Finland - old stories, new headlines

by Tim Oates, 27 October 2016

Tim Oates addresses the zombie ideas which misinterpret the success behind the Finnish education system, debunking the myths and accepted truths which 'refuse to die'. 

Finland…some old stories re-emerge with new headlines. In 'Why bad ideas refuse to die' in The Guardian, Steven Poole said "Some ideas from the past… are just dead wrong and really should have been left to rot. When they reappear, what is rediscovered is a shambling corpse. These are zombie ideas". So too the myths about the Finnish education system; they just keep coming on back. 

I thought that we had administered a silver bullet to the myths about Finnish educational success. Nope…they stagger on. The latest being on the BBC website. It is not a criticism of Finland to say that the system peaked in 2000 (the first PISA administration – hence the massive educational tourism to the North) and that since then, they have struggled to find approaches which arrest a worrying slide in outcomes. Far from it, to acknowledge this is to fully understand the challenge in a country which improved dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s, and which stopped doing the very things which led to this extraordinary achievement. 

Gabriel Heller Sahlgren and I explored this history, putting to rest the myths which derived from those who only looked at the system as it was in 2000, and who failed to look at what the Finns did to secure their success, which topped out in that year. This we fully documented in Finnish Fairy Stories and Real Finnish Lessons

Of course, there are lessons to be learned from Finland. But these are not to be found in a simple, superficial look at when Finns start formal school (Lucy Crehan's forthcoming 'Cleverlands' grapples well with this), or 'homework is low or non-existent' (family learning was a vital ingredient in the past, as was a deep societal commitment to universal literacy) and so on. 

I am afraid that the same old chestnut appears time and time again…look at Finland now… In doing that, analysts are missing the very things in which they should be interested. Finland now is grappling with some very serious issues of educational challenge. Will what they are doing now arrest the slide? I hope so. But it’s not what they did when they went from low to high performance in the past. 

Tim Oates 
Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment

Before you go... Did you find this article on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook? Remember to go back and share it with your friends and colleagues!

Related blogs

Key bloggers

Tim Oates Blogger
Tim Oates

Director of Assessment and Research

Research Matters

Research Matters 32 promo image

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.