Finland’s Innovation Economy

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

10 thoughts on “Finland’s Innovation Economy

  1. Thanks for sharing this! I would be interested to find out how rigid the classroom styles are in Finland — do they “teach to a test”? I am congruently curious about Finland’s students performance with imagination & innovation.

    Here is a great piece from McKinsey that, more or less, states that the level of competition to become a teacher, the social status of the teaching profession and the (closely correlated) quality of the teachers are, by far, the single greatest factor for the success (or failure) of education systems in a country.


    1. Thank you for providing the link to that report, which I’ve just read and I highly recommend for its broad international comparisons. Their three conclusions:

      1. Recruit high quality teachers

      2. Develop teachers into effective instructors

      3. Implement targeted systems and support to ensure that all children are benefiting from this instruction

      Their report presents data supporting the claim that the quality of teachers predicts FAR more variance in student outcomes than any other variable, including class size, decentralized vs. centralized schools, etc.

      I don’t know about the Finland style of teaching, unfortunately…my visit wasn’t long enough!

  2. Hi Keith,

    Please see below an extract from the “National Board of Education” in Finland. I agree with most of it. I quess it’s so cold and dark here in Finland ;)- especially during this time of the year – so we have used to read quite a lot. However, my intuition is that the younger “Facebook” generation (20 +/-) don’t read as much as we did (born already during the Vietnam war =/).

    I am a Finnish teacher. You have very interesting website and I am really excited about the Group Genious. Being a member of just recently established theme group of “innovation”, I am trying to gather all possible information, research etc. about creativity, innovation and group dynamics. Quite frankly, number of students per a course is both one of the biggest challenges and also opportunities of today’s education in Finland. By using the words of a co-founder of Sun Microsystems – No problem, no solution and no company”. So, our big challenge (a sort of problem) is the increasing number of undergraduate and ademic students. Not only from the learning point of view – we need to find a solution. My cousin is a teacher/researcher in Univesity of Tampere and she told me this week that in Australia Mrs Ann Game and Mr. Anrew Metcalfe have made good results with mass lecturing. They say that they can “turn a first-year lecture of 300 plus students into an interactive tutorial that will see up to 50 people actually speak…” I would like to learn more about it and your research material as well.


    Background for Finnish PISA success

    Why did Finland do so well in PISA? Some explanations are found in the main principles for comprehensive education in Finland:

    * The Finnish school system offers equal educational opportunities to everyone irrespective of domicile, gender, financial situation or linguistic and cultural background. With this objective in mind, accessibility of education is ensured throughout the country. Finland does not have segregated educational services for different genders, i.e. no girls’ and boys’ schools. Basic education is provided completely free of charge (including teaching, learning materials, school meals, health care, dental care and school transport).
    * Basic education is an integrated nine-year structure intended for the entire age group. Schools do not select pupils; instead, every pupil is guaranteed access to a school within their own catchment area. Even children with the most severe intellectual disabilities fall within the framework of common basic education.
    * The education system is flexible and its administration is based on intense delegation and provision of support. Steering is based on objectives set out in the Basic Education Act and Decree and within the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education. Responsibility for provision of education and implementation of objectives rests with local authorities (municipalities).
    * Activities at all levels are characterised by interaction and partnership building. In order to develop the school system, there is co-operation between different levels of administration, schools and other sectors of society. Finnish school authorities also co-operate a lot with subject associations and teacher and rector organisations. This has secured strong support for development measures.
    * Plenty of attention is focused on individual support for pupils’ learning and well-being and relevant guidelines are included in the National Core Curriculum. Every pupil receives support to help them perform their studies successfully. Only 2% of pupils have to repeat a year. Years are mostly repeated during the first or second school year. Only 0.5% of pupils fail to be awarded the basic education certificate. More than 96% of those completing basic education continue their studies at upper secondary level.
    * Assessment of both schools’ learning outcomes and pupils is encouraging and supportive in nature. The aim is to produce information that will help schools and pupils to develop. There are no national tests of learning outcomes and no school league tables. Pupils and schools are not compared with each other. National assessments of learning outcomes are based on samples and the key function of assessment is to pinpoint areas requiring further improvement in different subjects and within the entire school system.
    * Teachers working at all levels of education are well-trained and strongly committed to their work. All teachers are required to hold a Master’s degree and initial teacher training includes teaching practice. The teaching profession is highly respected and popular in Finland, which makes it possible to select the best young students. Teachers have an independent position in their work.
    * Organisation of schoolwork and teaching is guided by a conception of learning where pupils’ own active involvement and interaction with teachers, fellow pupils and the learning environment are important. Pupils process and interpret the information that they absorb on the basis of their prior knowledge structures.”

    1. Thank you, that is very helpful information. In Finland I also learned that entry into the teaching schools is highly competitive and only the best students become teachers. The McKinsey report mentioned in an earlier comment by rebeccarapple also argues for a strong relation between high standards at entry to teacher education, and quality of a school system.

      1. Hi Keith,

        I believe on the education system of Finland.
        Why? Because it’s equal for students during the first nine years.
        Before and especially after the first 9 years there are schools specializing on subjects, like math, IT, literature, arts etc. There has for decades been a very strong relationship between companies and especially with tech. universities – I believe it’s one of the corners stones of the world class engineering business of Finland (Kone, Konecranes, Wärtsilä, Cargotec, Metso etc.)

        I made a 180 degree turnaround in my life 1 1/2 years ago and became a teacher of one business school. Now I am half way done with my educational studies (which I find by the way very professional) and next May I will become “officially” a teacher. You can get a nice amount of credits when you come from a business and you will become teacher in a business school. I hope this clarifies more. If you are interested to hear more, please shoot. I quess, I belong to a “teacher family”. My sister is a language teacher in Italy. I have only three cousins and one of them is a reseacher in University of Tampere and another cousin is a docent in University of Helsinki.


  3. Excellent discussion! OlliL, I was just writing about this on another blog. Could you please define the Master’s Degree? I taught at the University of Helsinki and usually this was the term given for first degrees. In the US system we do four years of undergraduate (BA) and then 2 years of graduate school (MA) Here is the post I made on another blog. I would appreciate it if you could correct me if I got something wrong. Thanks so much! Linda

    I normally avoid writing about education systems unless I have lived in a country for more than one year and have had direct experience with that system. I am writing here because I would like to see more informed research being conducted about Finland and its education system. It is a success story and we need to move our system more in that direction. However, Finland is difficult to study for two reasons: Only 5 million people speak Finnish so we must rely on second-hand reports; and Their system is so radically different from the USA we cannot easily map ours to theirs so it is easy to make generalizations that are not accurate.

    I must admit, when I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to Finland I could only name one city in the entire country. I ended up living in Helsinki as a single mother for a total of three years–one year as a Fulbright scholar and then two more years teaching at the University of Helsinki.

    (I write a little bit about my experience on my blog )

    While I applaud your attempt to capture reasons why the Finnish education system has contributed to the highest literacy rates, best STEM scores, and some of the happiest people in the world, I think you have missed the mark on few points.

    1.Teachers have MA degrees. I have seen this written several places and it always makes me smile. The Finnish system is different. Like the German system, their students spend more years in high school.( This is similar to first year at University in the US. Students then do something similar to the British A-level exam. This is very comprehensive. Few of our students would be able to pass these exams. There are main subjects you have chosen to focus on in gymnasium and other subjects that you have minored in. (ie My husband did his A-level exam in Math and Physics but he also studied Chemistry, English and French and Biology as sub-level subjects.) In Finland, students then must pass University admittance exams before being accepted to a program of study. These exams are grueling and few pass on the first try. Many students spend years studying just to get into University. No one helps the students. Students read books and take exams. Period. You can’t take a course like we do for GRE or LSAT. There are no lectures. You read books and take the exam. Once admitted, students study subjects like law, education, medicine, etc. There is no time limit and since education is free most students take as long as they want to get their first degree. The courses add up to roughly four years if one were to go straight through. So, the MA that students have in Finland is a first degree. Some argue it is a BA but it really is much more rigorous than our BA. In England, students have a BA with roughly the same system as ours. The UK MA program (my German husband got his MA in the UK so I am familiar with this one, too) also 1-2 years so their system is a bit easier to map to ours. All in all, I don’t know that we can say Finnish teachers have an MA. They have a first degree they call an MA. It produces very fine lawyers and doctors and scientists so I am inclined not to argue with this over simplification. But they have not spent 4 years undergraduate and 2 years graduate school as anyone in the US must do to receive an MA in education. Our system becomes progressively more difficult and focused. Their system is always focused. Since their system produces the best results in the world, I think we should look to other factors because saying teachers have an MA in education is misleading and not an important factor. Their teachers are very motivated and they are very well educated and these are important factors.

    2. Another issue that always bothers me is people point to the fact that children start school at age 7 in Finland as a factor in their success. People suggest we should leave our kids on their own and scrap our preschool system. Finns don’t start teaching subjects until age 7 that is true but the majority of women work in Finland and they have universal daycare. Most children have been in a system that encourages orderly behavior from birth. If you question this, go to Finland during the coldest and darkest months. It can be 40 below zero and people still stand and wait for lights to change. No one walks against the light. No one drinks and drives. People do not speak in public places like trams. Children in universal daycare also learn things like English or Swedish or other second language basics that prepare them for a rigorous system that starts at age 7. Seven year old children in Finland have few behavior issues because they have been treated equally since birth–they have been loved and encouraged by a system that values children.

    4. Finland is a very egalitarian society. Teachers are respected and are part of the political system. They have a multiparty system and unions. Teachers participate on all levels. All professions are equally valued so you see equal numbers of men and women and equal pay. This does not have a material impact on the curriculum or assessments.I believe students are presented with less but more relevant information. They do not pass failing children just to get them out of the class. They focus more on teaching than testing because it is easy to test something once a child has been taught. Recently, my husband and I looked at his A-level physics textbook. One book was used for two years. But with that one book you could pass the GRE math section in the USA and get into graduate school.

    5.This is what I believe is at the very core of this success story. Finland has a great and profound design history. This has kept the country competitive since it became a nation. This had not changed. Their education system begins with good design. If technology becomes an international requirement they are the first to bring in experts from around the world, learn from them, and then design better products. Nokia is not a one off. Children wear Marimekko socks and drink out of Alvar Aalto glasses. Design, art, music, culture, nature are fundamental to the society and this is one reason why their people are so happy. They also very systematically introduce first and second languages to children. My students at University had what I would call a photographic memory. They could recall information from a page in a book and even tell me the page number. Finns use their minds. They exercise their brains with multiple languages. When we look at international STEM scores, we see children in countries with the highest scores also learn second languages early in their education system. Perhaps it is no accident that Finns learn 3 languages and also score higher than countries that teach 2 languages. Just a thought.

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