Finland has become, in 100 years as a nation-state, one of the world’s benchmarks for quality in school education. It is therefore important to document, for current and future generations, not only the data, inputs, and outputs of the education system but also the day-to-day life of schools as they go through the processes of change at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century.
The world of education follows what happens in Finland, and the media quickly spread news about its educational system and performance. One example is the news headline, “Finnish Are Getting Rid of Subjects.” The Google search outcome for that line was 418, 000 results.3 Some of the results’ hyperlink titles are “Finland Schools: Subjects Scrapped and Replaced with ‘Topics’ as . . .”; “Finland Will Become the First Country in the World to Get Rid of All School Subjects . . . .” This information was denied on November 14, 2016, by the Finnish education authorities with the following line: “Subject Teaching in Finnish schools Is Not Being Abolished.”4
What Is Happening? Why So Much Noise About Something that Was Not Accurate?
Even though Finnish educational outcomes have, for many years, placed the country in very high or high positions by international performance measures, thereby reaching benchmark status, the national education authorities keep changing policies. As shown in the first chapter, Finland has changed the structure of the education system by drastically reducing the number of schools, periodically changing the school curricula, and most recently redesigning or merging national education agencies.
(p.xxii) The Finnish authorities in 2004 published their new twenty-first-century national core curriculum for basic education, grades 1 to 9. Ten years later, in 2014, they published a new national core curriculum for basic education that became effective in August 2016. Since then, the national authorities changed or are changing all school curricula, from kindergarten to vocational and high schools. They even have a new National Core Curriculum for Early Childhood Education and Care 2016, drafted for the first time by the Finnish National Agency for Education. And, the universities are actually changing the curricula for teachers’ training colleges.
Among all the changes, there are some novel concepts, not entirely new for all schools in Finland or the world, but now obligatory for all Finnish schools. One of those concepts is “phenomenon-based education,” launched most decisively to the education world with a preservice teacher education curriculum by the faculty of education at the University of Jyväskylä; the other concept is “integrative instruction and multidisciplinary learning modules.” Again, novelty is not in the concept per se, but its application by all schools.
The phenomenon-based curriculum for preservice teacher education for class and subject teachers at the University of Jyväskylä is a drastic departure from the past.
If successful, the new curricula at the school and university levels will probably become a benchmark or an inspiration to be followed by education systems and teacher-training colleges in foreign lands. If this is so, the future of school education could change everywhere. Why? Because teachers will be educated by and in a totally new approach. Therefore, teaching and learning will be different in schools.
This book documents the school curricula changes in Finland by analyzing the new pedagogical orientation and by asking principals and teachers not only their own views about the matter, but also the way they are actually implementing the new curricula.
The book is a witness to the implementation of ideas and pedagogical practices that have been born from schools and universities and are now mandatory for all Finnish schools. It is doing so first by introducing the reader to education in Finland; second by presenting the new curricula changes at the school level; third by contrasting those changes to the novel teacher education program at the University of Jyväskylä; and finally by going to schools and interviewing principals and teachers about the implementation process. To my view, this has not been done before, as put by one of the blinded peer reviewers of the manuscript:
[The] book fills a gap in educational literature and makes an important contribution in the field of education. There are some good books about Finnish education which describe the history and sociology of Finnish education system or describe the previous curricula and pedagogy of Finnish schools in an idealistic tone. What is needed is a closer look at a new phenomenon-oriented curriculum and the problems involved in its realization. This is, exactly, what [this book] does.
In more detail, the book is divided into five chapters. The first chapter sets the stage for an understanding of the Finnish education system and the Finnish culture. These two phenomena are deeply intertwined. The chapter briefly explains the basic structure of the Finnish education system in terms of numbers, organization, and agencies, and it delves into some anecdotal opinions about Finnish success in school education. Since I began doing research in schools in Finland in 2004, I always asked my interviewees about the reasons behind success. All of them answered from a perception point of view, and many of them referred to some repetitive anecdotes about the reasons behind success. In a way, these stories are some of the pieces of the successful Finnish school education puzzle.
The second chapter talks about the changes and the process of change in all school curricula focusing on the peruskoulu (basic education school) curriculum for grades 1 to 9. The chapter draws heavily on the interviews with the experts involved in the new curriculum process.
The third chapter explains the new preservice teacher training curriculum at the University of Jyväskylä and tries to go as deep as possible in understanding a new way of training class and subject teachers. It is not a simple task, so I draw heavily on interviews from the architects of the new preservice teaching education curriculum, to current lecturers, and to university students.
The University of Jyväskylä was chosen because it is one of the two most popular (number of applications from high school students) universities for education and teacher education programs in Finland and because it has apparently taken a more forward progressive approach for teaching class (elementary) and subject teachers. There is also a close relationship between the new University of Jyväskylä’s teacher education curriculum and the new national core school curriculum, specifically on the topic of phenomenon-based teaching and learning. Furthermore, the national school curricula and the university’s new curriculum for teacher education were drafted more or (p.xxiv) less at the same time. There was a lot of back-and-forth feedback between university researchers and the Finnish National Agency for Education where the school national curricula were drafted. The new phenomenal learning approach adopted in the national early childhood, preschool, and school curricula is fully implemented in the new teacher education curriculum at JYU. To my knowledge, and following the interviews from other universities’ professors shown in Chapter 3, no other university has gone as far as JYU.
In Chapter 4, principals and teachers talk about the new changes in education, what they understand about them, and how they are implementing the phenomenon-based and integrative instruction ideas. Principals and teachers talk about the future of school education as well. They talk about how Finland is changing in education; how they are changing; how they are implementing the new curricula; and what they like and do not like about the new paths. The chapter also shows—through the lens of the case studies of 14 schools—the new learning environments in the twenty-first century from the architectural, pedagogical, and digital points of views.
From the methodological point of view, Chapter 4 is based on a nonrandom sample of 14 schools. All of them were chosen based on two criteria: a judgmental selection of schools and availability of principals and teachers for the interviews. The interviews were based on a written questionnaire and occurred with principals and teachers separately. After or before the interviews, I conducted an observation visit to each school and, sometimes, classroom observations. Therefore, the narrative of the schools draws on those observations and the answers to the questionnaires. School and classroom observations are described in each school section in Chapter 4 as they happened chronologically. I thought of dividing schools by level (i.e., preschool, elementary, lower secondary, and upper secondary), but I finally decided to make a chronological presentation since learning from one interview helped me to conduct the next interview and so on.
I did not record interviews since I made the interview a more relaxed process, having principals and teachers express their views without the constraints of a recorded account. It is therefore possible that I might have missed some words or phrases as originally expressed by interviewees. However, I made sure, especially for long open answers, that I captured the essence of the meaning while keeping as close as possible to the original wording. To make sure that I construed the answers in the appropriate way, I asked principals (one vice principal in one school) in all schools, as reported in this book, to read and make comments or corrections to each of the 14 case (p.xxv) studies, which they did. I also asked teachers, mentioned by their names and their school’s name, to read and approve their comments and my recollection of facts and perceptions during the interviews or exchange of communications. The same goes for university experts who granted me interviews. In the end, all of them approved each case study of their schools and their own particular interviews, which goes as well for all the interviewees whose interviews are cited by their names. However, any unintentional mistake or misinterpretation is my own responsibility.
I did not request the approval from all teachers since, in most cases, the answers of teachers are displayed in an aggregated manner in graphs and tables as shown in Chapter 5.
From the theoretical point of view, the research presented here falls within the comparative education field and, even more precisely, within the “policy-borrowing” subfield or research area. Policy borrowing is a well-established field or research area (Steiner-Khamsi, 2016, 381) as demonstrated by the work of many comparative and international education researchers (Andere, 2008; Baker and LeTendre, 2005; Ball, 1998; Bray and Thomas, 1995; Broadfoot, 1999, 2001, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c; Coulby, Cowen, and Jones, 2000; Crossley, 1999, 2000, 2019; Crossley and Jarvis, 2001; Dale, 2000, 2006; Epstein, 1992; Grant, 2000; Levin, 1998; Phillips, 1989, 2004; Phillips and Ochs, 2003, 2004; Sadler, 1900/1964; Steiner-Khamsi, 2004, 2012, 2016; Zymek and Zymek, 2004) and comparative pedagogy (Alexander, 2001).
According to Steiner-Khamsi (2016, 381–382), “The research area of policy borrowing has bifurcated in two directions: into a normative and an analytical direction. The first group of researchers actively advocates for policy borrowing, and the other group is interested to understand when, why, and how policy borrowing occurs.”
I would like to add a third direction, mere observation of learning or inspiration per se (Crossley, 2019; Garrison, 2019), leaving the lending, borrowing, and implementation fields for additional alternative inquiry. I am not making definitive theoretical claims about the merits or drawbacks of Finnish education or Finnish teacher education. However, from my first around-the-world trip to schools and 19 education systems back in 2004 and 2005, I was mostly inspired by the Finnish model and culture of learning. That inspiration propelled me to visit Finnish schools almost every year since 2004 until very recently in 2019. In 2010, I published a book in Spanish about Finnish school education (Andere, 2010), and in 2014, I published a book about learning environments in schools in Finland (Andere, 2014).
(p.xxvi) The more I visit and study schools, the more I agree with the strong statement that it is wrong to import policies and practices without a strict and critical translation analysis and process. Even there, one may find that some policies and practices are impossible to implement because education and learning in a specific educational system is only understood by, at least, three intertwined factors: context, culture, and history (Broadfoot, 2004; Crossley, 2019; Crossley and Watson, 2003, 2009; Phillips and Ochs, 2004).
I divide the narrative of my visits to schools into two main sections: background and interview. In the background sections, I write a summary of the information I received from the interviewees, adding to that information from previous visits, from documents handed out during my visits, from school surveys, and from schools’ web pages. In the interview sections, I present the interviews with each of the 14 principals in as succinct a form as practicable. In most case studies, I have added, between the background and the interview sections, some detail relating to each school visit. Each school is different; therefore, each visit was different. The narrative of all cases draws heavily on interviews and observations of instruction and interaction between the students and the teachers.
My contribution here rests primarily on organizing and construing the interviews and in putting together a coherent set of narratives for the 14 case studies. I interviewed 13 principals, 1 assistant principal, and 29 teachers. The interviews offer a rich source of experience and knowledge about education, teaching, and learning as they are happening today. I never record interviews. Therefore, it is possible that some words or phrases were missing from the original interview. However, as I have mentioned, to ensure that I have construed the answers appropriately, I asked the principals of all schools, as reported in this book, to read and make comments or corrections to each of the 14 case studies. All principals have read, corrected, commented, or approved the draft concerning their own schools and interviews.
Chapter 5 shows the main results from the interviews, question after question, in a summarized and aggregated way. In doing this, I was able to find some trends or patterns in answers to questions relating to such issues as the main pedagogical principles in the schools, the main curricula changes, the level of understanding about these changes, the mindsets of principals and teachers, the key factors behind Finnish school success, what is missing in schools in Finland, why teachers became teachers in the first place, and how happy they are with their career as teachers. At the same time, using the same (p.xxvii) data, I tested a hypothesis about the degree of repetitiveness in schools and teaching in Finland regarding whether schools and teachers think and implement teaching and learning in the same way or not.
In doing all that, this book seeks to answer not only where Finland is on the international map of education, but also why Finland is there, where is it coming from, and where is it going. Only a narrative that combines the stories of people with the histories of institutions plus the facts behind the data can provide an insightful look at the depths and intricacies of education and culture in any nation.
My view is an outsider’s view from the insider’s perspective. I filter my views and understandings through interviews with many knowledgeable Finnish people; through documents and readings from international reports of surveys such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA); and national statistics from official sources such as Tilastokeskus (Statistics Finland)5 and Opetushallitus (OPH)6, the prestigious Finnish National Board of Education, which as of 2017, became the Finnish National Agency for Education (OPH) under the authority of the Ministry of Education and Culture.7
This book therefore is a bridge between the objectives, intentions, workings, policies, and organization of the education system on the one hand and the daily lives, thoughts, and practices of those schools and classrooms as seen by principals and teachers as they try to implement the new goals and ideas.
If Finland is at the forefront of school education across the world, this book documents what Finnish authorities and schools are doing in education toward the third decade of the twenty-first century. As stated, and notwithstanding the perceived success of the Finnish school education system and model, my aim was not to write another book or chapter about the success story of Finland so that other schools or policymakers copy or import from, but to document a forward-looking and progressive pedagogical reform, to be observed, to learn from, or to be inspired by.
(p.xxviii) “Finnish education is not problem-free” (Rautalin, 2018, 1780). As hinted by Rautalin, criticisms are easily voiced out after the sharp decline in not only mathematics, but also reading in PISA 2009 and 2012. One of those criticisms came from a Finnish professor, who in an opinion letter sent to the national newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, said, “In these [mental and social skills] the Finnish school system needs to do a lot more” (Rautalin, 2018, 1785). Some other problematic issues that have been raised are “serious problems with the basics of mother tongue . . . and demographic disparities in learning outcomes between areas” (Rautalin, 2018, 1785). Other problems highlighted by the quality media, according to Rautalin, were “failure [of students] to enjoy the schooldays, their lack of faith (especially among girls) in their own mathematical skills and gender differences in skills in the mother tongue” (Rautalin, 2018, 1785–1786).
In an interview with Professor Jouni Välijärvi8 about the topic, he said the following:
Surveys show some young people do not trust in the power of education anymore. There are many reasons why. They see all the time that highly educated people are or can be unemployed; they see models of people without high degrees, especially young people, making videos, short videos, getting many media followers, and with followers getting money from advertising. They see that young people are doing very well in life without formal education. So, “why to work so hard?” The target is to get more followers. And it is very difficult to make them understand that only the few are really successful, especially from the economic point of view. The criticism in this sense is that the schools and the education system have not been very active or able, in replying to this situation, because they have taken the Finnish quality of education for granted.
A second point made by Professor Välijärvi is that the Finnish society went into a serious economic crisis that meant that a large number of families became unemployed. “According to data,” Professor Välijärvi said,
Family poverty has increased dramatically over the last 10 to 15 years, and the situation is even more difficult for children. The criticism for education is that schools and the whole society have not been able to take care of (p.xxix) the well-being of all children and to understand that well-being and cognitive learning are intertwined. At the same time, there have been in school budgets cuts limiting the capacity of schools to take care of the well-being of students. This has brought more disturbing and bad behavior in schools. Schools face two challenges now, increased number of children with behavior problems and a decrease in budgetary means.
An additional criticism goes more to the education system rather than to schools. Finnish education has traditionally targeted cognitive results and outcomes. Now we need a more balanced approach between the cognitive target and the health and well-being of the children. But this is impossible for schools to harness when they face a reduction of financial funds. The crucial thing is that changes in the labor market and poverty and increased immigration have made classrooms more diverse, therefore, more heterogeneous from the cultural, economic, and social backgrounds. There is more diversity in society and in classrooms. It is very challenging for teachers to individualize instruction. Integration (i.e., treating everyone equally) is no longer possible.
One more criticism highlighted by Professor Välijärvi, is that
We have not been very successful in integrating technology with pedagogy, especially the relationship between technology and students. New technology is part of today’s culture for young people, with very practical effects. Reading time for youngsters has declined dramatically in the last 15 years. I think that the change in Finland has been more dramatic than in other countries. So, the criticism is that the schools have not invested enough to find the way, and support teachers to find the way, on how to integrate technology in everyday students’ learning. If teachers don’t understand how to integrate technology and pedagogy, they refuse or ignore technology. The school has lost its monopoly over the learning of students.
However, Professor Väliärvi concluded that
It is easy to use the argument that we don’t have enough resources, but it is more important to think about how to use those resources. In reality, the overall cut of resources to schools has not been as much as public opinion thinks because national evaluation shows that the decline in national (p.xxx) resources has been compensated by an increase in local financing by the municipalities.
To complement the view on criticisms to school education in Finland, I also interviewed Professor Pentti Moilanen,9 who said that some teachers think that the schools are changing too fast so they are pressuring for a process of change to go slower. Another major criticism is related to inclusive education. “Under this concept,” Professor Moilanen said,
Every student has the right to attend the nearest school, including if they have some behavioral or learning problems. The criticism is that it doesn’t help those students because they do not get enough attention for lack of resources. The idea of inclusiveness is accepted widely; the problem lies in its implementation. Inclusive education, then, is a topic highly debated among teachers. Students, in reality, do not always get the support they need.
However, for extreme behavioral or learning problems, the Finnish welfare and education systems have developed a network of 26 hospital schools that, after a careful evaluation by local health and education boards, receive children for that special care education. I deal with this issue in further detail in Chapter 1.
By looking to not only the praise but also the criticisms, I attempt to give a more balanced view of education in Finland, again not with the idea of copying policies or practices without proper cultural and contextual translation, but with the goal of documenting both the inner lives of schools as they implement change and the dialogue between policymaking and policy implementing.
(3) Google search with a Safari browser on April 18, 2017.
(4) http://www.oph.fi/english/current_issues/101/0/subject_teaching_in_finnish_schools_is_not_being_abolished (accessed April 18, 2017).
(6) http://www.oph.fi/?read=0&l=en. (As of 2017, the Finnish National Board of Education and the Finnish Center for International Mobility CIMO merged into a new entity called the Finnish National Agency for Education.)
(8) Interview held on May 29, 2019, at the University of Jyväskylä’s main building.
(9) Interview on May 29, 2019, in Jyväskylä.