Explaining the Finnish Miracle – Part Two

As we outlined in Part One of our focus on the Finnish education system, the curriculum is seen not only as continually under review – those who review it are all educational professionals including practising senior teachers in schools. Recommendations are not subject to political or bureaucratic vetos, since Finland’s professional educators are held in high esteem and trusted to make good decisions on behalf of all learners.


The Curriculum as a document guiding the school’s activities

The national core curriculum and the local curricula based on it deal extensively with the whole area of schools’ operations.

The curriculum does not only define the aims and contents of subjects.

All sectors that affect the school’s work are central.

These sectors include common values, general aims of teaching and education, conception of learning, development of the learning environment, the school’s operational culture, decisions regarding the organisation of work, the allocation of teaching hours, and the choice of teaching and working methods.

When teachers discuss these themes in their schools and write down their thoughts and ideas on the curriculum they learn to view the school’s operations as a whole and also commit to take responsibility for the whole and not just for their own class or subject.

In that process their expertise is strongly developed.

Important sectors in the curriculum are

* the policies and action plans regarding student counselling

* support needed by pupils to learn

* special needs education

* multicultural education

* cooperation between home and school

* school meals

* school transport

* student welfare services

Each school draws up a ‘knowledge strategy’ which defines

   * how information and communications technology and virtual teaching are used in  instruction;
   * what kind of equipment is needed
   * how the technical know-how of teachers is organised and developed

Schools also draw up a plan regarding how they attend to the safety of the learning environment, how they follow pupils’ absences and how they protect pupils from bullying, violence and harassment.

Also written down in the curriculum are

* the principles of pupil assessment
* its implementation in practice
* how the school evaluates its own operations
* the objectives and principles of cooperation with parents
* objectives and principles of cooperation with other schools and ‘other operators’

The objectives of teaching and the abilities required for the future

The importance of clear objectives in guiding and developing teaching is emphasised in the curricula. They are considered essential for the planning of teaching.

The central objectives are common but they can be completed by local aims and they can be achieved through different contents and using different methods. Curriculum content can therefore be dealt with flexibly and the issues which are essential in a particular area or school can be emphasised.

It is stated in the national core curriculum that the teacher selects the teaching and working methods.

The methods must be selected in a way that they enhance

* abilities such as the willingness to learn
* the command of one’s own learning programme
* the ability to work in a systematic and target-orientated way
* the ability to acquire, apply and evaluate information
* communication and social skills.

[Motivation, autonomy, study skills, communication skills, plus personal and social intelligence!!!]

This definition of objectives is a good example of Finnish education policy. The objectives are described through the abilities required for the future, and they are expressed as extensive competencies.

This is also seen in the government decree of 2001 regarding common objectives for education. The decree states that instruction must set the basis for extensive general knowledge and offer ingredients and incentives for the for the extension and deepening of the world view.

This requires knowledge of

* human feelings and needs
* religions
* ideologies
* history
* culture
* literature
* nature
* health
* economics
* technology

Teaching must offer

* aesthetic experiences from different cultural spheres
* opportunities to develop crafts and creativity
* opportunities to develop physical skills

The importance of thinking and communication are specifically emphasised.

The objectives in the decree are divided into three main spheres:

1) Objectives regarding growth as a person and as a member of society are defined.
These aims emphasise the stable growth of a person, a respectful attitude towards other people, and a respectful attitude towards the environment and work.
Responsibility, cooperativeness, tolerance and activeness are stressed as well.
[Personal and Social Intelligence]

2) Essential knowledge and skills.

3) The importance of learning to learn, and pupils’ legal right to receive teaching guidance and support in accordance with their level of development and needs.
[See also the UNESCO Declaration on the Rights of the Child]

Descriptions of good performance and the final evaluation criteria used at the end of basic education work as a tool for teachers, with the help of which they can relate their own assessment with the national standard and, therefore, standardise pupil assessment throughout the country and enhance equal treatment of students in the assessment process.

Subjects and Cross-Curricular Themes

The national core curriculum defines the objectives and contents for all subjects and for the seven cross-curricular themes. The subjects in basic education are

* mother tongue and literature
* the second national language (Finnish or Swedish)
* foreign languages
* mathematics
* environmental and natural studies
* biology and geography
* physics and chemistry
* health education
* religion or ethics
* history
* social studies
* music
* visual arts
* crafts
* physical education
* home economics
* educational and vocational guidance

In addition pupils are offered school-specific optional subjects from which they may choose.

How the lesson hours are divided is decided locally.

The cross-curricular themes reflect the central phenomena of society. They are

1) growth as a person
2) cultural identity and internationalism
3) media skills and communication
4) participatory citizenship and entrepreneurship
5) responsibility for the environment, well-being and a sustainable future
6) safety and traffic
7) technology and the individual

These themes are implemented in the subjects and in the different activities of the school (eg festivities, excursions and school camps, school meals, club activities, etc) and thus connected with the operational culture of schools. The aim is to strengthen the extensive abilities of pupils and their ability to function in society.

The implementation of the cross-curricular themes requires good cooperation between all the teachers and the school’s other personnel, and also cooperation with partners outside school.

Conception of Learning

The premise for providing instruction is the conception of the pupil as an active learner.

Supporting the individual learning process is important and essential, along with the importance of communal process and interaction for learning.

The aims of learning are

* values
* knowledge and skills
* the ability to use the knowledge and skills
* the ability to reflect on one’s actions in relation to values

Learning to learn and learning good working habits are considered more and more important.

The learning environment and operational culture of the school are considered very important to learning:

1) Classrooms, corridors, common facilities, the playground and other nearby surroundings.
2) The learning environment is also formed from the psychological and social characteristics, and from the school’s prevailing atmosphere.

The national core curricula emphasise the development of an open, encouraging operational culture that is based on interaction. The school’s organisation of work and teaching approaches create the pedagogical environment.

Essential in the learning process is the acknowledging and setting of objectives, and the target-orientedness that follows. Learning happens in the best possible way by working on questions and solving problems. Knowledge is built little by littleon the basis of earlier knowledge.

The pupils are guided towards understanding their own learning processes – their ability to guide their own learning and development, and to take responsibility for these processes, is strengthened.

What is important is that the whole school community develops its operations as a genuine learning community on the basis of the curriculum. In that way everyone, not just the pupils but the teachers and other personnel working in the school, have the opportunity and challenge for continuous lifelong learning.

At all levels of education in Finland, trusting this willingness to learn and to take responsibility for one’s own learning is of the utmost importance.


The above information is taken from a paper by Irmeli Halinen of the Finnish National Board of Education. Any errors in transcription are the responsibility of 3Di Associates.

3Di invites readers to comment on the above in the feedback box below. We are keen to promote a conversation regarding the extent to which individual schools in Britain already work in similar ways to the Finnish ‘model’, and the extent to which our whole system is similar or dissimilar to the one acknowledged to be the world leader in enlightened policy and practice.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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5 Responses to Explaining the Finnish Miracle – Part Two

  1. Thank you for some other informative website. Where else may just I am getting that type of information written in such a perfect method? I’ve a challenge that I am just now working on, and I’ve been on the look out for such info.


  2. 3D Eye says:

    Thanks Nina. It’s a very good point you make about the media’s tendency to promote or maintain a culture that’s anti-educational and anti-intellectual.

    My main concern about the media (eg in the UK) is its overwhelming and unquestioning support for a system of education based on pupil performance in high-stakes, timed tests and examinations, and a style of teaching based on ‘traditional’ didacticism, largely passive students, ‘teaching to the tests’, frequent schools inspections and the publication of ‘league tables’.

    I assume this problem doesn’t exist in Finland, since Finland already has a much more enlightened form of education which, as we know from international comparisons, is highly successful in many more ways than mere academic performance! I assume the Finnish media is not critical of this success and isn’t continually demanding a return to 19th Century approaches to teaching and learning!

    You mention the need ‘to make the paradigm change happen in all education worldwide’, and interestingly I’ve been reading today (thanks to Twitter!) about the incredible improvement in student achievement in places such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and Shanghai. I’ll report on this in a future blog, but in the meantime you can download the report from the Grattan Institute here: http://www.grattan.edu.au/home.php .

    Catching up: learning from the best school systems in East Asia – A Grattan report –

    With regard to my earlier comments about public perception of education and the role of the media in the creation of that perception, the Grattan report says this:

    “These systems are neither perfect nor universally popular. Hong Kong acknowledges that its move away from a strict examination focus has not yet persuaded most parents.”

    So here’s the paradox – a school system might be achieving amazing results as a result of changing pedagogy, but parents continue to believe that schools should continue to base learning on preparation for frequent tests and examinations! So what is the role of the media in either maintaining or changing that false perception?

    3Di agrees very strongly with your comment about “challenging all teachers everywhere to start verbalizing the difference in learning and teaching processes.” A very important reason for the success of the Finnish system seems to be the involvement of all teachers in constantly examining and justifying their practices, and learning from one another about innovative and successful practice.

    Whereas a major cause, in our view, of the UK system failing to improve significantly in ways which clearly improve the life chances and also the future (as well as the present) happiness of pupils is the teaching profession’s willingness (in general) to allow successive governments to impose methodology and the micromanagement of teaching on our schools, often in spite of the better judgement of experienced teachers and headteachers.

    Governments, ‘special advisors’, bureaucrats, local authorities, the inspectorate, and unelected school governors have been the driving influences on education and pedagogy, in England particularly, for more than 20 years.This is a crazy situation, especially when you consider that the UK supposedly moved to a system of ‘local management of schools’ around 1990.

    Fortunately we have many excellent headteachers (whom we’ll also blog about soon) and some very good school governors who have exercised their own independent judgement and enabled good practice to develop in their schools, even if it’s meant ignoring or paying lip service to the so-called ‘national strategies’ and the relentless demand to ‘drive up’ test and exam scores through narrowing down the curriculum, ignoring children’s creativity and their need to learn how to learn and how to become independent learners, paying little no attention to the development of children’s personal, social, emotional, spiritual intelligences, etc.

    Through this blog, at least, 3Di intends to continue to promote best educational practice, wherever we find it around the world.


  3. 3D Eye says:

    Many thanks for your comments, Nina – very much appreciated. Like you, we also feel very strongly about raising public awareness of cooperative education, and of best pedagogical practices. Maybe if more parents around the world understood how successful the Finnish system really is then there would be more pressure to change all schools and all educational systems – to make them places where children of all abilities and aptitudes can be happy, active learners who enjoy school and enjoy learning, as well as achieve their full potential, whatever that might be. I’ve never been to Finland, but very much hope to do so this year. Are Finnish newspapers, television stations and other media as progressive and enlightened as the education system? I presume they must be, thinking about how Britain’s schools and society in general have been damaged by misinformation and propaganda through our unenlightened media.


    • Nina says:

      I wonder if we get to blame the media in general and movies/TV specifically for the downfall of education, just because the values expressed in visual media are highly anti-educational and tend to oppose learning (or teaching, actually), and they easily stick on our everyday beliefs – i.e. beliefs that are not challenged.

      I remember long time ago reading Berger & Luckmann’s theory of Social Construction of Reality, and thinking how establishments that get to meddle with primary and secondary socialization processes actually are granted with the power of “creating reality”. So, if you grow up expecting school to be boring and stupid, and high school and college years just for parties… well… no need to continue, I guess. Not having real experience about UK media I can only say that Finnish media IS different from the American media, and education is less tied to politics than in the US.

      Exporting Finnish education is wonderful, but I think we just need to make the paradigm change happen in all education worldwide, and challenge all teachers everywhere to start verbalizing the difference in learning and teaching processes – and raise the awareness from that direction, too. I think you are already doing this there in Britain. Finding education-friendly space in media worldwide would be great!


  4. Nina says:

    I very much like your post! It discusses excellently the important details of Finnish education, and ends with one of my very favourite ideas: trusting in students interest in learning. We should keep in mind that children are born learners, and just provide meaningful learning in a developmentally appropriate structure (i.e. one that has been designed to meet the needs of the learner more than the needs of the instructor).
    The other way of saying this is: Anything you pay attention to (in your classroom), will inevitably increase. So, if you expect students to hate learning…. well… that is what you will get. And this is a choice for each individual teacher or school to make.
    Raising public awareness about cooperative education would help the whole systems adapt better practices. So thank you for posting this!


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