Vol. 41, No. 4, November 2005, pp. 455–470
ISSN 0305-0068 (print)/ISSN 1360-0486 (online)/05/040455–16
© 2005 Taylor & Francis
The Finnish miracle of PISA: historical
and sociological remarks on teaching
and teacher education
University of Helsinki, Finland
Taylor and Francis LtdCCED131764.sgm10.1080/03050060500317810Comparative Education0305-0068 (print)/1360-0486 (online)Original Article2005Taylor & Francis414000000November 2005HannuSimolaDepartment of EducationUniversity of HelsinkiP.O. Box 39Bulevardi 1800014Finlandhannu.firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the recent tributes to the success of Finnish schooling was the PISA 2000 project report. As
befits the field of education, the explanations are primarily pedagogical, referring especially to the
excellent teachers and high-quality teacher education. Without underrating the explanatory power
of these statements, this paper presents some of the social, cultural and historical factors behind the
pedagogical success of the Finnish comprehensive school. From the perspectives of history and the
sociology of education, it also sheds light on some ironic paradoxes and dilemmas that may be
concealed by the success. The focus is on the problematic nature of international comparative
surveys based on school performance indicators. The question is whether they really make it possi-
ble to understand schooling in different countries, or whether they are just part of processes of
‘international spectacle’ and ‘mutual accountability’.
The Swedish sociologist of education Donald Broady opens his book Den Dolda
läroplanen [The hidden curriculum] (Broady, 1987) as follows:
A professional disease among teachers is the tendency to individualize and psychologise
problems. In other words, they look for reasons first of all in their own (or their pupils’ or
principal’s) personalities, and are thereby blind to the factors that define and limit the action
possibilities of teachers (and pupils). (p. 11; quotation translated by the present author)
Presumably, other professionals working in the field of education are not strongly
differentiated from teachers here—mutatis mutandis—regardless of whether they are
politicians, officials or academic researchers, nor is this fallacy limited to explanations
of problems (cf. Collins, 1990). In accounting for success in education, we tend to
look to individuals, their psychologies and pedagogies, rather than to phenomena
characterized as social, cultural, institutional or historical.
This bias has assumed new significance in the past decade, when politicians have
been using international educational indicators as the basis of the common language
*Department of Education, University of Helsinki, PO Box 9, Siltavuorenpenger 20 R, 00014,
Finland. Email: email@example.com
456 H. Simola
of global benchmarking. As Nóvoa and Yariv-Mashal (2003) critically note,
comparative educational studies are often turned into a political tool for creating
educational policy or a mode of governance, rather than remaining in the research
realm of intellectual inquiry. The publicity and effects of the OECD-led PISA assess-
ment of political debate was a perfect example of this. It is symptomatic of the problem
that scholarly discussion has been most vivid in so-called ‘hero and villain’ countries
(see special issues of Zeitschrifr fur Pedagogik, vol. 49, 2003, and the Scandinavian
Journal of Educational Research, vol. 48, 2004). It is more than evident that, in the era
of the internationalization of educational policies, burning problems of comparability
incorporate the political and epistemological dimensions alongside more familiar
methodological questions (cf. Popkewitz, 1999; Prais, 2003; Goldstein, 2004).
Finland has recently been basking in educational glory due to the results of various
comparative studies of educational attainments in its comprehensive schools. The
recent PISA 2000 project in particular turned Finnish comprehensive schooling into
a success story (OECD, 2001). This was an OECD-led project investigating 15-year-
old students in 32 countries, one of the findings being that Finnish students were
among the best in terms of reading, mathematical and scientific literacy. It is essential
to note that PISA 2000 was not a conventional school achievement testing: ‘In all
cycles, the domains of reading, mathematical and scientific literacy are covered not
merely in terms of mastery of the school curriculum, but in terms of important knowl-
edge and skills needed in adult life’ (http://www.pisa.oecd.org/).
It was also noted that the scores showing variations in student and school perfor-
mance in Finland were among the lowest in the PISA countries. It has been
concluded that the Finnish comprehensive school has managed to combine high-
quality performance with a high level of equality in educational outcomes. According
to the first indications of the ensuing PISA 2003 assessment (OECD, 2004a, b), the
triumphal march of the Finnish comprehensive schooling continues.
Explanations of, and the underlying reasons for, the Finnish success in interna-
tional comparative assessments have been eagerly sought ever since. According to
public discussion, it is unequivocally attributable to the excellent Finnish teachers
and high-quality Finnish teacher education. These explanations have dominated the
discussion in the educational field too, regardless of the more timorous and extensive
explication articulated by the leading researchers in the Finnish PISA team, Jouni
Välijärvi and Pirjo Linnakylä. In their booklet entitled The Finnish success in PISA and
some reasons behind it, they conclude:
Finland’s high achievement seems to be attributable to a whole network of interrelated
factors, in which students’ own areas of interest and leisure activities, the learning oppor-
tunities provided by schools, parental support and involvement as well as social and
cultural contexts of learning and of the entire education system combine with each other.
(Välijärvi et al., 2002, p. 46; see also Lie et al., 2003)
Without discounting the relevance of school-, teacher- and home-based activities
in contributing to learning, I will focus in this paper on a few socio-historical factors
that have been totally neglected in the discussion in Finland. Quite simply, it is reason-
Finnish schooling and PISA 2000 457
able to suppose that schooling is not confined to pedagogy, didactics or subject matter,
and that it also, even mainly, incorporates social, cultural, institutional and historical
issues. This view supports the argument of Nóvoa and Yari-Mashal (2003) that a
comparative study in education purporting to be something more than a mode of
educational governance should be a historical journey. By way of conclusion, I will
present two paradoxes that could be considered meaningful and important in attempts
to understand Finnish comprehensive schooling today and in the near future.
An authoritarian, obedient and collectivist mentality
To start with, some very general aspects of Finnish history might prove essential in
understanding Finnish schooling. It could be said, even at the risk of accusations of
speculation, that Finnish culture still incorporates a meaningful element of the
authoritarian, obedient and collectivist mentality, with its pros and cons.
Due to its geographical and geopolitical location, Finland has always been a border
country between the west and the east. It is also hard to overestimate the fact that the
birth of the Finnish nation state was realized under the Russian Empire during the
nineteenth century. It is not an overstatement to say that eastern elements are evident
in Finland everywhere and in every way, from its administrative traditions to its
genetic heredity. The fact that Finnish Social Democracy retains some eastern
authoritarian, or even totalitarian, flavour, compared with versions in other Nordic
countries, is just one indication. At least heuristically, there is nothing strange in find-
ing Finland together with nations such as Korea and Japan in some international
comparisons (cf. e.g., Lakaniemi et al., 1995; Siikala, 2002).
Another historical fact that makes Finland different from its Nordic neighbours is
that it went through wars, including one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern
European history. Linked to the Russian revolutionary movements and the First
World War, Finland declared independence in 1917. After turbulent political contro-
versies, the radical left achieved the ascendancy in the Finnish Social Democratic
Party, and in January 1918, the ‘Reds’ took over power in Helsinki and southern
Finland. The country was divided into ‘White’ and ‘Red’ camps. After three months
of battles the Reds were beaten, and the ‘White General’ Mannerheim rode to
Helsinki, accompanied with German troups. The Civil War killed nearly 40,000 from
a nation of less than 3 million inhabitants. Three quarters of the deaths were Reds;
three quarters of the killed Reds died not in battle but in prison camps and by
executions and murders. This is still a ‘collective trauma’ (Ylikangas, 1993, p. 521)
to be overcome, and only recently there have been proposals to establish a Truth
Commission for working it through. After only two decades, the nation was able,
however, to create an amazing front in the ‘Winter War’ (1939–40) against the Soviet
offensive. From a psycho-historical perspective, the peculiarities of the Finnish drift
to social consensus might be understood by delving into these two aspects: the sense
of being a border country, and carrying the trauma of civil war ( and the celebrated
consensus during the Winter War) in the collective mentality. (cf. e.g. Alapuro, 1988;
Klinge, 1997; Vehviläinen, 2002).
458 H. Simola
The third social fact not to be underestimated in the dialogue on schooling in
Finland is that the country belongs to the group of European nations that have most
recently left behind their agrarian society and life style. The process of industrializa-
tion and urbanization was quite sluggish until the Second World War, compared with
Central Europe and the other Nordic countries. In 1945, 70% of the Finnish popu-
lation lived in rural areas, and nearly 60% were employed in agriculture and forestry.
Following the great migration in the 1960s, by 1970 half lived in the cities and 32%
were employed in industry and construction (cf. e.g. Alapuro et al., 1987).
This is the other side of the coin. The late process of industrialization and the simul-
taneous growth of the service sector brought an exceptionally rapid structural change
in society. The transitions from an agricultural to an industrial society, and further to
a post-industrial society, have taken place within such a short period of time that one
could almost say that these societies currently co-exist in a very special way in the coun-
try. The Finnish welfare state might be seen as a product of these historical disturbances;
on the one hand industrial and individualist, on the other, agrarian and collectivist.
With education, too, the Finnish case could be seen as an accelerated, compressed
version of the global process of mass schooling (see e.g., Meyer et al., 1992; Simola,
1993). Finland was among the last to establish compulsory education in 1921. The
comprehensive school system was developed only in the 1970s, but at the same time
it was implemented very rapidly and systematically, even in a rather totalitarian way.
All this is witness to the fact that the Finnish success story in education is historically
very recent. Whereas almost 70% of the younger generation now aims to obtain a
higher education degree, among their grandparents about the same proportion
received the full elementary school certificate.
It is not possible here to go further into the cultural and mental differences between
Finnish, Nordic and European people. It is enough, and necessary, to say that there
is something archaic, something authoritarian, possibly even something eastern, in
the Finnish culture and mentality. There is also something collective that, in a distinc-
tive way, permeates the Finnish schooling culture.
The relatively high status of teachers
The second point of interest is that teachers in comprehensive schools enjoy a higher
status in Finland than in most other advanced liberal countries. What is even more
rare, people at both the lower and higher ends of the social spectrum seem to appre-
ciate and respect the teacher’s work.
Hannu Räty, a Finnish researcher, launched a survey-based research project in
1995 on parents’ attitudes towards comprehensive school (Räty et al., 1995), the
results of which showed that parents of comprehensive school pupils were quite satis-
fied with the school. The respondents were most satisfied with the teaching (86%),
co-operation (74%) and assessment (71%), but issues to do with equality and repre-
sentation were also assessed positively by more than 60% of them. Even on the
subject of individuality, where attitudes were most negative, there were more satisfied
(48%) than dissatisfied (28%) parents.
Finnish schooling and PISA 2000 459
This conclusion was supported in a Nordic comparative study of a few years ago,
Nordisk skolbarometer (Anon, 2001). Respondents comprising a sample of the overall
population and of parents with school pupils in the Nordic countries were asked
what they thought about contemporary schooling. The Finns were clearly most satis-
fied with their schools, especially with how they had been able to provide their
offspring with knowledge and skills in different school subjects. They were not in
agreement with their Nordic neighbours that the knowledge requirements in school
were too low, for example.
The Finnish study referred to above (Räty et al., 1995) showed that Finnish parents
did feel strongly about equality and equity, and did not support the tenets of market-
oriented schooling or the ideology of competition and giftedness. On the contrary,
they were worried about the inequality of educational opportunities. It is symptom-
atic and significant, however, that parents from the upper-level employee strata were
more apt to criticize the school system for overlooking differences in giftedness, while
working-class parents’ attitudes towards the school system were generally more
A clear symptom of the relatively high image of schooling may be seen in the popu-
larity of the teaching profession among Finnish students. Even though, as in other
countries, there is also a lack of applicants for teacher training in certain subjects
(especially those of mathematics and natural sciences), teaching has retained year
after year its position as one of the most popular careers in terms of university
entrance examinations (see, e.g. Jussila & Saari, 2000; Kansanen, 2003). According
to a recent survey among the candidates for the matriculation examination (i.e. final
graders in upper secondary school), teaching was clearly the number one career
choice and overtook such traditional favourites as physician, lawyer, psychologist,
engineer or journalist (Helsingin Sanomat, 11 February, 2004).
Finnish teachers apparently enjoy the trust of the general public and also of the
political and even economic elite, which is rare in many countries. The leading
business magazine in Finland, Talouselämä published a cover-page article on compre-
hensive schools in 2001 advocating the need for more resources to protect the Finnish
school system from serious deterioration in quality (Talouselämä, 3, 2001). Similarly,
one of the leading periodicals in Finland, Suomen Kuvalehti made clear in its cover-
page article entitled On the strong pupil’s terms that recent market and competition
oriented school reforms had meant ‘increasing differences, leaving the weak in the
shadow of and in competition with the well-off’ (Suomen Kuvalehti, 34, 2001). In all
probability, this would be impossible in Sweden, for example. Although The
Confederation of Finnish Industry and Employers (TT) spearheaded the Finnish
neo-liberalist education policy (see Ahonen & Rantala, 2001), it has lacked the strict-
ness and aggressiveness of its sister organization in Sweden.
Identification with the upper social strata
Teachers at Finnish comprehensive schools identify with the upper social strata, and
their political opinions are rather conservative.
460 H. Simola
The path of the Finnish teacher towards acceptance by both the common people
and the elite is a long one. As long as they have existed as a body, Finnish teachers
have been fighting a ‘middle-class war on two fronts’ (Rinne, 1988, p. 440). On the
one hand they have been struggling to convince the general public of the wisdom of
bringing their children to school and leaving them there, and to gain the trust of
parents that they will take care of their offspring. On the other hand, it has been neces-
sary to convince the establishment of the usefulness and productivity of compulsory
There have been victories and defeats on both of these fronts. The land-owning
peasantry in four out of every five municipalities was initially against schooling, but
by the early twentieth century, which was very late in the European and Nordic
contexts, almost every municipality finally had a school (Kivirauma & Jauhiainen,
1996). The country soon descended into civil war, in 1918, which brought defeat on
both fronts. Elementary-school teachers mainly sided with the Whites, even though
some leaders of the Reds had different expectations due to the poor economic and
legal position of teachers. During the bloody showdown that followed, only 92 teach-
ers in the whole country were charged with cooperation with the Reds, eight of whom
were executed and ten cleared (Rantala, 2002, pp. 17–19).
Following the civil war, at least some of the people broke away from the universal-
istic idea of civilization, and at least some of the teachers adopted the ancient idea that
the common people were an immoral mass that had to be civilized through missionary
schooling. On the other hand, the elite lost faith in the outcome of mass schooling
and in people who, in spite of the economic investments made in education, were not
civilized enough to resist the message of the political agitators (Rinne, 1988, p. 440).
It was only after the Second World War that the nation state again began to invest
in the teaching of its people, when teachers and ordinary people had once again
proved to be worthy of the nation’s trust. It is significant that radical labour-union
politics, not to mention the extreme Left, have been virtually non-existent in the
Finnish teaching profession, which is a point on which the teachers differ from their
colleagues in various countries.
An essential element in the upward movement of Finnish teachers was their
exceptionally persistent striving for professionalism. As early as 1890, primary school
teachers were claiming that their extension training should be organized at university
level. According to a Finnish School historian (Halila, 1950, p. 296), before the
Second World War there were more primary school teachers with an upper-second-
ary school certificate (the matriculation examination) in Finland than in any other
country. A significant breakthrough in raising the status and prestige of teaching was
the establishment of the University College of Education in Jyväskylä in the 1930s,
followed after the war by the establishment of three teacher-training colleges in bigger
cities. These were the first institutions that offered graduate-based training for
primary school teachers, and this clearly ranked above the teacher-training seminars
in the educational hierarchy. Starting in the late 1950s, the teachers’ union actively
demanded that the training of primary school teachers should be at the same level as
that of grammar school teachers, i.e. university level.
Finnish schooling and PISA 2000 461
The focal period here is the 1970s, when three key reforms were carried out. The
first was the Comprehensive School Reform (1972–1977), whereby the dual-track
school system of eight-year compulsory school and parallel grammar school was
replaced with the single, mixed-ability comprehensive school in which the whole
cohort of pupils was educated for nine years. Secondly, the Teacher Education Reform
was put into practice during 1973–1979, and it radically changed the training of
primary school teachers (those who teach at the lower level in the comprehensive
school, from grades one to six). The responsibility for their training was removed
from the teacher-training colleges and small-town ‘teacher preparation seminaries’ to
the brand-new university faculties of education established as part of the reform. The
training of primary school teachers was raised to the Master’s degree level in 1979,
which dramatically up-graded the role of educational studies in teacher training and
led to the rapid adoption of education as an academic discipline. All this stemmed, at
least in part, from the third reform, the General Syllabus and Degree Reform in Higher
Education (1977–1980), which abolished the Bachelor’s degree. This was brought
back only in 1994, and is now being strengthened through the so-called Bologna
Process (e.g., Simola, 1993; Webb et al., 2004).
It is no wonder, then, that the teachers’ middle-class war on both fronts ended in
a triumph for popular schooling. Risto Rinne sums it up:
Popular teachers came to be very highly trained. Except for during the transition period,
the relationship between the State and the teachers’ union (OAJ) developed well, especially
in international comparison. Strike activities have been scarce, and the Comprehensive
School Reform increased the teacher’s status in society and influence on education policy.
More than ever, teachers became a trustworthy ally of the state, members of the cultural
and economic elite. What is more, people have been awakened to the fact that it is only
through education that it is possible to climb the social ladder, or even to keep up one’s
position. Teachers have become judges in terms of determining the directions of our chil-
dren’s future. This right has been handed over to them by the state from above and by
parents from below. (Rinne, 1988, p. 440; quotation translated by the present author)
In this continuing and successful social advancement, it is no surprise that teachers
in Finnish comprehensive schools prefer to identify themselves with the upper middle
class. Hannu Räty (Räty et al., 1997), whose survey on parents is referred to above,
administered the same questionnaire to teachers in 1997. They clearly shared the
opinions of those in the upper-level employee strata on education policy, being more
favourable towards a market-oriented and competitive school policy than parents in
general. A third of them approved of the statement: ‘The pursuit of equality is no
longer a response to the challenges of today’, and also supported the establishment of
more private schools and special schools for gifted pupils.
Teachers at Finnish comprehensive schools also appear to be pedagogically conser-
vative and somewhat reserved or remote in their relations with pupils and their fami-
lies. There is a lack of strong empirical evidence to back up this statement, but what
little there is offers some support.
462 H. Simola
The results of a British report from 1996 (Norris et al., 1996) were interesting here.
The Finnish National Board of Education had commissioned an experienced
research team from East Anglia University in the UK to find out how the great
comprehensive school curriculum reform had been implemented in Finland. The
team visited, observed and interviewed principals, teachers and students in 50 lower-
level and upper-level comprehensive schools that were selected as being pilot schools
or otherwise interested in curriculum reform. These establishments clearly repre-
sented so-called good and innovative schools in Finland.
The report was a scandal and a disappointment to its subscribers in that it showed
how poorly the curriculum reform was being realized at the school level. It could be
said, however, that the most interesting notions and observations concerned the
pedagogical practices of Finnish comprehensive schools. The British group reported:
whole classes following line by line what is written in the textbook, at a pace determined
by the teacher. Rows and rows of children all doing the same thing in the same way
whether it be art, mathematics or geography. We have moved from school to school and
seen almost identical lessons, you could have swapped the teachers over and the children
would never have noticed the difference. (Norris et al., 1996, p. 29)
in both the lower and upper comprehensive school, we did not see much evidence of, for
example, student-centred learning or independent learning. (Norris et al., 1996, p. 85)
In the eyes of the researchers, Finnish school teaching and learning seemed to be
very traditional, mainly involving frontal teaching of the whole group of students.
Observations of individualized and student-centred forms of instruction were scarce.
Given the enormous similarity between the schools, the observers were convinced of
the high level of pedagogical discipline and order.
This testimony of the British evaluation group is in strong contrast with some
empirical findings from Sweden, for example. Lindblad (2001, p. 56) described
changes in organization and interaction patterns in Swedish classrooms in the 1970s
and 1990s as follows (see Table 1).
There is some empirical evidence at the school level of a difference between indi-
vidualization in instruction and learning in Finland and Sweden. In a study involving
interviews with teachers from 15 Finnish comprehensive schools (Simola & Hakala,
2001; Simola, 2002), two of the schools appeared to apply a somewhat individualiz-
ing approach, and another, the Ilola School, is widely known for its promotion of eget
arbete [individual work (IW)]. This school has been struggling for more than a decade
Table 1. Comparisons of teaching in grade 8 at comprehensive school, 1973 and 1995
Aspects 1973 1995
Organization Lesson organized around
teacher in front of whole class
Short introduction by teacher then
students work individually or in groups
Interaction Teacher tells or teacher asks—
Short teacher instruction in combination
with walking around and helping.
Considerable student–student interaction
Finnish schooling and PISA 2000 463
to promote IW, but according to the principal it has not been supported. After a
twelve-year fight, he appears to be quite pessimistic, even concerning the capacity of
the teachers in his own school to internalize and develop it. He concluded that
Finnish teachers will not give up their traditional ‘teaching ex cathedra’ as long as they
do not have to. Although there are more and more parents and children who do not
accept ‘behaviouristic teaching’ and wish for individual treatment, the great majority
still believes in and complies with it. It is an apparent contradiction, but in the view
of the principal it is straightforward: ‘For me this [IW] is a very simple thing, actually.
It’s not even a question of resources, but just a case of turning things around, starting
to see things from a different point of view’.
The approach is apparently more common and popular in Sweden than in Finland.
Österlind (1998) claims in her dissertation:
[I]n Sweden the method of organizing students’ work, called ‘their own work’ [eget arbete],
is gaining ground. It differs from traditional classroom organization in that pupils are
allowed a measure of freedom to decide for themselves when to work on the different
subjects, for example. In order to check the results and get an overview, many teachers
combine this individualized teaching with diaries or ‘planning books’, in other words,
small books in which the pupils write down their weekly work. The diary makes it possible
for the teacher to control the pace by asking the pupil either to slow down or to work
harder. It is an important aspect of individualized teaching; the teachers still know ‘where
they are’. (Österlind, 1998; p. 139)
It appears from an interview study of Nordic teachers (Simola, 2002) that Finnish
teachers differ from their Nordic colleagues in their relations with pupils and their
families. While other Nordic teachers almost unanimously emphasized intimate,
personal and confidential relations, Finnish teachers spoke to their pupils mostly as
adult models and keepers of order and safety in the classroom. Rather than encour-
aging intimacy, some experienced Finnish teachers emphasized how important it was
to keep a certain professional distance from their pupils and their homes and
problems. This kind of top-down distance contradicts the rather strong emphasis on
the ethos of caring, which is apparently mainly present among special teachers and
Relative work satisfaction
The fifth and final statement under consideration here is that the teachers in Finnish
comprehensive schools seem to be relatively satisfied and committed to their work.
An unexpected result of the above-mentioned studies (Simola & Hakala, 2001;
Simola, 2002), for which more than 50 Finnish teachers were interviewed, was that
the teachers appeared rather content with the educational reforms of the 1990s.
Almost all of them saw the decade as one of progress in various senses. They offered
positive comments on the aims of the recent reforms, such as increasing school-based
decision-making, encouraging cooperation between teachers and other specialists,
and emphasizing the individual needs and interests of students. Their positive basic
stance became even clearer in the light of interviews conducted with teachers in the
464 H. Simola
ten other European countries involved in these research projects (Popkewitz &
Some Finnish studies do support this impression of relative satisfaction and
commitment. According to a survey study focusing on teacher stress, ‘many teachers
are really satisfied with their work and committed to it. They see their work as reward-
ing, the working atmosphere as being good, and the social support in their work place
as positive, too’ (Santavirta et al., 2001). Eighty percent of the respondents agreed
with the two statements: ‘This work is rewarding and I do it because I like it’, and ‘I
am very committed to my current work’.
In the light of many other studies, such an extent of work satisfaction seems strange
because, according to general opinion, teachers are pushed hard in their work.
Various studies show evidence of increasing levels of stress among Finnish teachers
(e.g., Salo & Kinnunen, 1993; Viinamäki, 1997). One could say that in virtually all
of the recent interview studies that have been conducted, teachers complain about
increasing stress, more difficult students, and a growing workload (see, e.g., Simola
& Hakala, 2001; Virta & Kurikka, 2001; Simola, 2002; Syrjäläinen, 2002).
There was something curious in the Finnish education policy of the 1990s that
might explain this co-existence of relative satisfaction and increasing stress. Since the
early 1990s, state educational discourse has focused on evaluation as the most essen-
tial tool of quality development. Whereas it had previously been believed that the goals
of education could be reached by sticking to strict norms, the conviction in the 1990s
was that their attainment required the setting of national core targets and the evalua-
tion of achievements in the light of subsequent results. In this rhetoric, the Finnish
‘Planning State’ became the ‘Evaluative State’, attempting to practice educational
policy through government by results. According to the Secretary General of the
Ministry of Education, evaluation was seen as a pivotal element in the new steering
system since it ‘replaces the tasks of the old normative steering, control and inspection
system’ (Hirvi, 1996, p.93) (cf. Rinne et al., 2002; Simola et al., 2002).
A discourse of evaluation prevailed on the school level during the 1990s, but with-
out the evaluation in practice. Despite the rhetoric, there has been virtually no formal
control system governing the work of schools since the changes that were imple-
mented in the early part of the decade. Narrative referring to the lack of any kind of
evaluation, assessment or control was quite strong among the above-mentioned inter-
viewees on the school level (Simola & Hakala, 2001):
Nobody organizes the evaluation of our teaching here, I have never met anyone here who
has evaluated our standards of teaching.
It has changed during this ten-year period. Things have become more independent; the
functioning of schools has become notably more independent than before. There isn’t any
inspection or control. We think there isn’t any. (p. 115)
Supervision of the work done in the schools and the results achieved is minimal by
international standards. All traditional forms of control over the teacher’s work had,
for all practical purposes, disappeared by the beginning of the 1990s. The school
inspectorate, a detailed national curriculum, officially approved teaching materials,
Finnish schooling and PISA 2000 465
weekly timetables based on subjects taught and a class diary in which the teacher had
to record what was taught each hour—all these traditional mechanisms were aban-
doned. Finland has never had a tradition of nationwide standardized testing at the
comprehensive school level. It was not until 1999 that the obligation to practice eval-
uation was formalized and the first surrogate control mechanism, the standard scale
for giving marks on the comprehensive school graduation certificate (Opetushallitus,
1999), was introduced.
No longer a miracle
In summary of the socio-historical points made above, first, a somehow archaic,
authoritarian but also collective culture prevails, secondly there is some social trust
and appreciation of teachers, third, there is a tendency towards political and pedagog-
ical conservativeness among teachers, and finally, teachers are relatively satisfied with
and committed to their teaching.
It might be worth combining these explanatory elements with some other rather
well-known facts, rarely mentioned though. Again for historical reasons, there is a
certain cultural homogeneity among pupils in most Finnish classrooms. This came to
light in the PISA 2000 project in the proportion of non-native students in Finland,
which was only one fifth of the OECD average (OECD, 2001).
Moreover, a well-organized and effective special education system, run by univer-
sity-trained teachers, used to ensure a certain level of homogeneity by moving the
most ‘difficult’ pupils out of the classroom into special educational units or clinics. It
is only in the last five years or so that the policy has gradually begun to shift towards
full inclusion where the pupils with special status are, as far as possible, integrated
into ‘normal’ classrooms. The share of the pupils diagnosed as needing special educa-
tion (i.e. having a status of special pupil) doubled during the last ten years (in 1995,
2.9%; in 2003, 6.2%of the cohort). What is notable here, however, is that while in
1995 nearly all of these 17,000 pupils were taught in full-time special education, in
2003 this share was only 60% (22,000 pupils); 40% of the special education pupils
were integrated completely or partly in ordinary classroom teaching. During the same
period, the share of the pupils taking advantage of part-time special education
increased from about 15% to 20% of the cohort (Tilastokeskus, 2004). It is from the
strong ethos of equality and the very idea of comprehensive schooling where comes
the other side of this effectiveness: the strong dedication to the idea of ‘no child left
behind’, found especially in primary and special education. (see e.g., Kivirauma,
2001; Simola & Hakala, 2001). It is fair to say that the extent of student homogeneity
and the strong special education system have the effect of unifying and harmonizing
the groups taught by the classroom teacher.
It is apparent that some essential aspects of ‘the network of interrelated factors’,
referred to above by researchers in the Finnish PISA team, are present. In any case,
the Finnish ‘miracle of PISA’ no longer appears to be a miracle. To put it simply, it
is still possible to teach in the traditional way in Finland because teachers believe in
their traditional role and pupils accept their traditional position. Teachers’ beliefs are
466 H. Simola
supported by social trust and their professional academic status, while pupils’
approval is supported by the authoritarian culture and mentality of obedience. The
Finnish ‘secret’ of top-ranking may therefore be seen as the curious contingency of
traditional and post-traditional tendencies in the context of the modern welfare state
and its comprehensive schooling.
It is tempting to think that at least some of the authority of Finnish teachers is based
on their relatively strong professional identity, which enables them to season their
traditional teaching with the spice of progress. It is also tempting to think that at least
some of the obedience of Finnish students stems from the natural acceptance of
authority, and the ethos of respect for teachers. Some of the observations of the British
evaluation group referred to above appear to support this positive interpretation:
Without exception the schools appeared as calm, secure places for pupils to work. Finnish
pupils seemed generally well behaved; problems of order and discipline were few and
confined to individuals or small groups. (…) There appeared to be concern for others, and
respect for property. Teachers’ relationships with pupils generally demonstrated caring
and mutual respect, and there was little sense of teachers needing to exercise strict
discipline or authority. (Norris et al., 1996, p. 39)
These [observation] examples were deliberately drawn from the whole range of schools,
and include examples of teaching in both upper and lower comprehensives. No doubt
some of them reflected high-quality teaching and considerable professional skill within the
formal whole-class instructional tradition, and there is little doubt that in the best cases,
the pupils enjoyed the lessons enormously and probably learned a lot. (Norris et al., 1996,
In conclusion, two paradoxes are identifiable in the success story of Finnish school-
ing. First, the model pupil depicted in the strongly future-oriented PISA 2000 study
seems to lean largely on the past, or at least the passing world, on the agrarian and
pre-industrialized society, on the ethos of obedience and subjection that may be at its
strongest in Finland among late modern European societies. This paradox leads to
the question of what will happen to teaching and learning in Finnish schools when
teachers no longer believe in their traditional mission to be model citizens and trans-
mitters of knowledge, but rather see themselves as facilitators, tutors and mentors.
What will happen to teaching and learning in Finnish schools when the pupils no
longer accept their position as pupils, but rather ‘climb the walls’, as one urban
primary-school principal put it?
The second paradox is that the politically and pedagogically progressive compre-
hensive school reform is apparently being implemented in Finland by politically and
pedagogically rather conservative teachers. What is more, the outcomes seem to
match the aims better than in a few other countries. This paradox raises the question
of whether it is possible to move easily from the older authoritarian to an updated
neo-authoritarian pedagogy. Given the lack of a real tradition of pupil-centred teach-
ing legitimized by social policy, it might be rather easy to adopt the new economically
legitimized pedagogy. Its pivotal elements are dense and clear: distinctive and
Finnish schooling and PISA 2000 467
discriminative competition, popular constructivist shifting of the responsibility for
learning to the pupil, and all-pervasive assessment and self-evaluation.
From the perspective of this Finnish ‘historical journey’ , following the recommen-
dation of Nóvoa and Yariv-Mashal (2003), how do these PISA-type comparative
assessments appear? Technically well executed, they undoubtedly gather together
interesting information on different educational systems (see e.g., Mulford, 2002), and
their database will facilitate further sophisticated and fruitful analysis (see e.g.,
Allmendinger & Leibfried, 2003; Nash, 2003; Gorard & Smith, 2004). The ranking
and benchmarking indicators and their combinations might indeed tell us something
about ‘how far students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of
the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in society’ (What PISA
assesses, http://www.pisa.oecd.org/). The case of Finland discussed above demon-
strates, however, that this information does not necessarily further understanding of
the development and dynamics of a specific educational system. If anything, it appears
to contribute to what Nóvoa and Yariv-Mashal (2003) call processes of ‘international
spectacle’ and ‘mutual accountability’ rather than processes of improvement and devel-
opment. On this basis it is still easy to agree with Goldstein (2004), an eminent British
statistician in education, in his argument against the strict and measurable target-
setting advocated by UNESCO in its ambitious ‘Education for All’ (EFA) programme:
Each educational system can develop different criteria for assessing quality, enrolment,
etc. and instead of monitoring progress towards an essentially artificial set of targets EFA
could concentrate the resources that it is able to mobilize towards obtaining the necessary
understanding of the dynamics of each system. This would then allow constructive policies
to be implemented. The emphasis would be on the local context and culture, within which
those with local knowledge can construct their own aims rather than rely upon common
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