Home | Industry+Reform | ‘Why are we still doing what we do when all evidence indicates that it does not work?’ A Finnish perspective on our education system – opinion

‘Why are we still doing what we do when all evidence indicates that it does not work?’ A Finnish perspective on our education system – opinion

In the shadows of last year’s teacher strike in New South Wales, a number of people asked me how the Finnish education system would deal with the issues causing dissatisfaction for Australian teachers.

It is an excellent question. It is rare for a teacher to leave the profession in Finland. Indeed, teaching is one of the top career choices for young people in Finland. While teacher pay there is similar to that of Australian teachers, the conditions under which Finnish teachers operate are very different and comprise the main reason for the popularity (and success) of the profession there. Perhaps the best illustration of this is Pasi Sahlberg’s response to the question about how to best evaluate teachers.

“In Finland, we don’t ask ‘How can we evaluate teachers?’ we ask, “’How can we best support teachers?”

The Finnish teacher is a trusted professional, and to be conducting frequent performance evaluations would be undermining this trust. This is one of the reasons why the teaching profession is able to attract excellent candidates. The Finnish teacher’s assessments are trusted. As one Finnish educator said to me during a discussion about NAPLAN, “Why don’t they just ask the teachers?”

Our insistence on micro-managing our teachers and students with things like NAPLAN, standardised curriculum and ongoing evaluations and assessments has seen both (the teachers and the students) lose the motivation and enthusiasm that autonomy and trust brings. And it is this that is at the heart of the success of the Finnish system.

When I recently asked a Finnish colleague how their students had managed through the period of remote learning, the response was, “They have tried to not let it impact their studies”. Here in Australia, many students saw it as an opportunity to disengage. Such is the difference between having ownership over something and having it thrust apon you.

More than half of Australian teachers report that they suffer from anxiety and 18 percent report symptoms meeting the criteria for moderate to severe depression (Stapleton, 2019). Finnish teachers were surveyed in 2012 about what it would take to make them reconsider their choice of career. Salary was rarely mentioned and the most popular response was the loss of their professional autonomy.

Much like a medical or law professional would, the Finnish teacher has autonomy in how they interpret and teach the curriculum – any form of standardisation is frowned on; they create their own assessments and they are encouraged to be innovative. In many ways this resembles the university lecturer here, who is expected to be doing research as well as teaching.

Money is available for teachers to do special projects. One teacher I know took ten students to China to look into the latest in automotive manufacturing and engineering. The teachers I met there took it for granted that my visit was on a similar grant (it definitely was not!) and that Australian teachers share this autonomy.

Teachers choose their profession because of a love of learning or a desire to work with young people. As a teacher of music, I wanted to share the magic that is music; as a teacher of English, it’s the ability of words to create new worlds and share the thoughts of others. Standardisation and teaching to the test removes this for both the students and the teachers.

If, as your music teacher, I ignore your interest in jazz and insist you only play country music because I know that is what is on the examination then I may obtain good grades for you, but you may also never play the piano again. Music isn’t always standardised to this extent (student numbers are often smaller which allows for some autonomy), but English and many other subjects certainly are. As a teacher, to feel that you are in fact creating a dislike for a subject about which you are quite passionate can be soul destroying.

In Finland, it is rare for politicians to criticize teachers or try to control the direction of the education system. The professional body and the union are one organisation and membership is around 95%. All decisions around education must go through them at some point.

What does the future hold if we continue on the same trajectory?

In the United States there are schools that teach mathematics via online programs as they cannot find qualified teachers to do so.

In South Korea – where they have had some success with the more traditional educational program – school starts at 8am and continues until early evening before students head off to hagwons – private tutoring colleges. The government has introduced laws to prevent hagwons from operating after 11pm and a branch of the police force conducts raids to enforce this. Parents take out mortgages to pay the fees and many tutors have become wealthy. The most well-known of these, Andrew Kim (said to be the world’s highest paid teacher!) is actually not a fan of the system: “I don’t think this is the ideal way” he told writer Amanda Ripley, “This leads to a vicious cycle of poor families passing poverty to their children”, adding that in his opinion Finland had a much better system (Ripley, 2013).

South Korea also experiences high incidences of teenage suicide, as does Japan, India, and many others due to the pressures of the education system. This is also an issue in Australia; however strict media rules around the reporting of suicide, incidents involving children and school protocols mean that these are rarely heard of in the public arena. An attempted suicide from a 5th grader in Canberra during a NAPLAN test was only reported on when it came out in a recent enquiry into NAPLAN in the ACT.

Why are we still doing what we do when all evidence indicates that it does not work? This question was often put to me on my visits to Finland, where teachers are encouraged to try new ideas and continuing with anything that was proven to not be effective would be considered unprofessional. Why are we so determined to inject ‘rigour’ into our students learning, yet so reluctant to apply it to the analysis of our own education practice?

In a recent discussion with Pasi Sahlberg, I asked him why there was such a resistance to change here. He suggested that he felt many leaders want to change but simply do not know how to go about it. Australian education has fallen into a mode of taking instruction from above and rarely implementing anything contrary. Many of us have seen little change in the last few decades so we are not adept at implementing it. Pasi mentioned that he often has leaders ask him, “How do I go about doing this? Who do I ask?” His response is usually, “Just do it, you are the principal and it is the right thing to do.”

I asked a school administrator here what education writers they read. The answer: “I mainly read business leadership books,” was a revealing insight into where our education system has gone. A business environment is designed to have winners and losers. Is this what we want for our children? Perhaps our students are afraid to make mistakes because our teachers are afraid to take risks because our schools are afraid that they might lose some ‘competitive advantage’?

When I asked Finnish educators about the school they taught at and how it compared, the response was always, “In Finland, every school is a good school.”

If we view education as a business then we may feel justified in treating students and teachers as products, parents as customers and teachers as employees. Using this business model we are in competition with ourselves. ATAR and NAPLAN results compare one school to another. If one compares favorably, then the job is considered done. If it were a genuine business, it would not be allowed to continue using outdated practices that were not successful. It would have a research and development arm.

But what of the students who were not part of the successful school? What of the teachers who walked away from the system because they love learning and working with young people and don’t like being just ‘employees’ delivering test content? How do we compare with the rest of the world? Particularly those countries that are open to educational change, building a love for learning (as opposed to a love for winning the grades contest), and preparing for the unknown future rather than the known past?

A Finnish teacher who worked in a Victorian (the State, not the era!) school lasted six weeks and told his story in a recent edition of Opettaja, the magazine of the professional body in Finland. He estimated that we were 30-40 years behind.

There is so much of the Finnish system that can be applied here immediately. The term ‘progressive education’ is unknown in Finland and their students work at a higher level than here, as PISA results confirm. A number of private Finnish style childcare centres have appeared recently across Australia. The Finnish model has found favour with parents when given the option. The schools that make these changes also see an improvement in parent/student satisfaction as a parent understands that a student who is enjoying school will likely do well academically.

It is ironic that the changes we need to make to improve the outcomes for our students are also the same changes which will retain, and attract the best teachers in the country.

Michael Lawrence is a veteran teacher and author of the book Testing 3,2,1: What Australian Education Can Learn From Finland. He is currently working with a Finnish university on a program designed to introduce Finnish educational ideas into Australian schools.

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  1. Spot on, I work in a Queensland school region that is implementing more administrative micro-managing of the curriculum, which, as teachers, we see no need or value to our teaching practise. Teaching is a good vocation and can be enjoyable, but is being constantly micro-managed from above, instead of being led by the people who do the job at the coal-face.

  2. The sad thing about this report is the fact that Finland visited the NSW department of education in the late 80s just just before Griener and Metherell trashed it. They loved the wholistic approach that was being developed and shared nationally togeher with the respect for teacher input at all levels of education debate. If we had not swallowed the whole “back to basics’ nonsense and re-introduced the school certificate we would be streets ahead of Finland today

  3. I have written a play ‘Testing Nothing’ which focusses entirely on this topic. I was an after hours Drama Club co-ordination and I wrote it collaboratively with a group of high schools students who were willing to share their experiences with the school system. It is set in an English exam and has the premise that the school exam systems brings out the best in very few, if any, students. In fact often achieves the opposite of what promises to achieve. It also explores the frustration of the system for teachers. Reading this article, I’m inspired to bring it out again and develop it further.

  4. Such an interesting article. Comparative eduction so valuable to educationalists but so neglected by governments.

  5. Irene Alsop-van der Leer

    I love the Finnish approach. In the Netherlands we also have a great education system. I don’t understand why the governments (whoever is in charge at the time) study those successful countries. Yes I’m afraid we are about 40 years behind.

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