Education and Schooling #9: The Finland Plan [Guest]

I once read a report describing the quality of education in a variety of countries which concluded that the best curriculum in the world is the one used in New Zealand. I spat my tea. Poppycock. The one used in New Zealand is simply the best in New Zealand. It cannot be compared with the Singaporean ethic or the Australian or Jordanian curriculum or that of the Croats. The attributes I need to succeed in Osaka are wildly different from those I would need in Bahrain or Barbados.

To be fair to the report, the training I received to become a teacher in New Zealand was and remains excellent. Today, organisations in the field of education are making a killing running Professional Development courses which teach today’s teachers what was taught to me as standard practice long before the Macarena was cool.

There is some very poor practice going on in schools around the world. Children spend a very long time sitting quietly on carpets and in desks. Children are made to listen and then regurgitate. Repeat ad nauseam. There are very few systems which are actually preparing children for the future, with the skills, attitudes and knowledge they will need (and I’d be interested to hear what you think those might be). Most programmes I have seen are worringly out-dated, airy-fairy, dull and ineffective. So, I return to my first point from a few weeks back – the responsibility of educating children lies primarily and heavily with the parents of those children. It would be folly to expect schools to complete these duties and childish to blame them when they don’t.

But then there is Finland. Having only spent three or four days there myself, I wonder why I was asked for my thoughts on a recent graphic on a certain site. Nonetheless, off we go.

As a reminder, here’s the infographic posted the other week:


Try as I might, I cannot produce a convincing list of famous and significant Finnish people or products apart from Nokia and Finnair. They did win the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006 and ranked sixtieth equal with Armenia at the 2012 Olympic Games. Martti Ahtisaari’s efforts should not be treated lightly as he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008, joining the ranks alongside Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Yasser Arafat, Barack Obama and Mother Teresa.

It’s lovely that their test scores were so much higher than everyone else’s in 2006, though. I achieved a similar result myself last year by hammering the poor blighters in my class with a heavy revision programme in Maths, week after week. I was commended for my good work.

That every teacher must have a (state-funded) Masters Degree could be terrific. It depends on the person, what they studied and how skilled they are at putting into practice what they learnt. I know enough people with Masters Degrees in Education or other higher qualification who can’t even maintain a conversation with a child or colour inside the lines properly themselves. What I am trying to say is what Ernest Rutherford already said:

If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment.

Where is the fruit? I’d be even more impressed with the Finnish education system if the graphic provided for us the names of Finns who had led the world in medicine, peace-making (if there is such a thing), charity, and upholding the dignity of the poor, the elderly and the alien. Basically, what has this mid-blowing education done to benefit their own and other societies? How many significant Finnish people can we name in 30 seconds? (I don’t mean pronounce, I mean name!)

Cynicism aside, I would love to teach in a class with less than fifteen children and where testing was kept to a minimum. I would love for my own children to have less or no homework (although I would probably find something for them to do anyway) and more break time during the day. I’m not too worried about how esteemed my profession is. It’s a good job, and I know it.

I did work for a couple of years at a school where I could take my class outside for an extra 10 minute break in the middle of the day. I simply knocked five minutes off both Maths and English lessons. The benefits were noticeable within days. Children remained focused for longer periods of time. They were able to take drinks and toilet stops without interrupting their ‘lesson’. The extra fresh air and exercise speaks for itself, as does the time to catch up with friends briefly and clear their head between classes. It cost a mere jot of my day but I would say it gave me an extra hour of productivity from the children. Good quality learning time.

Breaks are good. Imagine learning to drive over two consecutive days, 10 hours a day. No. We take a couple of lessons a week over a couple of months. As my father taught me, we learn more in the spaces between the lessons than in the lessons themselves (whatever that means).

Small class sizes are also good (depending on the teacher). Children need to spend time with their teacher every single day. One to one. Face to face. Ask your child’s teacher if this happens. In a smaller class, relationships are more intense, more personal, more unavoidable, more lifelike. This is a rich environment, where children can learn to share, contribute, deal with conflict and be appreciated. Try that in a class of thirty. It is also harder for a child to goof in a smaller group. What are class sizes like in your part of the world?

For argument’s sake, could we agree that daily reading and possibly learning some spelling words do not count as homework ( makes this easy, anyway)? The benefits of homework, in paper form, are negligible. I’m not popular when I say this, but I am certain. Despite being called homework, it is often just more schoolwork. Fill this in. Colour that bit. Sort these bits into groups. Fill in the missing number/word/colour/headache remedy. I am well aware that there are varying and valid views on this so please post yours in the comments section.

It is clear that Finnish educators are doing a lot of things well. Scandinavians in general are happy, peaceful, forward-thinking people. If the internet is to be believed though, they are decidedly ungenerous (with regards to their giving of time and money), 45th in the world in fact, well behind the Sri Lankans, the Danes and the Nigerians.

I am a big believer that it is a child’s class teacher who makes more difference that the curriculum itself, for better or worse. Some systems are better than others, certainly, but it would be a stretch to say one in particular was the best.

Soon I will post a list of some simple things you could do to help build and develop a strong relationship with your child’s class teacher. Maybe you could pre-empt this by adding your ideas below.


Michael is a primary-school teacher, famous for letting children in his class read in a bathtub full of cushions as a treat. He’s also a skateboarding legend. He is contributing guest posts for this series. Please ask him your questions and let us know what you want to hear about.

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0 comments on “Education and Schooling #9: The Finland Plan [Guest]”

  1. Danielle Reply

    Hi Michael! (and others)

    I’m going to a rally today organised by the NZEI (primary teachers union) against the GERM. Global Education Reform Movement. A name coined by a Finn, Pasi Sahlberg. As I was being asked to attend this rally, I did a bit of research. The GERM is what he calls the movement around the world towards a business model being used in Education Systems: Standardisation, Choice, Competition and Data-Based Accountability. He comments that these are the school systems where achievement (based on international assessments) is declining.

    Finland doesn’t have a model like this and is at the top. Sure, we could argue about how much this assessment means. But regardless, there are lots of things that are interesting about the Finnish story.

    For instance, the Finnish reform goal wasn’t to raise achievement, but rather to increase equity. Yet by focusing on equity, they found themselves at the top of the international achievement tables.

    The following is an excerpt in an article published in the Washington Post by Pasi Sahlberg:

    ‘In the United States, education is mostly viewed as a private effort leading to individual good. The performances of individual students and teachers are therefore in the center of the ongoing school reform debate. By contrast, in Finland, education is viewed primarily as a public effort serving a public purpose. As a consequence, education reforms in Finland are judged more in terms of how equitable the system is for different learners. This helps to explain the difference between the American obsession with standardized testing and the Finnish fixation on each school’s ability to cope with individual differences and social inequality. The former is driven by excellence, the latter by equity.

    As a teacher in a low decile school (children who’s families have less, are less educated etc) chaffing against National Standards and league tables, I wonder what our schools would look like if this was our aim.

    In case you’re interested:

    TEDx Talk

    Kim Hill interview with Pasi on Radio NZ National

    Danielle (First time comment poster)

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Brilliant, thank you, Danielle. So so good to get your perspective and information.

      Systemically, I think that equity vs excellence is a really useful lens to look at education through. What do you think National Standards are aiming at in NZ? What effect on equity and excellence do you see them having?

      And thanks for commenting! So good to have another experienced voice in the conversation.

    • SKATERAK Reply

      Excellent comments, Danielle. Thank you for taking the time to write and research. The article on today about this is food for thought too.


      Good on you for getting out there and making a noise. It’s an important thing to do. Good education is a must.

      If Finnish schools have an approach that strives to provide individual support for children and allows/encourages schools to work to this end, then they really do have something special and it is no surprise that they blow the rest of us out of the water.

      Apart from the graphic, I know very little and the Finnish system! I do hope though that they help their children apply what they are learning. I trust they are helping their students face the world, which is not full of individual programmes and one on one attention. How would these students do in foreign universities, for example?

      I will be strung up for saying this, as well, but I don’t see the great benefit in comparing an Education system with the US system. When did they become the benchmark? What are they doing in their schools that is to marvel at? What is the fruit of their programme which makes their societies and the global community a better place to live? I received training from a US body promoting Maths skills. The tutor boasted that they now had the best results in Boston and that they were taking the world by storm. It was the poorest training I have ever had. Their methods would have been out of date when I was at school (before colour TV). She was the most boring lady one could hope to meet, yet this was the best they could come up with. I have worked with many US Educators and have been very, very unimpressed. I don’t mean to generalise though, although I probably just have!

      The government does need to chill out a little and stop micromanaging education. If you (the government) have trained your teachers well, supported them in their early years as teachers, continued to offer professional development, backed teachers who seek to add to upskill themselves and treated teachers with respect, why shouldn’t they be doing an excellent job?

      We know what we’re doing, right!? 🙂

      Please keep commenting. You seem to be a good person to have in this discussion. The links you provided are thought provoking – especially the TED one. Take care.

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