It may come as some surprise to educators here, but their counterparts in Finland are not as excited about the high ranking afforded to Finlands schools by PISA studies ,as they are. Many teachers and Heads there, in truth, are slightly embarrassed about all the fuss, partly because they are aware of weaknesses in their system, and partly because they think that PISA measures only a narrow band of the spectrum of school learning. Finnish practitioners like many here, realise the danger and the consequences of teaching to the test, rather than to learn and understand.
Gabriel Sahlgren, a Swedish academic working for the centre right think tank CMRE, shares the view that Finland’s education system is by no means perfect. Writing in a Spectator blog, earlier this year ,he pointed out that while Finland scores well on PISA, this particular league table is actually designed to test everyday rather than curriculum-based knowledge. This means that it lacks key concepts of importance for further studies in mathematically intensive subjects, such as engineering, computer science, and economics. This is an obvious defect: such subjects are likely to be crucial for developed countries’ future economic well-being. He continues ‘The Finnish fan club rarely talks about its mathematics performance in TIMSS, an international survey focusing more on curriculum-based knowledge – which plummeted over the last decade. Finnish eighth-graders today perform slightly lower than seventh-graders did in 1999, lagging the top-scoring nations by a considerable margin.’ Not so miraculous, after all, suggests Sahlgren. It’s perhaps not surprising, he says, that over 200 Finnish academics in 2005 warned about complacency as a result of the PISA success. Others questioned whether it represents a victory at all since important ‘knowledge’ had been sacrificed along the way.
It is also the case that the number of young people in Finland obtaining higher education degrees is not growing at the same pace as in many other developed nations.
In spring 2012, the Helsinki University Centre for Educational Assessment implemented a nationally representative assessment of ninth grade students’ learning to learn competence. The assessment was inspired by signs of declining results in the past few years’ assessments. This decline had been observed both in the subject specific assessments of the Finnish National Board of Education, in the OECD PISA 2009 study, and in the learning to learn assessment implemented by the Centre for Educational Assessment in all comprehensive schools in Vantaa in 2010.
As Pasi Sahlberg points out ‘The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has in fact declined considerably. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. A decline could be discerned both among the best and the weakest students.’
It is also the case that between 2000 and 2009 Finnish students in the lowest socio-economic category (Group 1) fell an astonishing 31% ,in Reading.
University of Helsinki – Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Department of Teacher of Education Research Report No 347 Authors: Jarkko Hautamäki, Sirkku Kupiainen, Jukka Marjanen, Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen and Risto Hotulainen
Learning to learn at the end of basic education: Results in 2012 and changes from 2001
14/11/2013 Link to the study (in Finnish) here