The Finland Phenomenon: Education reform and success

Prior to 2000 Finland rarely appeared on anyone’s mind regarding the list of world’s top education systems. But then Finnish education has become a flashlight, creating The Finland phenomenon from 2000 onwards. Finland is a democratic welfare state, as known as the most northern member of the European Union. Declaring independence in 1917 with an agricultural economy, the country was not well known for its education as its performances did not rise above the average between 1962 and 1999. However, Finland is an example of a nation that has been able to transform its traditional economy into a modern knowledge economy within relatively short period of time, along with its education reformation. This as a result has led to the birth of the term The Finland phenomenon.

Transition to the knowledge-based economy has significantly increased domestic knowledge generation. A series of extensive reforms that had begun in 1972 has supported the education system to be able to respond to the needed workforce for the economic transformation, changing the face of teaching and learning in Finland. Over time, mathematics, science and technology all took on greater importance in Finnish curricula, as did higher-order thinking skills like problem-solving, teamwork, creativity and interdisciplinary studies. Moreover, Finland also invests 3.5 percent of GDP in research and development (R&D) which is the second highest in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) after Sweden.

All reforms and efforts contributed to Finland’s economic survival in the 1990s and its remarkable achievements in education. The country surprised the globe with its outstanding student performances since 2000 in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) organised by OECD, followed by TIMSS and PIRLS held by IEA (The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) since 2011.  In contrast with high results in student performances, Finland delivers a learning environment with less homework, more play time, and less standardised tests. In Finland, all education after nine-year basic school is non-compulsory in order to develop equal opportunities for everyone to participate the secondary education of individual choices. That creates incentives for young people to keep studying after completing the compulsory education at the same time.

Finnish educational success has raised a controversial topic of finding reasons behind such international performances. Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, mentioned in his book “A short history of educational reform in Finland”:

Most visitors to Finland discover elegant school buildings filled with calm children and highly educated teachers. They also recognise the large autonomy that schools enjoy; little interference by the central education administration in schools’ everyday lives; systematic methods to address problems in the lives of students and targeted professional help for those in need. Much of this may be helpful to visitors in benchmarking their own country’s practice in relation to a leading education nation such as Finland.” (2009)

Although it is not possible to give a precise description or answer to the question of why Finland is doing well in education, it should not prevent countries and organisations learning from Finnish educational success and take the best out it for their own. It is difficult to explain either success or failure of an education system. However, there is a likelihood that others could take a look on practical factors from Finnish education and turn them into success lessons to access, learn from The Finland phenomenon, and achieve their potentials at their best.