Education in Finland: Pisa isn’t the full story | The Guardian, Dec 2013
As a Finn, I know we can have a reputation for being dour and seeing the glass half-empty. Perhaps such pessimism is a feature of small, northerly nations, where people see more of the inside of drinking establishments than they do sunshine in winter months.
To avoid national stereotyping, I will therefore caveat what I am about to say by noting that the Finnish education system has much to commend it, notably equality of access, high societal regard for the value of education, and teacher respect.
Finnish performance in the programme for international student achievement (Pisa) league tables has led to an influx of educational tourism to Finland since the rankings were first published in 2001. We may have slipped in the latest judgment from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – which tests more than 500,000 pupils in 66 countries ranking performance in reading, maths and science – but we are still very much at the top tier of the world’s best performing educations systems and the attention isn’t likely to disappear soon.
Today’s results, however, show Finland dropping out of the top 10 performers in maths, with a score of 519, 22 points lower than the last ranking three years ago. Reading skills fell 12 points to 524, while the science ranking dropped nine points to 545. Signs of this were already showing in PISA 2009, although the slippage was less than anticipated.
I am concerned that the Finnish education system is letting down our brightest students. In every country, there is a debate about whether education systems should group children according to their ability. In Finland, we have taken a firm stance not to do this based on the belief that having mixed groups has distinct advantages, such as childrenteaching each other.
But are we giving enough room for our most intelligent young people to flourish? Every summer the organisation I run, Technology Academy Finland, brings the brightest teenagers in the world to Finland to work on science projects together. This year, the Millennium Youth Campwelcomed 60 students from 31 countries to work on sophisticated problems such as designing sanitation systems for a space mission to Mars. At this end of the educational spectrum, where the children’s ambitions are to improve on the work of Nobel prize-winners, it is vitally important to stretch the young people’s minds.
In many Finnish classrooms, however, the pace is determined by the lower-achieving students. In the lower grades, all children from the most talented to the least talented are grouped together. Some commend our system for serving all students well, regardless of family background or socio-economic status. But it means our brightest cannot maximise their potential. No other country has so little variation in outcomes betweenschools, and the gap within schools between the top and bottom-achieving students is slim.
We are kidding ourselves if we think these smart young people can make up the gap at university. Firstly, we run the risk that their intellectual energy is diverted into less worthwhile pursuits, getting them into trouble at school. Secondly, starting from behind makes it much less likely that the Nobel prize-winners of tomorrow will come from Finland.
To address these fault lines, we should maximise the use of the possibilities of technology in the classroom. Studies have shown that theuse of tablet computers in the classroom improves learning, while some video games have been shown to improve brain function.
More use of the flipped classroom model, where instruction is delivered online and homework is moved into the classroom, allows students to learn at their own pace. It would also allow us to economise the expensive resource of teacher time for direct interaction with students. Another benefit is that instruction is given by those best qualified in a given subject.
For our future competitiveness, we also need to encourage more students into maths, science and technology. While teaching these subjects is very difficult, flipped learning could make a difference especially for very young children. Teachers of younger students are expected to teach practically all subjects, and there is some criticism that many may be unsuited for instruction in mathematics.
In the upper grades, Finland has introduced a lot of freedom for students to select courses. As a result, fewer and fewer students select physics, chemistry and some of the more intensive maths courses. When it comes to university, some are finding that they are not qualified to their faculty of choice. Although they did not realise it when selecting their courses, too many are disqualifying themselves from courses such as computer science, where graduates are better paid and more likely to get a job in their chosen profession.
Much of the fall in today’s ranking, however, boils down to a simple question of economics. Education budgets are under pressure in these times of austerity, but we should be wary of cutting funding for our future. Investment in education is as crucial to nations’ long-term fiscal health as fiscal prudence in other areas. If Finland’s education system is to succeed, we must avoid complacency and continue to focus on reforms so our young people are best equipped for the competitive world of tomorrow.
Dr Juha Ylä-Jääski is the president and chief executive of Technology Academy Finland.