In the year 2001, Finland was recognised for educational excellence, doing very well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA measures student performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science and Finland placed 1st, 4th and 5th respectively. Governments the world over flocked to the nation to figure out what was working so well. Of course, it came as quite a shock to find that Finnish children have a pretty lax introduction to education compared to their English speaking counterparts. They start school relatively late – 7 years old – and don’t undergo the perils of ‘high stakes’ standardised testing until they are well into high school. Instead, Finnish children play and the Finnish teacher focuses on social and emotional wellbeing first and foremost before educational achievement. This line of thinking has urged many to call for an overhaul of English speaking education systems such as Australia, which has a much lower average starting age of 5 and has ‘high stakes’ testing in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 through NAPLAN.
Pasi Sahlberg is coming to Australia this year to take up a post at UNSW. Sahlberg is a strong advocate for Finland’s progressive approach and so his coming arrival has sparked renewed hope from those who wish to push a progressive agenda – a Finnstralia of their own. On social media, Sahlberg has said that he will not advise Australia to follow the Finnish approach but I am very sceptical. From what I have read of Pasi Sahlberg, including in his book, his values are the Finnish values – to push his personal agenda is to push the Finnish approach. My scepticism was done no favours when this article came out in the Guardian in which Sahlberg lavishes play and condemns testing (his condemnation includes the Phonics Screening Check).
Alas, despite the very Finnishness of the Guardian article, I will take Sahlberg at his word, though I will remain sceptical. Calls for a Finnish approach are still common though – it has stirred up much debate on Twitter – and I feel that many who support Sahlberg will continue to support the Finnish approach and the implementation of those ideas here in Australia. I believe it would be a mistake to pursue that line of thought.
Calls for a ‘Finnish approach’ are indeed pretty common but not all is rosy in Finland. Despite being lauded for their results, in the past decade, Finland has been in educational decline. In 2006, at the height of their achievement, Finnish students scored means of 547 in Reading, 563 in Science and 548 in Mathematics. In 2015, it was 526 for Reading, 531 in Science and 511 in Mathematics. 2015 was not a random off year either – it represents the bottom of a decade-long decline in results. Yes, it is true that Finland still does well comparatively across nations, but the trend is downward, which is concerning.
There are many who will argue that this trend downhill is not perceived as a problem in Finland because that isn’t what they are about. I doubt this is the case. For one, I think all nations are concerned with the educational achievement of their students because of how educational achievement links to economic prosperity and social stability. I see no reason why Finland would not be just as concerned with the achievement of their students as everybody else. Further, why would Finland enter PISA if it is not at all interested in analysing the data it receives from the test? If they are not interested in the downward trend, one would have to ask why they enter the test at all. Of course, some may refute my logic and say that they indeed do care about the educational achievement of their young people, but it is not everything. The thing is, it isn’t everything in the English speaking world either.
Adopting the somewhat lax Finnish approach to education seems a little silly if we acknowledge that Finland is in a decade-long state of educational decline. Moreover, there are stark differences between the two countries that cannot be ignored. Finland’s population is about the same size as Sydney alone, and the cultural and racial diversity is night and day – Finland lacks diversity; Australia is one of the most diverse countries in the world. The monoculture means Finland has shared values and a shared understanding of how children should be raised, which includes a love of learning, reading and knowledge of the importance of schooling. This gives Finns a headstart on academic achievement. Imposing Finnish ideals, and trusting the diverse population of Australia will fulfil their end of the bargain, is a fantasy.
A diverse nation with differing values and beliefs about educational achievement means we cannot wait until kids are 7 to begin investing in their education. There are too many children who start from much further behind to wait. This is exacerbated by the fact that Australia reads in English – a language with a notoriously deep orthography. Finnish children read well and this has a lot to do with their very shallow orthography. In Finnish, letters match sounds extremely consistently. This makes it relatively easy to learn to map speech to print. This is not the case in English. Experts posit that it can take 3 years to learn the full English code. An Australian child will take far longer to learn to read English than a Finnish child will take to read Finnish. In fact, I’ve read that a significant minority of kids can already read before they reach formal literacy instruction. This is not going to happen in Australia. Having Australian kids play until they are 7 is simply not the answer.
So although many continue to dream the dream of a Finnstralian education system, it seems that adopting the Finnish approach probably would not be the right way to go for Australia. Not only are they in educational decline, but the nations differ markedly in many ways. I’ve no doubt that the coming of Pasi Sahlberg will renew calls for a more progressive, Finnish style approach – especially in the early years. Hopefully, our leaders can ignore the fantasy of Finnstralia and continue to work towards important reforms.