Are Finland's education results overhyped?
The Finnish education system is often heralded as the international benchmark of standards. New research, though, suggests that the high regard in which it is held is based on cultural components of their system and not actual results.
Researchers from the University of Sydney and the University of Technology Sydney have analysed the cross-national attraction within the media discourse around the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results and found the focus on Finland’s system continues unabated, despite the nation’s decline in real scores.
"The research highlights how, in the case of education, the media in many countries suffer from a case of Finnish fever, regardless of the fact that other countries do as well or better," said co-author Associate Professor Bronwen Dalton from UTS Business School.
The study examined the ways in which the largest circulation English language newspapers in Australia, Finland, Japan, and South Korea wrote about other nation’s results between 2001 and 2015. While Finnish reporting focused mainly internally, the other three nations demonstrated a cross-national attraction towards the Finnish system.
“The research showed that positive references to Finland’s results were very widespread in the other countries,” said co-author Dr Rachel Wilson from the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney.
“Countries such as Japan and Korea are showing strong results in PISA, but reporting on these systems also points to the amount of stress these systems put on students to achieve high results,” says Dr Wilson. “By contrast, reporting on Finnish results often talks about that system’s focus on teacher professional development, education research, and sustainable education.”
“The media writes about PISA results as though they are convinced about the legitimacy and importance of this assessment,” says Dr Wilson. “But the fact that Finland’s results, although strong, are declining, and yet they remain the focus of reporting on what excellence in education looks like, offers a strange dichotomy.”
“The initial focus on the Finnish system began because they were performing so well on these forms of assessment. The continuing focus may be because their system is culturally attractive.”
Another interesting finding of the research was that countries with improving scores in PISA seemed more outward looking than those with declining scores.
“It appears that the Finns do not view PISA results as a zero-sum end game,” says Dr Wilson. “As a society, they appreciate that other countries may improve their results, pushing Finland down the rankings; but they see that their system is working for them, and they aren’t threatened by other countries doing well in the testing.
“They also suggest that those countries who are improving in their results are perhaps getting there by embracing educational cultures that are unpalatable to the Finns.”
And while Finnish results have been declining in PISA in real terms, there remains broad internal support for how the system is running.
Co-author and PhD candidate Edward Davis said that the media’s constant discussions of top performing PISA countries such as Finland have distracted the Australian public. In his view, debates should focus instead “on why we have declined and how we can address this decline.”
Edward Rock Davis, Rachel Wilson & Bronwen Dalton (2018). ‘Another slice of PISA: an interrogation of educational cross-national attraction in Australia, Finland, Japan and South Korea’, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education