Finland: Why Finns top PISA rankings

EducationWorld August 08 | Education World

The children at Kulosaari Primary School, in a suburb of Helsinki, seem unfazed by the stream of foreign visitors wandering through their classrooms. The head teacher and her staff find it commonplace too — and no wonder. The world is beating a path to Finland to find out what makes this unostentatious Nordic country top international education league tables.Finlands education ministry has three full-time staff handling school visits by foreign politicians, officials and journalists. The schools in the shop window rotate each year; currently, Kulosaari is on call, along with around 15 others. Pirkko Kotilainen, one of the three officials, says her busiest period was during Finlands European Union presidency, when she had to arrange school visits for 300 foreign journalists in just six months of 2006.
Visitors to Finland — and to a lesser extent to South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Canada — are drawn by these countries high scores in a ranking organised by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a rich-country think-tank. Its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests 15-year-olds from dozens of countries (most recently 56) in literacy, mathematics and science. Finland habitually comes top; the others jockey for places as runners-up.
Such a quest is understandable but misguided, says Alan Smithers, an expert in cross-border education comparisons at Britains University of Buckingham. Importing elements of a successful education system — the balance between central and local government, the age of transfer to secondary schools, the wearing of school uniforms and so on — is unlikely to improve performance. You shouldnt try to copy the top performers in PISA, he says, because position in those league tables depends on lots of other things besides what happens in schools.
Bearing out Smitherss caution is an analysis of Finlands most recent PISA results from 2006, by Jarkko Hautamaki and his colleagues at Helsinki University. They highlight only one big policy element that could easily be replicated elsewhere: early and energetic intervention for struggling pupils. Many of the other ingredients for success that they identify — orthography, geography and history — have nothing to do with how schools are run, or what happens in classrooms.
In Finnish, exceptionally each letter makes a single logical sound and there are no irregular words. That makes learning to read easy. An economy until recently dependent on peasant farming in harsh latitudes has shaped a stoic national character and an appetite for self-improvement. Centuries of foreign rule (first Swedes, then Russians) further entrenched education as the centrepiece of national identity. So hard work and good behaviour are the norm; teaching tempts the best graduates (nearly nine out of ten would-be teachers are turned down).
Few countries would want to copy Finlands austere climate or sombre history even if they could (though spelling reform in English might merit consideration). More instructive, perhaps, is looking not at how Finlands schools are run, but how decisions about education are made. As in other European countries, Finland merged specialist academic and vocational schools into comprehensives in the 1970s. The first point Hautamaki highlights is broad consensus, cautiously but irrevocably reached. They simply kept going until they reached agreement, he says. It took two years.
Finlands education reforms may have taken ten years from conception to full implementation, but they have proved durable: little has needed changing in the 30 years since.
(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist)

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