Why Finnish school lessons are useless

Finland may be at the top of the world’s education rankings, but that tells us more about Finnish society than its schools.

Eero Iloniemi

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Topics Politics

Finland has once again topped an international education ranking table.

This time, the British education firm Pearson has rated Finland the world leader in education. The country has also traditionally had a strong showing in the OECD’s PISA rankings, so it must be doing something right, right? This success has even spawned a cottage industry dedicated to the so-called Finnish education miracle. One example of this is the book Finnish Lessons: What the World Can Learn From Educational Change in Finland? The book has been a bestseller (well, in the education section of the bookshop, anyway).

In the most recent education table, Britain did not do too badly, coming in at sixth. But what is it about Finland that makes its education system so table-rankingly excellent? It’s certainly not money. Spending on education in Finland is no higher than the OECD average.

Pearson itself explains Finland’s success by factors that are fairly difficult to quantify such as a pro-education culture and the quality of teachers. But other more easily verifiable factors also come into play although most are omitted by many educational experts.

For a start, given that South Korea (alongside Finland) has again finished in the top two, following its first place in the PISA rankings, it’s worth asking what the two countries have in common?

At first glance, not much it would seem. Koreans emphasise testing, discipline, homework and long school days. Finnish kids have one of the shortest school days in the world, are seldom tested, have little homework and address their teachers by their first name from their first day at school.

Yet closer examination shows similarities that are not revealed in the education studies.

One such similarity is orthography. Both languages are written almost exactly as they are pronounced. Therefore, a child who can spell one word will be able to spell every word, even when they hear it for the first time. An eight-year-old Finn will have no trouble identifying every letter when he hears the word ‘kertakäyttösyömäpuikkoteollisuus’. So while native English speakers practise spelling well into their teens, Finnish and Korean kids are busy brushing up on other subjects.

Another thing Finland and Korea share is a fairly homogeneous culture. Ethnic minority groups are small and immigration to both countries is conspicuously low. As Horst Entof and Nicole Miniou of Darmstadt University of Technology noted in their 2004 study, PISA results are higher in countries which have strict and/or highly selective immigration policies than they are in countries with more liberal immigration policies. The name of the study says it all: PISA Results: What a Difference Immigration Law Makes.

This point is underlined by the fact that Finland performs significantly better in PISA studies than neighbouring Sweden. Why? Sweden has an immigrant population that is 10 times bigger. When these socially and economically similar countries are compared, omitting first and second generation immigrant children from sample groups, the results become almost identical.

The chief problem, therefore, with comparative analysis of education is that it is impossibly difficult. Education does not happen in a vacuum. It is an extremely complicated process whereby culture itself is transferred from one generation to another. The idea that we can compare and quantify this transference of culture says more about the modern obsession with statistics than it does about the relative merits of education systems in various countries.

The Finnish education system is probably the best in the world – for Finns. But that does not mean that its lessons should be uncritically copied by others.

Copying someone else’s schoolwork is not true learning. That’s why you get punished for it.

Eero Iloniemi is a political consultant and a father of two based in Helsinki.

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Topics Politics