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A Different Perspective on Finland's Educational Success

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

For many years, Finland has been seen as one of the best countries for education in the world. But this is not the complete story. Lately, PISA scores show a continuous decrease in Finland's PISA scores.

Let's first talk about the reasons behind the success of Finland as one of the top countries in education. According to an article published by Big Think, top 10 reasons behind the success of Finland's education system are as follows:

1. No standardized testing

Standardized testing encourages teachers to teach for testing and students tend to learn to cram just to pass tests.

2. Accountability for teachers (not required)

All teachers in Finland are required to have a master's degree to teach. There are often no other rigorous teacher evaluation systems in Finland as we have here in the USA.

3. Cooperation not competition

Finland's education system does not believe in the environment of a competition. Instead, cooperation is the norm. There are no lists of top-ranking schools or teachers.

4. Make the basics a priority

Finland's focus has mainly been a happy and healthy student and the learning environment rather than increasing test scores. Basic priorities were:

  • Education should be an instrument to balance out social inequality.

  • All students receive free school meals.

  • Ease of access to health care.

  • Psychological counseling

  • Individualized guidance

5. Starting school at an older age

Finnish students start school when they are seven years old.

6. Providing professional options past a traditional college degree

In Finland, after nine years of compulsory education, students have the option of going to Upper Secondary School or Vocational Education. Both of these options are for three years. Upper Secondary School prepares students for the Matriculation Test that determines their acceptance into a University. Vocational Education trains students in different careers. Different than many other countries, in Finland, both of these options can be equally professional and fulfilling for a career.

7. Finnish students wake up later for less strenuous schooldays

Finnish students begin school around 9:00 am and finish around 2:30 pm. Students also have longer break times compared to many other countries.

8. Consistent instruction from the same teachers

Finnish students often have the same teacher for up to six years.

9. A more relaxed atmosphere for both students and teachers

The learning environment is designed to have less stress and more caring. Students have several times to eat their foods, enjoy recreational activities, and relax. The teacher lounges are designed for a place to socialize and relax.

10. Less homework and outside work required

According to OECD, Finnish students have the least amount of homework in the world.

On the other hand, According to OECD, PISA scores for Finland is continuously decreasing in recent years. This figure below from OECD shows the decreasing PISA scores of Finland in Reading, Math, and Science from 2003 to 2018.

According to Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and leading figure in education policy and the author of the best-selling book, “Finnish Lessons 2.0 What can the world learn from educational change in Finland", the reasons behind this decline are as follows:

1. The downward trend in Finnish schoolboys’ educational performance

Finland is the only county where girls outperform boys not only in reading but also in math and science. The visible and alarming decline in the educational performance of the boys also taking the country's overall educational performance down.

2. Rapidly increased screen time

Finland used to have the best elementary school readers in the world. It is no longer the case. There is increasing use of screen time among Finnish students rather than reading a book. According to Finnish national statistics, most teenagers spend more than 4 hours on the internet, not including the time with TV.

3. The economic downturn after 2008 global recession impacted Finland's budget on education.

As a response to this economic downturn, Finland has merged some schools, increased classes, and limited access to professional development.

According to Pasi Sahlberg, PISA scores should not be seen as the only criteria to measure a country's success in education. Pasi Sahlberg foresees that Finland schools will still continue in the same direction with more integrated disciplinary teaching and learning and more emphasis on arts and physical activity in all schools.

It is important to note that even though the PISA scores for Finland are decreasing, these scores are still higher than in many countries in the world.

Personally, I believe we should question the effectiveness of PISA to measure the educational performances of the countries in the world. In this rapidly changing world, there is a growing recognition of the importance of soft skills such as collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking for students. PISA measures collaborative problem solving but that is only a piece of many soft skills students need in the 21st century.

Considering that Finland still has some of the highest PISA scores in the world while providing a happy and healthy educational environment to its students and teachers, I still see Finland's case as a success story.

New Finnish Educational Curriculum

I would like to finish this article with some information about the new Finnish Educational Curriculum. A strength of the new Finnish National Curriculum is that it was designed as a progressive document with the contributions of all stakeholders, including the educators in the field. The culture of co-operation and trust, quality and autonomous teachers, and quality curriculum process made it easy for Finland to create an excellent curriculum that meets the needs of their students.

Finland’s National Curriculum reform includes three major themes (Lähdemäki, 2019) of

  • Rethinking learning

  • Rethinking the school culture and relationships

  • Rethinking the roles, goals, and the content of school subjects.

The key challenges shared from the perspective of the schools contributed to the creation of a quality curriculum. These challenges were developing a school culture in support of the curriculum, developing schools as real learning communities, more active student role, reduced lecturing for teachers, embedding technology in the school ecosystem, use of project-based and multidisciplinary learning modules, and using assessment as a tool of learning such as self-assessment and peer assessment.

At the core of Finland’s national curriculum, the goal was the development of students as a good human being and citizen. Accordingly, Finland’s National Curriculum includes seven transversal competencies:

  • Thinking and learning to learn;

  • Taking care of oneself and others, managing daily activities, safety;

  • Cultural competence, interaction, and experience;

  • Multi-literacy;

  • ICT Competence;

  • Competence for the world of work, entrepreneurship;

  • Participation and influence building a sustainable future.


Lähdemäki, J. (2019). Case study: The Finnish national curriculum 2016—A co-created national education policy. In J. W. Cook (Ed.), Sustainability, human well-being, and the future of education (pp. 397–422). Cham Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-78580-6_13

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