Which country wouldn’t want to be regarded as the best-educated nation in the world? During my recent visits to Finnish schools, I discovered that Finland, in fact, feels a bit uneasy about its unrivaled number-one ranking in the international PISA student assessment surveys. “Sure, we’re proud of our students’ success,” noted Esko Poikela, principal of Kotimäki School in Kaarina, during our chat in May. But Poikela also questioned, "What do the results really mean? What do they really tell us about the Finnish education system?”
In case you've never heard of PISA before, PISA stands for the Programme for International Student Assessment. It is an internationally standardized assessment of the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old students from nearly sixty participating countries in the areas of mathematical, science, and reading literacy. Finland has scored the highest overall in the first two surveys, PISA 2000 and PISA 2003. Both assessments show that Finnish students are better at reading than students in other high-literary OECD countries, such as Korea, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Finland also performed better in sciences than the two other top OECD countries, Japan and Korea. According to the official PISA 2003 report, Finland is now at same level with East Asian countries, whose performance in mathematics and science had been previously unmatched. However, many Finnish educators wonder, if not worry, where Finland will stand when PISA 2006 results are released. “We can only go down from the top,“ observed Poikela, “and then what will happen? What will that tell us about the Finnish education system?” While Finnish educators may have some reason for concern, the rest of the world has begun to view the Finnish education system as a model or, certainly, a worthwhile point of comparison.
I will expand much more on this in my upcoming article in the New World Finn journal. In this blog post, I will take the opportunity to share some general observations and comment on a few photos from my recent visits to Finnish schools. Finland's PISA success has peaked a great deal of interest in the U.S. K-16 institutions and systems, including Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, which are increasingly concerned about the rising number of students entering higher education under-prepared.
By all accounts, Finland’s PISA success appears to be a sum of factors. Some most common reasons include the equity of schools, school autonomy, highly-qualified and highly-motivated teachers (all have minimally a Master degree), the popularity of reading among all socio-economic groups, and the flexibility of curriculum, classroom interaction, and teaching methods. Also, disruptive behavior and violence are uncommon in Finnish schools. For example, Poikela recalls only two incidents of school bullying during his two-year tenure as principal of Kotimäki School, which serves about 600 students in grades 1-9 in a small town right outside a major city, Turku.
Theft in Finnish schools is also uncommon. A visible proof of Finnish schools' calm and trusting atmosphere is this photo of Kotimäki School's front yard, which shows dozens, if not hundreds, of bicycles, mopeds, and helmets unlocked in the schoolyard. I spent an entire 15-minute recess period in early May examining the bicycles and many rather expensive-looking mopeds and helmets - not one was locked! Bicycles and mopeds are a common form of transportation for Finnish students and teachers.
By the way, all Finnish students, at least through middle school, have several recess breaks during the day to catch fresh air and an opportunity to socialize and exercise between class sessions. In contrast, many U.S. schools, even elementary schools, have reduced, if not altogether given up, their recess breaks. I think it's a pity and, I suspect, not the best choice educationally.
A common feature of Finnish education system is teaching that occurs in real life contexts – a goal that is shared by many U.S. schools. Here’s a photo of Ulla Haapanen, a biology teacher in Kaarina, on one of her regular bird watching excursions into a nearby nature reserve, a familiar locale for her middle school students. The photo was taken in early May, before the nature's green summer growth.
So, in terms of the PISA survey, where does the U.S. fits in? In contrast to Finland’s assessment success, the survey results place the United States at, or slightly below, the PISA average. In some areas, U.S. students rank at the end of the scale, prompting U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige in a December 6, 2004 press release to exclaim, “’The PISA results are a blinking warning light" ("PISA Results Show Need for High School Reform"). However, the United States is not alone. Many other industrialized countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom, have also received disappointing PISA results, and many of them have began to look to Finland to learn from its assessment success.
Whatever the true reasons behind Finnish education system's assessment success are, I believe that Finland can serve as an informative and interesting point of comparison and model to educators, parents, and students worldwide.