What is so special about Finnish education?

Teija Havana

Teija Havana

Teija has worked as a senior teacher of psychology, religion and philosophy since 2004. She has experience with international projects and a degree both from Finland and the UK. Teacher trainer. Peer tutor supervisor. Distance learning teacher. Working at EduBorealis as a trainer and course developer. And she is a very enthusiastic footballer.

I remember my first experiences as a young teacher in the Erasmus exchange program. I was with my students abroad and there was one important thing that I had forgotten to talk about with the students before the trip. In other countries the teachers are not called by their first names. My students had difficulties to address the European teachers by their surnames and the host students were really shocked when they realized that my students called me by my first name. 

This was a good learning experience for me about the fact that we take many things for granted and expect people to behave in similar ways in other cultures as well. And just a short discussion with the students before the trip could have saved us from some feelings of embarrassment and possible misunderstandings. In Finland informal communication between students and teachers is normal behavior, it is not an evidence of a lack of authority. The cultures differ between the power distance and this has influence on how formal the interaction between the teacher and the students will be and if it is acceptable to criticize the teacher. In Finland we get pretty low value in power distance. At school it influences in a way that as a Finnish teacher it is quite normal to see all the colleagues and also students as equals who should all have a power to influence things and have a possibility to share their opinions and thoughts. And students are always even encouraged to do that.

Modesty - a virtue in Finnish culture

Modesty is a virtue in Finnish culture. Successes are not often properly highlighted or at least it is quite difficult for many Finns. But we have many things that we should be proud of. Education is one of them. Finnish youth have stayed at the top of the PISA ranking lists for many years. At the moment we have that kind of know- how here in Finland that should indeed be highlighted: the education. Well, what is so special about the Finnish education? What is the secret behind the success of the Finnish education system? Quite often when I discuss it with colleagues abroad, the following things come out.

Free education for everyone

Equality as a core value describes a Finnish education pretty well. In Finland the education is for everyone in all stages of life. Education is free at all school levels and students get a free school lunch until the end of their secondary education. The population in Finland is about 5,5 million people, so we can not afford to lose anyone. All students should have equal opportunities to learn in an encouraging atmosphere no matter what kind of family background they have. The socio- economic status of the family should not determine what children can or can’t do in their future. Equality is highly valued in Finland and in education it is related also in a way that more emphasis is put on student-centered learning. Independence and self- determination are cherished in Finnish upbringing and in education it can be seen in a way how quite young pupils have their own homekey with them and how they go to school and back home on their own and manage to do many things such as snacks on their own. Students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own studies at an early age.  

Teacher is one of the most valued profession in Finland.

Most often students go to their local schools. Because of this system, all schools are good with skilled teachers and families do not spend time thinking about which school to put their children in. There is no market for the private sector offering superior education. This lack of “school shopping” provides a source for equality.  The quality of teaching is equal all over the country. The Finnish teachers are highly educated independent specialists who have a lot of autonomy. Teaching is a respected profession and young people actually really want to become teachers. It is quite difficult to enter the teacher training because of the competition. 

Life long learning

Life – long learning is supported. There is no early selection or “dead ends” in the Finnish education. No matter what choices a student makes, there is always an opportunity to continue studies on an upper level of education. Some additional support is also provided if needed. The special needs education has long traditions in Finland and it is provided with mainstream education.

Role of exams?

One special feature in Finnish schools is the fact that the Finnish students have their first common standardised test when they are 18 -19 years old. It is the matriculation examination and it takes place at the end of the Upper secondary school. Some nationwide exams exist in the lower school levels as well, but they are not obligatory and they are not used to rank school. The focus is on learning instead of testing. The less competitive culture might explain the smaller role of the exams in schools. If a culture is competitive and ambitious, students might mind a lot about their exam results because they give information about students’ success. In Finland the quality of life is more valued than competition. But to be honest, there are exams at schools and students stress about them. But there exist very few standardised exams and a lot of time and energy is put on formative assessment instead of summative assessment. Teachers are encouraged to develop versatile qualitative assessment methods and individual feedback methods to students.