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The Success of Our School System

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This article was published on the website of Academic Adventures on the 18th of March 2019: http://academicadventures.fi/2019/03/18/the-success-of-our-school-system/.

Short school days, frequent breaks and little homework. And still, we keep on getting high scores in the PISA results. PISA is the Programme for International Students Assessment and it includes a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in different OECD countries (Ministry of Education and Culture 2019). In the beginning of the 21st century, Finland proved to be quite successful in reading, math and science (Hancock 2011). There are surely many reasons behind our success. We have public schools, that are organized into one system of comprehensive schools, or peruskoulu, for ages 7 through 16. This means, that every single child is on a level playing field, whether he or she goes to school in Lapland or Helsinki. We also have highly educated teachers with master’s degrees from universities. The curriculum only provides broad guidelines which gives the teachers the possibility to make their own lesson plans.

I believe, however, that the most important reason for Finland’s success in PISA research lies in the way our teachers encounter the students. Children in Finnish schools are allowed to be themselves and the teachers see them as independent thinkers who can make decisions on their own (Kankainen 2019). Most importantly, Finnish teachers have an urge to help every single one of their students. I have seen teachers giving up on their own plans for the evening, because of their persistent will to help a student. I have seen teachers going the extra mile for a single student, because they have been determined to find that one thing, that will help that student to learn. And I have even seen teachers losing their sleep because they have been wondering all night, what they could do to resolve a single child’s problems.

In the 2010’s the Finnish media has started to worry us with our deteriorating PISA scores. We are no longer number one in any of the PISA categories, and only Finnish girls seem to shine in the tests (Björksten 2016). This is an important observation and we absolutely should find out, what’s the reason behind these scores. However, these kinds of news usually awaken the discussion about what kind of subjects and skills children truly learn in Finnish schools. This is an important discussion, and we shouldn’t forget about that, but maybe we should also consider the way we measure our success.

According to Walker (2018) PISA is unique among other standardized tests, because it measures critical thinking abilities in reading, math and science. But are there also some other things we should be measuring? Are we still concentrating on the right things? The world around us is changing all the time, and usually the solutions to this seems to be that we need to change the subjects we are teaching to children. But how can we make these kinds of decisions based on our poor PISA results, if the results themselves are not telling us what we need to know? How about social skills? Or teamwork abilities?

After three and a half years of teaching, I became a student at Proakatemia. Studying here has made me wonder, if the PISA results are really telling us what we need to know. We have capable and talented teachers in Finland, who are teaching Finnish children many skills, that aren’t graded or recognized in any diplomas in any way. The ungraded skills are just as important as the competence in the subjects measured by PISA. I believe, that in addition to reading, math and science, we should also be measuring these skills. How else are we able to draw conclusions about how successful our school system truly is?



Björksten, T. 2016. Uudet Pisa-tulokset: Suomen tytöt maailman toiseksi parhaita, vaikka ei edes huvita. Yle. Available from: https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-9336636 [Accessed 28.2.2019]

Hancock, L. 2011. Why are Finland’s Schools Successful? Smithsonian Magazine. Available from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/why-are-finlands-schools-successful-49859555/  [Accessed 28.2.2019]

Kankainen, S. 2019. What is there to learn from the Finnish education system? University of Helsinki Centre for Continuing Education HY+. Available from: https://hyplusglobal.fi/blog/2019/01/04/what-is-there-to-learn-from-the-finnish-education-system/ [Accessed 28.2.2019]

Ministry of Education and Culture. Pisa-tutkimus ja Suomi. Available from: https://minedu.fi/pisa [Accessed 28.2.2019]

Walker, T. 2018. Inside a science classroom in Finland. Available from: http://taughtbyfinland.com/inside-science-classroom-finland/ [Accessed 28.2.2019]

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