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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

The Finnish miracle is finished, but why?

Finland! Finland! Finland! Twenty years ago, Finland's top-of-the-world PISA scores made it "the most widely celebrated and imitated education system in the world," writes Tim Daly. "Journalists, wonks, state superintendents, union leaders, federal officials and philanthropists" went on pilgrimages to Finland like invalids visiting Lourdes and returned to preach the gospel.

But Finn-o-mania is over, he writes. Finland's PISA scores for 15-year-olds peaked in the first years of the century. The small Nordic country is now #1 in test score declines, as of the 2022 test, which was reported in late 2023. Disadvantaged and immigrant students have fallen farther behind, and boys are doing much worse than girls.

High-scoring Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea, were seen as culturally different from the U.S. and too competitive, writes Daly. (Asian countries continue to do very well on PISA.) Americans preferred to see Finland as a model.

Child poverty was kept low through a robust social safety net. Admission to teacher preparation programs was very selective and training was unusually thorough, which led teachers to be held in high regard by the public. There were no nationally-mandated tests for students, only common standards that ensured similar rigor for kids of all backgrounds.

Furthermore, Finland served as a "counterargument" to the accountability measures in No Child Left Behind (NCLB), enacted in 2001, writes Daly. "Finland’s leaders were progressives who believed educators would almost always make the right decisions if given the resources to do so and minimal interference."

It's not clear why Finland's scores went down so much in both reading and math, Daly writes. The increase in immigrant students doesn't explain it: There aren't that many of them, even now, and scores have fallen for all students.

In Real Finnish Lessons, researcher Gabriel Heller Shalgren argues the progressive changes in Finland's schools came too late to influence the high scores of the early 21st century. “Overall, the strongest policy lesson is the danger of throwing out authority in schools, and especially getting rid of knowledge-based, teacher-dominated instruction,” he writes. Finland's slide "suggests that pupil-led methods, and less structured school environments in general, are harmful for cognitive achievement.”

Finland's move to digital tools has backfired, according to a 2018 study by Aino Saarinen of Helsinki University, reports YLE. "The more that digital tools were used in lessons, the worse learning outcomes were," she said. Students reported high levels of distraction.

In addition, the 2016 move to "phenomenon-based learning" -- a lot like project-based learning -- has hurt performance by lower achievers, disadvantaged students, immigrants and males, said Saarinen. It's especially lowered math and science achievement, she concluded. Many 15-year-olds can't don't have the motivation or maturity to learn without guidance.

Tara Garcia Mathewson has more on phenomenon-based learning  in the Hechinger Report. Students tackle nine-week long, interdisciplinary projects that feature "hands-on activities," real-world connections and "student mastery of transferrable skills rather than a narrow set of facts identified by teachers."

Students are supposed to take the lead, but teachers must provide foundational knowledge, teach skills and help students craft research questions, said teacher Petteri Elo. If teachers don't do that, students will flounder.

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