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Finland’s education system is failing. Should we look to Asia?
Finland's recent decline in international test scores has led many to question whether its education system is truly the best.
- Finland scored high on the original PISA education assessment, but its scores have slipped in recent years.
- Critics argue that Finland's success came from earlier education models, not from headline-making features like late start times, lack of homework, and absence of test assessment.
- Asia's rigorous education system is now eclipsing Finland's PISA scores. Which approach is the right one? Which is truly shortsighted?
In 2000, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) released the results of its first survey of education attainment. Administrated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the triennial assessment tested the skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds around the world.
That year, Finland handily came out as a top performer, scoring high in math and science, and number one in reading. The United States' performance that same year, for comparison's sake, could best be described as middling. These results led many to claim that Finland had the best education system in the world. Educators and politicians swarmed to the Nordic country in the hopes of discovering the source of their golden touch.
Then things took a turn, and Finland's standings began to slip. Between 2006 and 2012, its scores in science, reading, and math fell sharply: 18, 23, and 29 points respectively. PISA 2015 saw further drops; meanwhile, other top performers have remained relatively steady.
"Finland was on a downwards slope, not an upwards one," writes Tim Oates, director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment. "All the assumptions in 2000 seemed to be of Finland at the top and on the rise, not on the way down. And that was mistaking PISA for a longitudinal study, rather than a cross-sectional one."
While Finland remains a top performer, it has lost its luster in the eyes of many experts, bringing criticisms of Finland's education system to the debate.
The real lesson from Finland
Finland's meteoric rise certainly had some cause. Looking in, many claimed it to be reforms dedicated to school autonomy and pupil-led education. They pointed to the system's lack of centralized accountability and features like late start times, lack of homework, absence of test assessment, and a culture that celebrates the teaching profession.
For Gabriel Heller Shalgren, research director at the Center for the Study of Market Reform Education, this view lacks hard evidence. According to him, Finland's initial successes resulted from educational standards instituted in the 1970s and '80s, well before the above policies could take root.
In a monograph titled "Real Finnish Lessons," he notes that Finland's teaching system was centralized and teacher-dominated up until the '90s, meaning decentralized reform came too late for it to be responsible. Instead, Finland's late developments in industrialization and economic growth bolstered the country's educational performance. Late developments, Shalgren points out, that mirror those in East Asia.
Shalgren does agree with some popular explanations, such as Finland's reverence of teachers. However, he notes this is not a recent phenomenon and stems from the role teachers played in the country's nation-building process, way back in the 19th century.
"Overall, the strongest policy lesson is the danger of throwing out authority in schools, and especially getting rid of knowledge-based, teacher-dominated instruction," writes Shalgren. "[T]he story from Finland backs up the increasing amount of evidence, which suggests that pupil-led methods, and less structured school environments in general, are harmful for cognitive achievement."
For Shalgren, the decline in Finland's recent test scores results from reality finally catching up to Finnish fantasies.
Asian education systems pulling ahead
As Singapore, China, and Japan overcome Finland, especially in math and science, countries like Taiwan are quickly closing the gap. This has led some to wonder if Asian education systems have improved over Finland's in meaningful ways.
Finnish native and Asia correspondent Hannamiina Tanninen has attended schools in both countries. She agrees that Finland's education system is one of the world's finest, especially regarding its quality teachers. However, in her TED talk she argues that Finland must learn lessons from East Asia if it is to stay relevant:
- Students in Asia start their education earlier, work harder, and work longer. Simply put, the more time students put into developing skills and knowledge, the more of both they will acquire.
- Finland's education system lowers the bar accordingly to match a student's talent and skill set; East Asian systems require students to work to meet a universal standard and catch up if necessary.
- East Asian systems promote competitiveness and center educational strategies on excelling. In Finnish culture, such open competitiveness is less socially acceptable.
- Finland strives to make learning fun and creative; however, Tanninen argues that this approach may be disadvantageous. It may, for example, sacrifice long-term educational gains if success is always measured on a student's instant gratification.
"When did [Finland] subscribe to an idea that there is a glass ceiling that says, 'Good enough'?" Tanninen said. "Where as in Asia, I don't remember any of my professors saying, 'Okay, good enough.' It would be, 'Okay, Hannah, work hard; you can go further.'"
The gender gap in Finland's education system?
Despite Finland's dedication to equality, its performance gap score continues to languish below the OECD average.
In an analysis titled "Girls, Boys, and Reading," Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, notes Finland's gender gap in reading is twice that of the U.S. While Finnish boys score the average, Finnish girls score nearly double that, meaning the country's superiority in reading literacy rests solely with one gender.
Interestingly, boys typically score higher on math and science, both in Finland and other OECD countries. However, Finland's latest PISA scores have girls outperforming the boys in both subjects (though the score differential was significantly less than in reading).
"Finland's gender gap illustrates the superficiality of much of the commentary on that country's PISA performance," writes Loveless. "Have you ever read a warning that even if those policies contribute to Finland's high PISA scores—which the advocates assume but serious policy scholars know to be unproven—the policies also may be having a negative effect on the 50 percent of Finland's school population that happens to be male?"
This gap extends beyond PISA scores. In Finland, more women enter higher education and obtain higher levels of education overall.
No doubt many factors are at play, but one pointed out by Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator and scholar, is that boys simply don't read for pleasure. "Finland used to have the best primary school readers in the world until the early 2000s, but not anymore," he told The Washington Post.
A time frame that matches Shalgren's point that pupil-led pedagogy may have diminishing effects.
Finland's education system the best? Wrong question.
Of course, these criticisms and others are part of an open and ongoing dialogue—not just about Finland's education system but about efficient pedagogy the world over. They make noteworthy points, but there are counterpoints on the other side, too.
For example, Andreas Schleicher, OECD director of education, disagrees with Shalgren's analysis. He believes Finland's recent declines are modest compared to the headway made when the country switched from traditional education.
While Asian education systems may be surpassing Finland's, their uncompromising schedules and test-driven milieu may be shortchanging their futures for short-term gains. That's the argument made by journalist and political scientist Fareed Zakaria.
"[We] should be careful before they try to mimic Asian educational systems, which are still oriented around memorization and test taking," writes Zakaria. "I went through that kind of system and it's not conductive to thinking, problem solving, or creativity."
And Finland's gender gap, though stark, is in keeping with larger trends. Girls outperform boys in all countries, and the debate is ongoing as to how social, biological, and cultural forces perpetuate the gap.
The point isn't to argue that Finland's education system isn't valuable. Rather, it's that "educational tourists" look to Finland, see what they wanted to see, and don't bother to ask the questions Finland itself continues to grapple with. As Tim Oates points out, there are important lessons to be gained here. But insights should harmonize with an understanding of Finland's culture, its history, and a wider range of evidence, not simply be a laundry list of fashionable factoids.
Oates's conclusion is fitting: "In the case of [Finland's education system], people have been seriously misled by stories told by people who have looked at Finland through their own, restricted lens. The real story of Finland is more subtle, more challenging, and far, far more interesting."
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."