Teachers and trust: cornerstones of the Finnish education system


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Public school teachers in Brazil, Indonesia or Peru have stable jobs, enjoy high level of legal protection, and are part of teacher unions that shield them politically. Public school teachers in Finland also have stable jobs and are rarely fired. They are represented by a powerful teacher union, which is very influential among other stakeholders in policy discussions. Why do student learning outcomes among these countries vary dramatically?

1. Teachers’ prestige, selection and training

In Finland, teachers are highly valued. The teaching career is prestigious, demanding, and reserved for the most talented and hard-working. Only one fifth of all applicants to primary teacher education programs in Finnish universities are admitted. Admission depends not only on high academic achievements, but on interest and passion to become a teacher. This is very different to what happens in most middle-income countries (and some high-income countries, including the United States), where getting admitted to Faculties of Education is easy. Sometimes, even ensured.

For those admitted into education faculties, the Finns invest heavily in pre-service teacher education. Since the teaching profession requires a master’s degree in education, it takes approximately five years of university studies to become a qualified teacher. Primary school teachers oversee most of the subjects for their grade. Therefore, those becoming teachers for this age group major in educational sciences and choose two or three minors which can be school subjects (e.g. mathematics, history, music, literature, drama, English, Finnish, etc.) but other alternatives such as philosophy or sociology etc. are also available. While in training, they learn a combination of theoretical studies of educational sciences and pedagogy, combined with practical studies of all school subjects. In addition, there are various practicums which begin during the first semester of studies and are carried out both in the university teacher training schools and in regular schools.

Secondary school teachers oversee specific subjects for each grade. To become experts in the topics they teach, as well as pedagogical professionals, they study their respective school subject for about five to six years and must complete a year-long practical training combined with pedagogy and studies of educational sciences. For both primary and secondary teachers, each practicum has a specific theme, and those being trained to become teachers work daily with a mentor teacher (who supervises the practicum and teaches a class or subject in a regular school) and a university teacher educator (who is a tutor teacher).  

You can become a qualified teacher in Finland and be ready to oversee a classroom, all by yourself, only after several years of study and numerous hours of classroom hands-on practice. In many middle-income countries, a recent graduate can be thrown into a classroom without much, or any, real classroom experience.

2. Trust

Once Finnish teachers are hired and in classrooms, they are given a lot of responsibility. With such a high quality human capital, school management can be performed differently. The country does not have classroom inspectors or supervisors. In its place, principals act as pedagogical leaders and provide teachers with trust and steering, instead of control. Teachers are encouraged to work in close collaboration with their peers, constantly mentoring and tutoring each other.  The aim of this ongoing initiative is to provide the support needed to make sure that the best pedagogical practices are implemented in every classroom.

Although Finnish teachers must follow the national core curriculum (which is student-centered and provides the overall framework and learning objectives), they have autonomy when it comes to its implementation. Students in Finland study various subjects with structured courses, but in addition, teachers coordinate projects so that the same subject is seen through different disciplines. Students don’t get a lot of homework and spend less time at school compared to their peers in other OECD countries. However, time is used effectively, with regular breaks after 45 or 90 minutes when students usually go outside.

With great teachers and immense trust, every student (including those with diverse educational needs) can receive quality education at their nearby school, across the country. Even if parents are free to select a school for their child, most prefer the school closest to their home. Teachers are respected. Their autonomy is paired with great responsibility. They, and society, know that the future of children lies in their hands.

Is this degree of autonomy feasible or desirable in all contexts? No. It is efficient and conducive to high levels of achievement only under certain conditions:  when selection of teachers is meritocratic and demanding (not when politics play a role in the selection or deployment of teachers),  when a lot of effort is required to become a teacher (not when education is not an attractive profession for students with high potential), and when career advancement depends on professional development and accomplishments (not just years on the job).  Teacher reforms in many countries require yet to put those conditions in place.

Sammy Asava
December 28, 2018

A teacher is key in the learning process. When he/she is not recognized and highly motivated, the learning process and outcome will eventually be low and unproductive. Most countries under rate the role of teachers in the learning process. Some go to the extent of glorifying IT at the expense of teacher physical availability and role. The fourth SDG will never be achieved unless the teacher is made the flag bearer and carrier of the agenda

h mumtaz
January 05, 2019

A. Teacher. Is. A. Role. Model. In the. Socity. Provided. He/. She. Is the. Well. Trained. And have
Better. Education.

adefunke ekine
December 28, 2018

Great piece! How I wish leaders in the education sector in my country Nigeria can borrow a leaf from the Finland education system

Khem Sedhai
December 30, 2018

I am very much impressed with Finish Education System. The progress it has done after 1970s is amazing for all. Until and unless we develop a culture for the highest level of respect and values to teaching and teachers, and making the most desired profession, we cannot achieve what we really want. That lessons from Finish Education is the best lesson.

Dr Parvez Mir
January 01, 2019

I wish we could also inculcate the culture of trust among the leaders of education system so that we could also give bright future to society.

Edward Wedler
January 02, 2019

When a country invests meaningfully in education -- with trust, prestige, selection and training in their teachers -- no wonder Finland scores high globally. What I liked to learn here is that even with a "core curriculum" that is "student-centred", teachers are offered autonomy in delivering the program. With that freedom comes many obligations and a need for peer support.

I was educated in Australia and Canada to become an applied research scientist and engineer, and have taught post-graduate university students. Since I was developing new-technology curricula on-the-fly I could see I was most fortunate, yet I would want teachers to be able to adapt their own ways to any curriculum developed for them. The goal is for the student to enjoy and understand. Right?

Informative article.

January 03, 2019

I'd be interested to know more about how these conclusions take into account or control for other relevant factors in the education sector of these four countries, such as differing levels of investment in education, or other factors relevant to teachers, such as different levels of remuneration relative to average wages.

Rudo Mello
January 04, 2019

Well put, being the most important actors in the learning process, teachers ought to be recognized as such otherwise the whole process ends up being compromised which is why most of our education systems in the third world are weak, teachers are not motivated in anyway so much that being a teacher is thought of as a sorry job hence the quality of education is badly affected. I wish many governments paid more attention to such

January 04, 2019

Great stuff, HATS off to the Finland educational system.... Good JOB!

Anyanwu Chimaobim
January 04, 2019

These are countries who are willing to invest and have invested into their educational sector.
They are ones to emulate.

January 04, 2019

More than the eyes can see!
All the elements of successful pre-university teaching career in Finland are implemented in many OECD countries. For example, rigorous criteria are used for selection of teacher candidates. These include high academic achievements, non-academic skills and passion for teaching. Yet the pre-university teaching professionals in Finland are more effective contributors to human development than teachers in other countries. Why are Finnish teachers more effective than their counterparts in other OECD countries? The answer is history! The level of respect the teaching profession enjoys in Finland is historical. Right from the beginning the Finnish pre-university teaching profession was set-up at part with all other professions. And it has been maintained to date. Comparatively, in other countries some professions such as medicine, law, accountancy, engineering are more valued historically than teaching. And they attracted the brightest in comparison to teaching. Other OECD countries that have embarked on teacher reforms with an eye to make teaching an attractive and respected profession have to wait for many years before they could see the results of those reforms.

January 04, 2019

That is great. Developing young talent require intelligent teachers. They create a younger generation who will continue to develop and increase wealth for the nation.

Malom Saring
January 04, 2019

The Indian education sector is one of the worse. It is because of the political interference in the education system in a negative way. SSA and RMSA scheme would have played a vital role in the development of educational system in the country but again this scheme is one of a political tool for various political parties in the states in filling up their financial needs by not paying even the meager salary on time which directly and indirectly affect the teachers' performance.

Mostafa Kamal Majumder
January 04, 2019

This is a great article reminding us of our teachers who were not only guides and endless stores of knowledge but also role models even in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). They were a different breed. Nationalisation of schools, centralised recruitment and its politicisation have opened the doors of corruption leading favouritism at the cost of merit and aptitude. Now even evaluation of examination of scripts is manipulated by the political bosses who control the centralised system and in turn, this has eroded the respect the teachers once used to command. There are unions which are not strong enough to stand up against neutralisation of the profession.

Joseph Joejoe Bajigbayei
January 05, 2019

The new president of my country Sierra Leone has prioritized education, hence a flagship program for the rest of his tenure. How i wish the world will support us in on-boarding great initiatives like these of Finland!

John Ohagah
January 05, 2019

Great article and an eye opener. It’s important that other upcoming economies including my lovely country Kenya borrow a leaf from the Finish. Teachers are the caretakers of the future. They can either make the future or break he future. It is important that a teacher is accorded the necessary respect and rewarded appropriately.

January 05, 2019

Great thoughts on investing in teacher education as well as entrusting them with caring for the young minds. Wonderful piece of writing . Most developing countries do emphasise on the quality of education but the teachers are often over burden with too much workloads and are often lowly paid.

Christopher Ofikwu
January 05, 2019

This is quite interesting! In the case of Nigeria the government is not interested in funding education, the UN minimum requirement has never been met. Politics have taken over common sense. I wish our policy makers will read piece like this.

Bah Mamadou Bhoye
January 05, 2019

Education is so important that developing counties should follow the Finnish example

Sulleiman Adediran
January 05, 2019

THE SYSTEM IS BETTER OFF.....when both the led and the lead do the right things rightly. If each one of us just stops complaining and does his/her own share of the needful, then we will go the Finnish way The conditions attached for the System to work are also instructive.

January 05, 2019

A Masterpiece! Teachers are the fulcrum of development of any nation. Unfortunately, in my country, Nigeria, teachers are regarded as third class citizens. How then can the country grow? I wish our leaders will learn from this article and treat teachers well.

Juan M de Cardenas
January 05, 2019

How to manage powerful teachers union is key. How to motivate them to make its members take courses that improve their teaching skills and give them access to higher salaries. Some teachers unions are perverse. They prefer lower salaries but to keep control of its members.

Chigozie Chikere
January 05, 2019

Quality education is the machinery that drives development and that is one reason Finland will continue to fly high. I am really motivated by this article and wish curriculum planners, education managers and supervisors in Nigeria can learn from the Finnish model.

January 06, 2019

The teachers are to be congratulated for their efforts and having high qualifications working for the children Good model and others can follow

Aminu Sanda
January 06, 2019

The report is absolutely insightful. This must serve as a point of reference for governments and education policy framers, especially in Ghana, where teachers from the basic to the tertiary levels are not adequately developed pedagogically and practically, to have full management control of their classrooms.

Basil Ogbozor
January 06, 2019

The Finnish educational system is indeed a veritable global template for quality education in our modern world. The philosophy behind the success of the Finnish educational system is their realisation that human capital development is the most valuable asset of a nation and the key to its optimal welfare and prosperity. The amazing aspect of the system is its effectiveness in simplicity, devoid of over-stressing the learners and their parents/caregivers with overwhelming homeworks. Every serious minded country, both OECD and non-OECD countries should understudy the Finnish educational system and borrow as much as they require to upgrade their existing systems.
For my country Nigeria, I suggest that the government mandates the Federal Ministry of Education to arrange for bitateral partnership of selected Nigerian universities with Finnish universities with strong teacher-training educational prorams so that they can understudy the Finnish system and adapt their teacher-training programs to the Nigerian context.

Emmanuel Mireku
January 07, 2019

Very interesting and Captivating. This is the way to go. The better teachers are served and encouraged, the future of a nation is secured. They hold the key to responsible and excellent minded human resource. My country Ghana should watch and learn.

January 12, 2019

Great piece. The Finnish education model is indeed a subject worth examining in innovation lab and shrewd to fit into the host community. On the issue of trust, they may have gotten it but the rest still conforms with the 'Command and Control" method of school administration. About time, actions are put in place to accept what is working and improve on it.

Olympiad Success
January 16, 2019

Well compiled post, The teaching profession is really a great instrument in order to mold the future of a nation. Finnish people have learned it very early, therefore, propagating it through their education system. Hope other developing nations get some lessons from the mechanism and provide a better environment for its students and enhance their learning skills. Hope to see changes in our country too. Thanks for your informative post. Keep sharing the insights!

padam joshi
January 24, 2019

I am much inspired through , this notable story about education systems.teacher should role model and most be devoted profession and teacher should be creative, intelligent, result oriented .my country nepal is facing scarcity of quality pedagogical and devoted professional teachers. Everything is guided by politics and teacher selection process is not fare and politically biased. when i read this article , i feel ,when our country will reach this stage

Hemlatha Wadiker
January 24, 2019

Quality is must
Quality is must in education which is the machinery that drives development in a child. We teachers can mold a child, as they are like clay with which we can make a pot. They just follow our guidelines given and move forward. Thanks for the information.

Miren Sanchez
January 26, 2019

I dream of a time when my country, the Philippines, can realize something like this. Transformation is slowly happening but being clear about the details of what kind of an educational system and ministry we have is so important. This model would be a great way to help (re)define the way we do education in the Philippines. The question is, how do you shift it and handle the present educators? A transitionary model would be great to learn about....are there details of how Finland transitioned?