools with large class sizes, assistants, such as high school graduates or housewives, are brought in to support classroom or subject teachers.

3. von Freymann, Thelma, Finnland ist anders, in: taz Bremen, NR. 6996, 5.3.03, p. 22


von Freymann, Thelma, Warum ausgerechnet Finnland? Anmerkungen zu den finnischen Pisa-Ergebnissen. Sonderdruck “Pisa 2002”, Ed.:

Landeselternschaft der Gymnasien in Nordrhein-Westfalen e.V.; May 2002, p.29.

von Freymann, Thelma, Was folgt aus Pisa? in: Gymnasium in Niedersachsen, No. 2/ 2002.

von Freymann, Thelma, Zur Diskussion nach Pisa. Von Pisa lernen?, in: 
Bayrischer Realschullehrerverband, Verbandszeitschrift ¾ 2004.

von Freymann, Thelma, Öffentliche Bibliotheken in Finnland, in: 
Deutsch-Finnische Rundschau, September 2003.

von Freymann, Thelma, Zur Binnenstruktur des finnischen Schulwesens, in: 
Freiheit der Wissenschaft, 2/2002, Juni 2002.

Schmoll, Heike, Finnische Lesekultur. Das Beherrschen der Muttersprache als Voraussetzung zum Fremdsprachenerwerb, in: F.A.Z., Zeitgeschehen, 14.2.2002, p.12, No. 38.

Schmoll, Heike, Das Land, in dem die Besten Lehrer werden, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, Politik, 24.2.2002, p.10, No. 8.

Schmoll, Heike, Die Finnen wissen, wo das Gleichheitsprinzip seine Grenzen hat. Bildungspolitische Strategien im Land der Pisa-Sieger. In: F.A.Z., Politik, 9.2.2002, p.3, No. 43.

Finfo: Das finnische Schul-und Ausbildungswesen, herausgegeben vom Ministerium für Auswärtige Angelegenheiten, Presse- und Kulturabteilung.

FDT Kokkola. Eine Einführung in das finnische Schulsystem.

Werner, Bernd, Die reine Barbarei, Gründe einer Deutsch-Finnin für das gute Abschneiden Finnlands bei Pisa, www.philologenverband.de.

Wolschner, Klaus, Finnland ist anders, in: taz Bremen, No. 6996, 5.3.2003, p.22.

by Lehn, Birgitta, Pisa-Debatte. Was Deutschland von Finnland lernen kann, in: Die Welt, 8.3.2003.


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