Last week the Finnish school system made the headlines again. It was reported that Finland will abolish all school subjects until 2020. They will be replaced by something called „phenomena“. The Finnish educational system has been considered by many countries as a shining example since it did so well in the PISA-tests in the year 2000. Educational researchers from many countries, above all Germany, suddenly became interested in the „educational wonder“ of the PISA tests. Before the publication of the PISA results nobody was interested in Finland as far as education was concerned.
In the PISA tests of the years 2003 to 2012, however, Finland lost its leading position in most fields. Between 2006 and 2012 the country lost 18 credits in natural science, 23 credits in reading competence and 29 credits in maths. Still, Finland came off above average in all three fields that were under examination within the PISA test in 2012. But a trend shows that there will be a continual drop in school performance, according to PISA.
Reasons for the decline in the PISA tests
Gabriel Heller Sahlgren of the London School of Economics has examined the Finnish educational system with reference to the school results of the PISA tests. He believes that Finland’s success at the first PISA test was not due to modern teaching methods. It is rather the consequence of a more traditional and authoritarian school environment of former days that have contributed to the success. He puts the poorer results of the recent PISA tests back to the educational reforms of the 1990s. The consequences of these reforms have had their effects on school results only 10 to 15 years later, namely in the current PISA studies from the years 2009 and 2012.
The main statements of the study are: Reducing the autonomy and participation of the students and back to more authoritarian educational methods. Sahlgren maintains that students with a migrant background profit above all from conservative teaching methods. However, constructivist teaching methods do have positive influence on the autonomy and creativity of children, but at the same time school results would deteriorate (at least in the three educational fields of the PISA test). Sahlgren talked to teachers, headmasters and people concerned with the educational policy in Finland. In his interviews he tried to find out which factors had some influence on the decline of the Finnish school results at the PISA tests. The main factors will be referred to as follows.
“One reason for our fall in PISA is probably immigration”, said NBE Director General Pitkälä (Sahlgren 2015:49).
One important factor seems to be immigration. In fact, the percentage of people who speak another native language other than Finnish or Swedish has increased rapidly in the last thirty years. Until the end of the 1990s it was less than two percent, but it rose to almost four percent in the following ten years. But compared to other countries the percentage of migrants is still quite small (OECD 2013).
Another factor responsible for poor school results seems to be the way digital media, especially social media, are being used.
‚In fact, improvements in technology, especially the rise of social media, were among the favourite explanations for the decline among interviewed Finnish experts and practitioners‘ (Sahlgren 2015:52).
The time students are able to pay attention has decreased because of the use of digital media and also the students‘ interest in reading books has become smaller (Sahlgren 2015). The negative effect of social media on the powers of concentration, however, is not a typically Finnish problem but must be regarded as a general risk factor and as a challenge that must be faced by all schools as far as digital media are involved. But this will not be dealt with in detail here.
Misbehaviour of students
According to interviews with Finnish teachers and educational experts, the provoking behaviour of students has clearly increased in the last years. Teachers say that students are less obedient and that there are more difficulties resulting from a lack of discipline than ten or fifteen years ago. Sahlgren refers to the success of authoritarian teaching methods with children lacking discipline. However, his assumptions are only based on his own observations at school and remain speculative.
„The silence was often palpable, with the teacher doing most of the talking and children dutifully taking notes with their textbooks open. Teachers set tasks, and pupils did what they were told.“ (Sahlgren 2015)
One must not forget that Sahlgren has analysed the educational system in Finland from a mainly economic perspective while concentrating on a performance-oriented participation in the PISA test. For the educational researchers in Finland the results of the PISA tests never played an important part even when the PISA results were considered to be a „miracle of education”. The way PISA tests are carried out has always been seen very critically from representatives of the Finnish educational policy. But this applies not only to Finland but also to many other countries. Basically the structure of the PISA test is a contradiction to the basic understanding of education in Finland: in the PISA tests competences in math and natural science are the subject of a standardized examination while in Finland individualized and interdisciplinary knowledge and competences are the aim of education. In addition to that there is a strong criticism of the methodical procedure , the intercultural comparability and the shortcomings of the statistics in the PISA tests.
The next publication of the results of the PISA test which was carried out last year is planned to be made available by the OECD in December 2016. By then the world will look at Finland again. And who knows: perhaps Finland will do better again. If not, the results will not interfere with the already pursued direction of education in Finland.
Räihä, P. (2007) Opiskelijavalinta ei saa olla ikäkysymys. Helsingin Sanomat 15.11.2007.
Sahlberg, Pasi (2013). Teachers as Leaders in Finland. In: Educational Leadership, Vol 71. S. 36-40.
Sahlgren, Gabriel Heller (2015): Real Finnish Lessons. The true story of an education superpower. London
 http://www.nzz.ch/wissenschaft/bildung/ein-schwaechelnder-musterschueler-1.18566597 (Stand: 13.09.16)