Thursday, October 6, 2011

Paradoxes of the Finland Phenomenon

Have you noticed there's a lot of hullabaloo about Finland's education system lately? I've been paying attention to what the Finns have been doing for a couple years now,  but it is only after reading an essay by Sam Abrams and hearing him subsequently elaborate in a talk in Banff that I've thought to pay attention to Finland's neighbour Norway.

Norway and Finland have some similarities. They are neighbouring countries that each take up about 350 000 square kilometres with populations around 5 million and about 10 percent foreign born in Norway and 4 percent in Finland. A notable difference, however, is that Norway has a significantly higher Gross Domestic Product.

Norway has oil. Finland has trees. 

Since the 1970s, Norway has focused intensely on developing their oil and gas resources which have risen to 45% of their total exports and 20% of their GDP. These efforts have provided Norway with bragging rights over being the fifth largest oil exporter and third largest gas exporter in the world.

Meanwhile, Finland in 1971 realized that their natural resources, largely timber, weren't going to cut it. They needed to modernize their economy and to do it they were going to have to improve their schools. In other words, they were going to have to focus intensely on developing their children's brains.

To do this, Finland focused on reducing class size, improving formative assessment practices, increasing teacher pay & notoriety, and requiring all teachers to complete a master's program. Finnish teachers use a relatively concise national curriculum to guide them in creating curriculum and assessment at the local level, and very little time, effort and resources are wasted with standardized testing; in fact, the only time a Finnish student would ever be required to write a standardized exam is if a high school senior planned on attending university (National Matriculation Examination). Finland has worked worked meticulously to ensure equity and opportunity thus reducing the number of Finnish children who live in poverty to 1 in 25 (1 in 5 for US and 1 in 10 for Alberta, Canada) .

Today, Finland's education system is considered to be one of the best in the world.

Conversely, despite Norway's similar demographics, their education reforms have followed a very different path than Finland's:
  • Their class sizes tend to be larger
  • They struggle to find enough qualified teachers
  • Rather than focusing on better trained teachers, Norway has thrown millions of dollars at a teacher preparation program similar to Teach for America called Teach First Norway where teachers get mere weeks of training.
  • They implemented a national standardized testing system of accountability
  • They have placed more time, effort and resources on summative assessment such as testsandgrades.
  • Based on PISA scores, Norway's education system falls somewhere around mediocre.
So why is comparing and contrasting Finland and Norway important?

Upon hearing about the progress Finland has had with their education system, many policy-makers in other countries may be inclined to point towards the Finns smaller, more homogenous population as the primary reason for their successes in the classroom. That Norway and Finland can share such similarities in population and yet differ with their education systems may be enough proof that policy choices, rather than demographics, can play a potentially larger role in a nation's educational success.

In Alberta, Canada, we have dedicated a considerable amount of time, effort and resources on becoming the world's second largest exporter and fourth largest producer of natural gas while simultaneously helping Canada become the seventh largest producer of oil, just three spots ahead of Norway. While debating whether this is something Alberta or Norway should be proud of or not may make for an interesting discussion, such a dialogue is not the purpose of this post.

Instead, I wish to look forward with this:
The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.
Before you slough off the quote above as some green peace propaganda, keep in mind that the author of these words were Sheikh Zaki Yamani who served as Saudi Arabia's second Oil Minister from 1962-1986.

The ultimate point here is not to debate environmentalism, but to acknowledge that the world is changing and so must our education system in order to prepare our children for a future we can not predict.

This is not up for debate.

Regions like Norway and Alberta run the risk of being blinded by what some have coined a "resource curse" or a paradox of plenty. A dependency on oil and gas can leave us grossly susceptible to excessive revenue volatility -- things are glorious in the booms but down-right scary in the busts. It's not unheard of to hear during these busts calls to balance the budget on the back of cutting spending on education, which ends up being the equivalent to a farmer selling the top-soil to pay the bills.

While regions like Alberta and Norway can afford to pay less time, effort and resources on their education systems, Finland's lack of resources has forced them to invest "laser-like" attention on nurturing theirs. The good news is that if Finland can do this with less, the abundance of wealth in regions like Norway and Alberta can be used to do the same.

So if Finland's successes in the classroom are less about their inherent Finnish characteristics and more about their policies, then it might be advantageous to identify how the Finnish differ from conventional education reforms.

Pasi Sahlberg is a leading educator from Finland and former senior adviser in Finland's Ministry of Education who writes and speaks about what the world can learn from Finland. The chart below contrasts what Sahlberg coins as The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) with alternative policies that Finland has successfully enrolled:

In his post On a Road to nowhere, Sahlberg explains:
Pasi Sahlberg 
English education policies rely on more choice, tougher competition, intensified standardised testing and stronger school accountability. These are the key elements of the policies that were dominant in the United States, New Zealand, Japan and parts of Canada and Australia a decade or so ago. Available PISA data reveals the impact of these education policies on students’ learning between 2000 and 2009. The overall learning trend in all these countries is consistently declining. That is a road to nowhere. 
Many governments are taking note of the 2009 PISA results, but they are rather selective in reporting of the education systems that are doing well in PISA. Finland has been one of the few consistently high performing systems in PISA’s 10-year history. Significantly, Finland has not employed any of the market-based educational reform ideas in the ways that they have been incorporated into the education policies of many other nations, including the United States and England.
Finland's successful pursuit of policies driven by diversity, trust, respect, professionalism, equity, responsibility and collaboration refute every aspect of reforms that focus on choice, competition, accountability and testing that are being expanded in countries around the world.

In short, it's time to put ideology aside and focus intensely on the paradoxes of the Finland phenomenon.

** Corrections: An important citation to Sam Abrams was added in the first paragraph and Finland's foreign born rate was corrected from reading 10% to 4%.


  1. Thank you for introducing the comparison between Norway and Finland. I have been generally very impressed with Norse economic and social policy sanity. Their mis-step on education is a bit of a surprise to me. It is easy to fixate on the wrong issues it seems.

    You almost have to concede that public education policy in North America is not really governed by the interests of young citizens.

  2. I must admit I'm one of the people who, while admiring Finland's educational system, wondered if it worked because of Finland's size and more homogeneous population. You have made some important points in this post. Thanks for the food for thought.

    1. I join the thanks for clarification re Finland's success. I'm also going to step way out on a shaky limb and suggest that among the possible reasons for the U.S.A.'s educational problem is local control/local taxes. The people that serve on school boards aren't often the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, nor are they necessarily either knowledgeable about or committed to the best educational policies for the students. "Lower taxes" is what gets politicians elected, and property taxes are what fund most school systems. Suppose our nation's schools were funded the same way its military is?

  3. Interesting, thank you....

  4. Having just returned from a education meeting in Finland I can agree that the Finnish model works, first hand.

    A teacher said to me, 'I am an atheist, so I did not want to teach some parts of the curriculum that included god, so I didn't'. I answered, 'What happened'. Reply, 'Nothing, we are independent'

  5. Excellent point about the paradox of plenty. Very insightful post.

  6. Thank you for the interesting post Joe!

    I believe one big thing to make our education effective is the fact that we don't care too much about the PISA studies. Well, at least I don't and I know many others. Of course they tell something and it's nice to get recognition, but the mentality should be "if you start to win prices, beware, the end is near". When things start to become "OK" (the "OK" set by some slow moving policy group somewhere), it means, that we need to move forwards, fast. ;)

    Also one important thing that you state in your post is emphasis on actual learning, not 'education'. What you assess is what you get. I don't say our education system is perfect in helping our people to meet the 21st century, yet far from that, but I believe we have a good basis on which we are building the tools for the new paradigm.

    Large thanks goes to the passionate teachers who want to develop their profession and the ways of learning towards, and care about the that people actually learn the right skills, not just cognitive, but the meta level skills, like the important conative skills too. And the important thing is, that the teachers in Finland have more power on curriculum than in some other countries I've seen.

    Like you say, our actions do refute many aspects of the reforms in other places in the world. I consider many of these so-called reforms often to be made by people who don't understand what the paradigm of the information age and network society really asks for us and try to control the on-going flux/change by increasing control and many times going back even deeper to old industrial models of education. Fortunately I've seen people around the world, from the Middle East to Asia and America to fight against these things and really try to develop education to the direction we need it to go.

  7. Interesting post. I hope that Finland's success in education will go some way in lowering suicide rates (In 1999/2000, Finlands 34.9 to Norway's 19.5 - male suicide rate per 100,000 - World Health Org stats

  8. An excellent article, and I am glad as well to have found your blog. It is refreshing to read about what really matters in our classrooms - the students and their learning (not whatever it is that comes out of standardized tests).

    I will say, however, that I think we must take Finland's lead seriously, and really trust our teachers to know what is best for their students (within the framework of a curriculum, of course).

    We in BC are bombarded with the "21st Century Learner" rhetoric constantly, which seems to mean that any teacher who asks his/her students to read long, challenging books, for example, is so behind the times as to be a dinosaur. It's either silliness like that, or other strange behaviour by the Min of Ed., such as wanting "technology in the classroom," even though they don't really know why it's better for a student to blog than it is for them to word process a story, article, essay, poem, etc.

    It seems to me that we are moving slowly towards Finland's ideal here in BC, as we have largely abolished standardized testing, except at the grade 10 level, and do have a lot of autonomy in the classroom.

    However, I do worry about the draconian scare tactics of the last few years, such as bringing in "ProD" speakers who call themselves "futurists," and claim to be able to predict an inherently unpredictable future (the latest one we had actually told a large audience of teachers that if we aren't using iPads, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc., as part of our teaching, we are not in fact teaching for the "21st Century Learner."

    If we are to truly reach the gains that Finland has earned through much study and commitment, we have to also listen to the Master teachers in our midst.

    You know that mid-career teacher who heads your department, for example, who still uses chalk and real books, animates Shakespeare by jumping around his room like a lunatic, assigns interesting essay and story topics, and - most importantly - has a fiercely loyal following of interested and motivated student of all types? He knows a lot about teaching,learning, and assessing, and has a lot to teach us, if we are willing to learn from him, as well as from the new "research," and the Alfie Kohns of the educational world.

    (By the way, for a well-written, and well-informed commentary on the value - or lack thereof - of much educational research, read the final chapter of Kieran Egan's book, "Getting it Wrong From the Beginning").

    Thus, in our bid to teach for the future, abolish grading (bravo!), make learning both challenging and interesting and fun, we should not start from scratch. Let's be critical both of the old, and the new, for much of the new has the increasingly pungent odour of the dictatorial and fanatical surrounding it, unfortunately.

  9. Thanks for all the comments.

    Please note that I have made an important citation to Sam Abrams in the first paragraph of my post.

  10. Hello Joe, another interesting post, thanks for taking the time to share!

    Comparing the Finnish system with those of their nearest neighbors is interesting, and the Danish comparisons with the AB situation is especially interesting. I've heard those comparisons before, when comparing natural resource royalty rates, as I believe Denmark's were quite higher.

    What is interesting to me as I reflect on your post is the fact that while there may be many similarities between Alberta and Denmark, our results on international assessments appear quite dissimilar. We have larger class sizes, standardized tests, challenges in some areas of the province to find enough teachers, a structured system of accountability with the APORI measures, and yet our students do very well on international assessments.

    What do you think the reasons are for that?

    Quite often we focus our reform conversations on areas of relative weakness with our system, and talk about trying to attend to those. I wonder if our efforts might be better served by instead trying to further enhance our relative strengths, that are already contributing to our success, in order to improve even more.

  11. Does anyone else find it interesting that they are making the case against standardized testing by citing standardized testing results (PISA).

  12. WRT the cheap shot at Finnish suicide rates, arguably they are the results of Finnish Teens being more educated than their more parochial (in the precise and literal meaning of the term) parents, grand parents and close parental relations than in other countries, and feeling more pressure from that fact. I could cite personal histories, but choose not to. There is a real generational clash though, due to dissimilarities in education. That said, there has to be some genetic component to our life-non-affirming nature, which escapes me. I don't think you can find a source for it from anything we as a society do, though.

  13. Hi Joe,

    Found your comparison really interesting and the implications illuminating. Have just posted a link to it on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you'd like to check there for comments.

    Please feel free to post on the page whenever you have anything you'd like to share.


  14. Excellent point, Joe! We certainly should take a leaf out of the Finn's book!

    Justine, Melbourne

  15. Hi Joe,

    I really enjoyed reading this post especially the way you set it up in terms of paradoxes. I am of Finnish heritage myself.

    One possible reason for Finland's high literacy rate (at least for decoding) may be that the writing system is entirely phonetic. If you can sound out your alphabet, you can more or less read. There are few, if any, silent letters. Of course, decoding is only one aspect of literacy!

    Another thing I wanted to mention is that there is no such thing as a Bachelor's degree in Finland. My sister had a Bachelor's degree when she went to Finland but then had to start from scratch to do her Master's degree. Of course there are all kinds of certificate and diploma programs.

    Great post!

  16. I am very concerned about education in the U.S. have started a blog non-professional blog to try to get nationwide dialogue. One of my posts will deal with Finland's success and what we can learn from them. I enjoyed your post. Check mine daily at

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  19. Interesting post with a lot of food for thought. As educators, we can learn from the positives as well as the negatives and challenge the status quo. Thank you!

  20. @mmeveilleux:
    Nowadays there are Bachelor's degrees in Finland due to the Bologna Process, though it's mostly just for standardization across countries. Most people still enroll for a double degree, bachelor's + master's.

  21. Interesting post. Education & learning are most important sectors. There must be proper guidelines in these fields & best policies must be regulated for this upliftment.

  22. Don't forget Singapore.

  23. Why is the American media obsessed with the Finnish success and ignore their neighbour to the north that ranked just below Finland and on many dimensions exceeded Finland.
    We have so much more in common with our demographics the. us is almost as diverse as canada (over 50% of Canadians living in Toronto were not born in Canada and 50% do not speak english or French as their first language) we share so much more yet our school achievement is so much greater and a little known feature of the PISA is that the gap in achievement between the advantaged and disadvantage is the narrowest in Canada of any nation in the world exceeding Finland . Our teaching faculties attract applicants from the top third of college grads while US and U K draw their teachers from the bottom third. Of the top countries the most common feature is that we all have very strong teacher unions . There is a correlation between strong unions and student achievement . As a former superintendent I have been anti union for most of my career

  24. Why is the American media obsessed with the Finnish success and ignore their neighbour to the north that ranked just below Finland and on many dimensions exceeded Finland.
    We have so much more in common with our demographics the. us is almost as diverse as canada (over 50% of Canadians living in Toronto were not born in Canada and 50% do not speak english or French as their first language) we share so much more yet our school achievement is so much greater and a little known feature of the PISA is that the gap in achievement between the advantaged and disadvantage is the narrowest in Canada of any nation in the world exceeding Finland . Our teaching faculties attract applicants from the top third of college grads while US and U K draw their teachers from the bottom third. Of the top countries the most common feature is that we all have very strong teacher unions . There is a correlation between strong unions and student achievement . As a former superintendent I have been anti union for most of my career

  25. McNally HS in Edmonton is one of 5 Alberta High Schools involved in the Alberta-Finland patnership "FinAl" (see the Winter 2011 ATA Magazine). Joe, again you've hit the mark in identifying aspects of schooling that really make a difference in student achievement; highly qualified trusted teachers, extensive use of formative assessment, broad curriculum standards and local autonomy. And every student is provided a healthy lunch, every day.
    There is much to learn from each other in this partnership.

  26. People in Finland should learn more about their natural resources so that it would not be put to waste. Thanks.

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  28. [I'll try again:]

    Hi Joe,

    I can see that this was posted a while ago, and that my comments here might be long overdue. Still, being as I am both a Norwegian, and a student at the teacher-training program at the University of Oslo, I feel the urge to qualify some of the statements in your post, so here goes:

    As you say, we do have our own version of Teach For America/Teach First UK, namely Teach First Norway. However, from the inception in 2010, only less than twenty students annually have been admitted to this program. So to say that we have "thrown millions of dollars" at them is an exaggeration, to say the least.

    Moreover, it is also incorrect that they receive "mere weeks of training": The Norwegian TF students actually follow the exact same curriculum as any other student at the teacher-training program at the University of Oslo, including myself – which may have its faults, but which even so is what is generally recognized (and mandated) in Norway today as constituting professional teacher competency.

    That said, what is, at least to me, more than questionable (and an ironic twist to this story, considering how you develop your argument) about the Norwegian TF program is that it is actually "paid for" by Statoil, the biggest – and only really significant – oil-company in Norway.

    What Statoil has been allowed to do is the same as the universities in Norway do, and must do, anyway, namely to "top up" the government allocation to their educational programs (all student training is covered approximately 70 per cent by the state, the universities/colleges must cover the rest).

    On top of this, they have created their own follow-up program, a one-year leadership training. Thus, the state gives Statoil a (relatively) high-quality education almost for free, which the company can then supplement with their own specialization, thus getting the new employees and prospective leaders they want and need. The program is obviously popular, and the applicants are high-achieving students with Master’s degrees in the natural sciences – exactly what Statoil wants.

    This is the Teach First Norway home page, unfortunately in Norwegian only, but the Statoil name and logo are very much visible:

  29. [continued:]

    The other point I would like to make is this: You may or may not be right that Norway to some extent suffers from a resource curse. However, we have taken some considerable precautions not to fall into that trap: All revenues from the oil extraction are put in a fund (I guess you could call it a Sovereign Wealth Fund), now worth the equivalent of more than 500 billion USD (yes, it is that much). The entirety of this fund is invested overseas, to prevent the money from affecting/destroying the Norwegian economy.

    Only a small part of the return of the fund is used “onshore”, i.e. in the annual state budget (approximately 21 billion USD in the 2012 budget, which amounts to ca. 10 per cent of the budget/around 5.6 per cent of annual Norwegian GDP). I am not quite sure about your percentages, but by now I guess you could use the oil fund to buy Sweden and Denmark (i.e., to run it for a year), so it far exceeds our annual GDP.

    But more to the point, I do not at this point in history find it fair to conclude that we are cursed by these riches, being as it is still a relatively small part of our onshore economy.

    And finally, a third point: Yes, you are right that we have some similarities with Finland, our neighbor in the east, and that despite this the Finns outcompete us by a far cry in e.g. the PISA tests (but absolutely not on other variables: we generally score significantly better than the Finns on e.g. the ICCS (International Civic and Citizenship Education Study) on support for democratic values and citizenship, and on more psycho-social variables like well-being among pupils, the frequency of bullying in schools, etc.).

    However, I would say that Norway is if possible even more similar to the other two Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Sweden – the real operative difference being [+/- oil]. And, on the PISA tests, the Norwegian results, and the historical trajectory of these results, are almost on par with those of Denmark and Sweden, the difference being so small that it is close to negligible, and almost always within the margin of error.

    So, my conclusion must be this: That there is an operative distinctive factor in this equation, making the Finns succeed and the other Scandinavians not that successful, that has nothing to do with oil – but probably everything with what you suggest in your post, that the Finns have funneled their resources into high-quality education for teachers, decent salaries – and yes, under a system based on “diversity, trust, respect, professionalism, equity, responsibility and collaboration”, which you so beautifully put it – and moreover been generally unconcerned with high-stakes standardized testing, something we waste a lot of energy and resources on both in Norway, and in Denmark and Sweden.

    And, by the bye, something else entirely: Did you know that Hattie might have gotten his statistics wrong? Might not change his overall results, but it is a conundrum that this have gone unnoticed for more than two years, considering that it is in the most-read publication from the world’s undisputedly best-known educational celebrity. I have written more about this here:

  30. Education is really key to self-worth and fulfillment. It also plays a crucial role in character development. The efficacy of the educational system reflects what kind of future citizens we are rearing. They need to be educated with social concerns also like recession, Paxil Lawsuit and cancer as well.

    1. I definitely agree, social awareness is the key and I think that the government should help with the cause as well.
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  31. They should solve this problem quickly or else the teenagers will surely revolt against them.
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  32. These 2 neighbor countries should work together as one. They need to improve their education system for the good of their people. I hope the the reform will be rolled out as soon as possible to give the right education system to the people.

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