This is my first posting from Europe, during my two-month stay as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge. I have about twelve guest lectures scheduled and I’ll be posting about my travels.
This week I’ve been in Finland, giving a series of four invited lectures at four different universities.* If you have ever looked at those national rankings that come out every year, comparing how students in different countries score on math and science and other subjects, you may remember that Finland is usually number one. What are they doing that makes them so successful?
Finland has made an impressive investment in education, both directly in their schools and in university-based education research. My colleagues in the schools of education here tell me that many of their best students want to become teachers; for every opening in a teacher preparation program, they receive ten applications. And all teachers must complete a five-year program that leads to a Master’s degree; to receive the degree, they have to write a research paper, and these are often of a quality that would warrant publication in a scholarly journal.
The Finnish language is only spoken by the 5 million people in Finland, so everyone has to learn other languages. First of all, Finland is officially bilingual in Finnish and Swedish, as a result of Finland being part of the Swedish empire for centuries, so every student has to learn both Finnish and Swedish. And then after that, they all learn English. I didn’t meet anyone here who didn’t speak good English. So if you’re spending so much time learning three languages, who has time left over to get so good at math and science? Somehow Finland does it.
Of course it’s complex but I think the short answer is a strong national commitment and a willingness to invest resources in education. Finland’s leaders know that the days of manufacturing paper and paper mill equipment are mostly gone. They realize that high tech companies like Nokia are the future for Finland’s economy. And they know their human resources are their most valuable resources.
They are also committed to equity; they have substantial investment in special education, they have no significant variations in learning outcomes across regions, and in school districts where students seem to be struggling, they invest more money than the national average to try to bring them up. Finland demonstrates that a commitment to equity is not incompatible with excellence.
*University of Helsinki, University of Jyvaskyla, University of Tampere, Tampere Technical University