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

(Photo: Andrei Niemimaki/Flickr)

Gabriel Heller Shalgren argues that Finland's educational successes have their origin with the economic and industrial growth that predates the 2000s.

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

\u200bAsian countries continue have outdone Finland's education system in the most recent PISA surveys.

(Photo: Pixabay)

Asian countries have outdone Finland's education system in the most recent PISA surveys.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. East Asian systems promote competitiveness and center educational strategies on excelling. In Finnish culture, such open competitiveness is less socially acceptable.
  4. 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?

(Photo: Pixabay)

Girls report that they enjoy reading more than boys the world over, but in Finland's education system, the gender gap is significantly wider.

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."

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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