We Can Learn from Finland
Facts and Reflections on the PISA Study
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.
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
to brass tacks: A look at the reality of the Finnish school system
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)
and demographic situation
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.
based on the Swiss model
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.
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.
- The primary school
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.
schools and curricula
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.
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.
teachers’ hands free
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.
as the foundation
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.
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.
instruction for all
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.
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.
Finland performed well
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
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
size and class cancellation
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.
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.
of children who are not native speakers
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.
long as the support is right, everything else takes care of itself” (3).
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.
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.
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.
we can learn from Finland
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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”
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.
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
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).
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.
von Freymann, Thelma, Finnland ist anders, in: taz Bremen, NR. 6996,
5.3.03, p. 22
Freymann, Thelma, Warum ausgerechnet Finnland? Anmerkungen zu den
finnischen Pisa-Ergebnissen. Sonderdruck “Pisa 2002”, Ed.:
der Gymnasien in Nordrhein-Westfalen e.V.; May 2002, p.29.
Freymann, Thelma, Was folgt aus Pisa? in: Gymnasium in Niedersachsen, No.
Freymann, Thelma, Zur Diskussion nach Pisa. Von Pisa lernen?, in:
Bayrischer Realschullehrerverband, Verbandszeitschrift ¾ 2004.
Freymann, Thelma, Öffentliche Bibliotheken in Finnland, in:
Deutsch-Finnische Rundschau, September 2003.
Freymann, Thelma, Zur Binnenstruktur des finnischen Schulwesens, in:
Freiheit der Wissenschaft, 2/2002, Juni 2002.
Heike, Finnische Lesekultur. Das Beherrschen der Muttersprache als
Voraussetzung zum Fremdsprachenerwerb, in: F.A.Z., Zeitgeschehen,
14.2.2002, p.12, No. 38.
Heike, Das Land, in dem die Besten Lehrer werden, in: Frankfurter
Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, Politik, 24.2.2002, p.10, No. 8.
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.
Das finnische Schul-und Ausbildungswesen, herausgegeben vom Ministerium für
Auswärtige Angelegenheiten, Presse- und Kulturabteilung.
Kokkola. Eine Einführung in das finnische Schulsystem.
Bernd, Die reine Barbarei, Gründe einer Deutsch-Finnin für das gute
Abschneiden Finnlands bei Pisa, www.philologenverband.de.
Klaus, Finnland ist anders, in: taz Bremen, No. 6996, 5.3.2003, p.22.
Lehn, Birgitta, Pisa-Debatte. Was Deutschland von Finnland lernen kann,
in: Die Welt, 8.3.2003.