Tag Archives: finland

The Truth About Finnish Schools – a Commentary

A promotion site of Finland, called this is FINLAND, just published a nice article about Finnish schools, going through some common claims and myths along the way. The article aims especially at the upcoming curriculum, set to kick in starting August 2016.


Many of the points I agree with 100%, such as debunking the persistent misunderstanding that in Finnish schools there is no homework. This of course has never been true, nor will be in the new curriculum

I feel that some points deserve further analysis and commentary. Let’s start from the beginning. Ninni Lehtniemi, the author of the article, starts by treating the following claim

Claim 1: Students will no longer study in their classes at all. Teaching will be “phenomenon-based”, meaning that teachers will work “experimentally” with schoolchildren outside the conventional school setting.

and responds, with the help of Anneli Rautiainen, head of the Basic Education Unit of the National Board of Education: “yes and no”.

I think two things get mixed up here. Phenomenon-based learning (or project-based learning, which is more commonly used term in English), is more about crossing traditional subject boundaries than being in or out the classroom.

School projects are not new but they will indeed be more explicitly stated in the upcoming curriculum than they have been before. If the project benefits from going outside, of course it makes sense to do so. But in principle, projects can be conducted and phenomena studied also inside a classroom, with proper learning materials and technology.

The next claim:

Claim 2: Classrooms will be abandoned and replaced by open marketplaces where children will “buy” the subjects and courses they feel are suitable for them.

Response: “yes and no”. There are two things blended in this claim: abandoning the physical classrooms and making subjects & courses optional. Either can be done with or without the other one.

First the classrooms: they are already now a lot more flexible and modular than they used to be, so I don’t think that they will be altogether abandoned. Rather, we will see more innovative use of classrooms and technology in them.

Then the “buying” of subjects: this is a question which divides opinions. On one hand, we want to allow pupils & students to follow their passion and concentrate on the things they are truly interested in. On the other, we would of course like to preserve the general level of education across subjects. As the children progress to upper grade levels, they naturally get more choices to specialize.

Claim 3: Schoolchildren will make “bad” choices that will affect them into adulthood – for instance if they opt for more mathematics instead of a language course, or vice versa.

Response: “no”. I agree here totally with Ninni and Pasi Sahlberg, who commented on this claim. Although it might sound a bit idealistic to state that “here in Finland we treat all subjects as equally important”, there is a fair point to this.

My own justification to this stems from the life after school. Worklife and the skills needed in it changes so fast that no basic education can keep up. That is why we should give a broad education and organize careers so that people can engage in lifelong learning and professional development.

Claim 4: Pupils will themselves decide which level of achievement they want to aim for, and they will be set assignments enabling them to achieve such grades. There is a risk that students capable of high grades will only aim for low grades, so they can have an easy time.

Response: “no”. Agree completely. Let’s again divide this claim into two. First, regarding who sets the “level of achievement”: as Anneli Rautiainen points out, learning goals are stated in the curriculum, not by the pupils.

Secondly, about the risk that the smart students would only aim at low grades and lay back after they’ve done. This can happen no matter who sets the goals. Some smart students want to go citius, altius, fortius, whereas others are happy with their minimum acceptable performance. And all the shades of gray in between.

It is the question of motivating pupils to give their best, not about who sets the goals.

Claim 5: Schoolchildren will no longer be divided into conventional groups of learners, but will instead hang out in their own cliques according to their interests.

Response: “no”. Agree and this is important. Differentiation takes place within a class. The classroom has a heterogeneous set of pupils with varying interests and skill levels. We want to unite rather than separate. This of course demands a lot from the teachers and learning materials, but it is something we just have to do.

Claim 6: The brightest students will no longer fare so well, because cramming will be neglected.

Response: “yes and no”. This is partly related to Claim 4 above, regarding what will happen to the smartest students after the curriculum reform. Again: “brightest students” is not a homogeneous group of people; some of them (like to) learn by cramming, whereas others use other methods.

Naturally, knowing things by heart becomes less and less important since information is at our fingertips. However, core information structures, causal relationships, and general knowledge are still needed for critical thinking, media literacy and other relevant skills.

Claim 7: All provenly effective teaching methods will be abandoned, and schoolchildren will end up just messing around.

Response: “no”. Of course they won’t, this is a weird claim. This is not a revolution where all good methods will be forgotten. It is rather an evolution, where old means will be complemented with new ones to produce the best ends.

Claim 8: Homework will not be set at all.

Response: “no”. Yep, mentioned this already in the beginning of this post. Homework has always played a role in Finnish education and will continue to do so.

Claim 9: There will be no more tests and exams.

Response: “no”. Yes, there will be tests and exams also in the future. But it is important to clarify just what kinds of tests. Matriculation examination at the end of upper secondary education (highschool) is the only large-scale national standardized test in Finland. Has been and will continue.

However, teachers conduct tests all the time while they teach. A test is a tool for learning as much as it is a tool for assessing. Teacher has a lot of freedom running her class. She can choose to test often or rarely, inform about an exam in advance or surprise the pupils, use ready-made tests or create her own, etc.

Claim 10: Teachers will have to be super-adapters, able to teach from this autumn onwards using completely different methods, and dealing with new subjects like coding.

Response: “no”. At the expense of repeating myself: this is evolution, not revolution. Nothing will be completely different. Still, there are plenty of new skills also the teachers have to adopt. But the change won’t happen overnight and resources must be allocated to train the teachers to keep them on top of their game.

Edit: I had missed the last two claims when I first published this post. You can find them below.

Claim 11: Learning difficulties will not be found, because pupils will be responsible for their own achievements.

Response: “no”. Of course in the end it is up to the pupil whether or not she decides to study. However, the role of the teacher is very important. The teacher, equipped with appropriate learning materials and tools, is capable of assessing the pupils and noticing potential learning difficulties.

Claim 12: The new curriculum will consign Finland’s excellent results in the international Pisa ratings for education systems to the dustbin of history.

Response: “maybe, but so what?” I’ve been in this business for five years now. One thing that has still amazes me is how different local curricula are. That is why I am not a big proponent of measuring children across countries in the first place.

Flickr image CC credits: Simon Doggett



hundrED: 100 Ambitious Learning Projects Launching in 2016

I participated the hundrED project launch December 8th in Helsinki. The project is carried out by SCOOL * whose mission is to help schools change. SCOOL already provides learning instruments such as the Campus seminar for teachers, Dreamdo platform for global sharing between schools, and Triplet for turning news into educational materials overnight.



hundrED fits SCOOL’s portfolio nicely. It indeed aims to help schools change. This time the method is by inviting schools and other stakeholders to apply with innovative projects. One hundred of them will be accepted by the end of January 2016 and then these projects will be carefully documented (in English) and shared with the rest of the world. hundrED is part of Finland’s 100th birthday celebrations.

Besides 100 school projects, hundrED will interview 100 educational thinkers such as Pasi Sahlberg, Ken Robinson, Salman Khan, and Sugata Mitra. Furthermore, it will share 100 education innovations across the globe. One of hundrED’s innovation partners is IDEO, the famous design & consulting company from San Francisco.

As we know, institutional education market is very siloed and constrained by local curricula, languages, cultural conventions, etc. The hundrED project will probably not break these silos completely, but what it can do is provide something extra, something which can be adapted to learning and teaching habits nevermind the local characteristics.

My guess is that hundrED will focus on identifying and sharing methods and processes rather than the actual content to be learned. If a class in Finland comes up say with a new method for jointly learning mathematical concepts, they can share this with the rest of the world via the hundrED community.

Saku Tuominen emphasized that afterwards everything will be documented and shared free of charge. After his presentation someone from the audience asked a relevant question: how about during the project, is it possible to follow what’s going on. The answer to this too was yes. I think this is important.

These days it is vital to communicate also during creative processes instead of delivering “complete results” after all the work is done. First of all, I don’t believe in complete results. There’s always going to be a new iteration. Secondly, handing out heavy content packages all at once is not optimal in this TL;DR day and age. People want results and findings in smaller consumable chunks along the way.

Central topics to hundrED are learning, teaching, assessment, learning environments (to be understood broadly, containing digital, physical, and social environments). Digitalization as such is not the end goal of hundrED, but only one means to an end. I like this, it makes the project more easily approachable for anyone. All and all, excited to see what will be delivered!

* My employer Sanoma has invested in SCOOL

On Our Way to Digital School

”The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”, said the famous science fiction author William Gibson. Typically this quote refers to unfair geographical or societal distribution of new innovations.

I might use the very same sentence to describe Finnish K-12 education regarding how digital content and devices are used. Note that this time I am not referring to differences between schools or municipalities, although they also exist. This is more about the existing possibilities and how they are on average used in learning and teaching: in some respects we are quite far already. In other areas we are only taking very first baby steps.

My employer Sanoma Pro conducted an extensive study in the spring 2014 among Finnish K-12 teachers and headmasters. Around 2000 professionals filled in an online survey about the state of ICT in schools, utilization of online materials, and the capabilities to face the changes in the years to come: a new K-12 curriculum will be introduced from 2016 onwards, and the matriculation examination in upper secondary education should be fully digital by 2019.

In what follows, I will highlight four core findings of the study:

1.     The foundation for the future is here…

99 percent of schools already use computers and 97 percent online learning materials. These amazing numbers reveal that there are virtually no schools in Finland operating only on printed books.

2.     … but we want more!

Even though computers are found in all schools, the situation is not optimal. Majority of computers intended for pupil usage are shared, on average ten pupils per one device. Furthermore, there is plenty to do regarding mobile devices. 52 percent of schols use tablet devices and the ratio is even worse: one tablet per 15 pupils. Smartphones, typically owned by the pupils, are utilized in 33 percent of the schools.

It is crucial to note, however, the positive attitude the teachers have: 82 percent would like to use tablets in their teaching, more than 90 percent believe that digital materials make teaching more diverce and modern, 83 percent feel digital materials activate & motivate pupils, and 71 percent see that they make differentiation easier.

3.     Challenges in the present state

Differentiation. Now there’s a prime example of the challenges teachers face in their work. 71 percent experience being too busy and one of the root causes for this is the time spent on differentiation: 57 percent would like to use more time to cater different learners and learning styles.

Almost half of the teachers are dissatisfied with how digital materials are currently utilized. In the age group of teachers under 35 years, it is even more than half. This also supports the observation that there is will to use new materials and methods.

4.     Way forward

Digital materials also raise doubts and fears. As much as 67 percent fear that they end up increasing the amoung of work to be done. This is easy to believe and understand. Teachers—like any professionals—need support when adopting new technologies and methods.

The Finnish K-12 curriculum is going to be renewed from 2016 onwards. Matriculation examination is going to be fully online by 2019. Both of these reforms create pressure of learning new skills and adopting digital devices and content in schools.

Less than half of the teachers feel that they are well prepared for the curriculum reform or the online matriculation examination. The clock is ticking and we have to give our dear teachers all the support we can so that these numbers are as close to a hundred percent as possible well in time.


Shanghainese Children Do Almost Five Times More Homework Than Finnish Children

Do you remember from your childhood schoolyard that all practice was frowned upon? It was almost like cheating. If you were the best in mathematics, shooting hoops, or climbing trees, you mustn’t reveal to your friends that you had been practicing to acquire those skills.

Bart repeating.

As grown-ups, we know better. We understand that becoming good in something typically takes time and practice, practice, practice. Of course innate capabilities play a role, but repetition makes a world of difference.

That being said, seems like grown-ups in some countries have taken this a bit too seriously. I was browsing through the latest Pisa data [PDF] and found some staggering numbers on how much time children spend on school activities outside the actual school hours.

In the following I compare Finland (#12 on the mathematics rank), OECD average, South Korea (#5 on the rank, being highest of OECD countries), Singapore (#2), and Shanghai (#1).

There are differences on the percentage of students attending after-school lessons. In Finland more than half of the students don’t attend those lessons at all, roughly a third spend less than four hours a week, and less than 10 percent spend more than four hours. It was a bit of a surprise to me that the OECD average numbers actually represent less after-school attendance than the Finnish numbers.

But in Far East, things are different. Only a third or less of the students don’t attend after-school sessions at all in Korea, Singapore, and Shanghai. And in Korea, almost a third of the pupils spend four or more hours per week on after-school lessons.

An even more significant finding was related to the amount of homework assigned to the students by the teacher. In Finland, Pisa-aged students receive some 2,8 hours of homework per week. OECD average is almost the double of Finnish amount: 4,9 hours per week.

Korea was a surprise with only 2,9 hours per week, virtually the same amount as in Finland. This does not reveal the whole truth, however. For example, Korean kids spend 3,6 hours per week in after-school classes organized by companies, compared to 0,1 hours of Finnish children.

Back to the homework numbers: Singaporeans do homework for 9,4 hours and Shanghainese as much as 13,8 hours per week! That’s two hours per day, including weekends, against Finland’s half an hour per day, including only weekdays.

Spending as much time on after-school activities as the current top Pisa performers do probably has a direct impact on their positions on the rank. As we grown-ups know, practice makes perfect. But we also know that children need play and recess. Let’s not forget that.

This is No Pisaster

So the news finally broke [PDF]. Finland is officially out of top 10 dropped in OECD’s latest Pisa ranking. Seems like we are #12, if I’m reading the table correctly. are #12 in mathematics, #6 in reading, and #5 in science.

So, what should we do to make our way back to the top? Panic? No, we should do nothing. We should just

Keep Calm and Carry On.

Of course I’m being provocative here. We should do plenty of things to ensure the best education for our children. It is just that we shouldn’t do it because of some dubious ranking system. A good position on a list like this is a by-product, not a goal to strive for.

Furthermore: as Tim Walker noted in his blog post a couple of days back, assessing even individuals with some standardized testing is difficult. So how on earth could we manage to pull it off for nations?

We should naturally do everything we can to prepare our children for the future. No, let me be more precise: we should support the children in building the future for themselves. And by ‘we’ I mean the whole ecosystem, consisting of teachers, students, parents, educational material providers, technology vendors, government officials, researchers, etc.

There are a number of things we should do, regardless of any rankings. I am thinking, in no prioritized order:

  • Embrace the media and technologies children use
  • Cater for individual learning needs of students
  • Ensure the motivation of students and teachers
  • Closely follow research and actively try out new ways of learning & teaching
  • Respect local cultures but utilize global findings and best practices
  • Co-create and enrich educational materials with children and teachers
  • Build bridges and feedback loops between education and corporate life
  • Provide a safe environment for learning to take place
  • Realize that coming up with all this takes resources

To finish with a cautionary example: here’s what we shouldn’t do, ever. Poor Korean kids! If anything like this is going to happen, I will—to quote a famous Finnish ski jumper—move to Copenhagen and apply for Swedish citizenship.

Update 4.12.2013, 3:30PM I found out that “pisaster” is an actual word, meaning some kind of a starfish type of creature. However, I hope you understood that I was trying to be funny combining Pisa and disaster.


Please Don’t Differentiate Six Year Olds

I’ve been writing nice words about Estonia. I think it is excellent that they start to teach programming to first graders. However, today reading the morning paper* my jaw dropped: in Tallinn, the nation’s capital, six year old kids take entrance exams to get into the school their parents want them to go.

Entrance exams for six year olds? What is this madness? This again shows how different European educational systems are from each other, even for neighboring countries.

Sweden has introduced standardized tests for many age levels in K-12 education. In Finland the only mandatory test is the matriculation examination at the end of upper secondary (highschool). In Finland roughly 1 in 10 applicants gets to go to teacher education. In Sweden 11 in 10 get in. In other words, there are empty seats in Swedish teacher education institutions. So clearly in Finland the profession of teacher is more valued than in our western neighbor.

And now this. You can basically see Estonia and Tallinn if you stand on your tiptoes in Helsinki and look south, over the Gulf of Finland part of the Baltic Sea. It is so close. However, entrance examinations for primary schools couldn’t be further away from what is valued in Finnish education.

As you might know, all walks of life meet in a Finnish classroom and no differentiation is made before the end of lower secondary, roughly at the age of 16. Often the comment to this for example from the US point of view is that Finland is so small and homogeneous country that this is the best way to go. Well, Estonia is four times smaller than Finland. So there goes that theory.

No, what this really boils down to is individualism vs. equality. Sure, we can differentiate right after kindergarten and put two children into separate tracks so that they don’t meet each other until one is cleaning the other’s house. But is this what we really want?

Or we can put them into the same classroom and teach them not only maths, languages, and history, but also mutual respect and tolerance. I want to believe in a system where differentiation takes place inside a classroom, not between classrooms. Inside a school, not between schools.

* For my Finnish readers, you can find the Helsingin Sanomat story here.

China’s Interesting New Education Reform Commandments

In the spring of 2011 I had the privilege of visiting Shanghai with a Finnish delegation researching the future of work and education. (The trip was part of a bigger project. Should you be interested, the end report of this project can be found here [PDF].)

One of the final visits of our Shanghai trip was to the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, and we got a great, funny presentation by its Deputy Director-general, Dr. Zhang Minxuan.

We were sitting around a long table. Every couple of minutes Zhang would pause his talk and slide handfulls of candy at us listeners, yelling “Eat, eat!”, and then getting back to his talk on how to develop the Shanghai educational system.

Why am I blogging about this now? After all our trip took place over two years ago. The reason this new blog post by Joe Bower. You see, when I was listening to Zhang, I got the feeling that they were not going to stop there. They had already knocked Finland off the top spot of PISA, mind, so they were in quite a good shape.

Zhang told us about copying with pride, they had for example adapted the categorization and governance structures of Californian state universities to local settings in Shanghai area.

I don’t know if Zhang has been involved with creating the list mentioned in Joe’s blog post. In any case, you can put two and two together. The Chinese have taken several characteristics very prominently present (at least) in Finnish education and are now going to adapt them to fit their needs. And good for them!

Examples include:

  • Equality. Everyone starts at the same level.
  • Less standardized testing. Learning for skills/knowledge rather than passing an exam.
  • Less differentiation. Avoid putting children into different tracks too early.
  • Shift from numerical to categorical assessment.