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Critique of Finland's education system raises eyebrows

A column in the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter on Wednesday brought attention to a recently-published book that "challenges conventional wisdom" about the reasons behind Finland’s remarkable education success story. The author's opinions have raised the eyebrows of Finnish educators.

Alakoululainen kirjoittaa pulpetissaan vihkoon.
Image: Sini Salmirinne / Yle

The book, Real Finnish Lessons: The True Story of an Education Superpower, written by Swedish doctoral student Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, examines reasons why Finland’s international PISA numbers are dropping.

At the turn of this century, and until a short time ago, Finnish education scores were at their highest, at the top of PISA league tables, with the Finnish system being touted as an educational miracle.

Those high rankings also caused the international education community to take notice, which further boosted the pride of Finnish educators, as well as students.

Finland’s PISA status in decline

Heller Sahlgren, a doctoral student at The London School of Economics and Political Science, claims that Finland’s past explanations about why their educational system appeared to be so successful at the beginning of the millennium don't stand up to scrutiny.

"Standard explanations for Finland's education success include the lack of market- and accountability-based school reform, high teacher trust and status, and a reputable teacher training system. Even pupils' and teachers' comparatively low workload have been seen as reasons for its achievements," Heller Sahlgren says.

In the Dagens Nyheter article he wrote: "Central to improved educational results was Finland's late urbanisation and industrialisation. When society started to change after the war, it happened very quickly."

"The high rate of growth Finland experienced caused it to become called the "Japan of the Nordics" in the 1980s, which is indicative of similarities with the economic development of East Asian countries," he wrote.

Finland’s success was due to “historic, economic and cultural factors that have little to do with the country’s educational system," he says. "It is also clear that the country’s hierarchical educational culture, including traditional teaching methods, partly explain its achievements.”

“This is now changing, which explains the current decline,” Heller Sahlgren wrote.

Finnish educator finds analysis 'disappointing'

Fritjof Sahlström, Associate Professor of Education at the University of Helsinki says that initially, his interest was piqued by the Dagens Nyheter article,  but that interest turned to disappointment after he delved into the book, which is available for free online.

“My first reaction was naturally one of great interest in hearing what he had to say,” Sahlström told Yle. “But when I read the actual book I was disappointed. It goes a bit quickly, there,” he said.

Sahlström claims that Heller Sahlgren is trying to criticise the international values that schools in Finland are internationally known for – specifically equality and a strong teacher authority in classrooms.

The article details the very aspects of the Finnish educational system which have brought it so much international attention in the first place; a high level of trust for teachers, extensive teacher training and the lack of private schools, school inspections and standardised testing.

Sahlström said that the article and book should be interpreted as a political statement intended for Swedish and British audiences rather than an indictment of Finnish schools.

"You can't be self-righteous"

Critical voices are important, Sahlström said. But the most important thing in this debate is that the Swedish researcher is questioning how we should interpret the trust between the public and schools, he said, adding that great confidence in the Finnish school system remains and that teachers’ positions remain strong.

“We’ve just seen new statistics about the number of people applying to schools to become teachers,” he said.

“There are about 15 to 20 applicants for each available student spot. That says something about how people – who were just a short time ago pupils in public schools themselves – look at [the Finnish educational system] and its significance,” Sahlström said.

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