The attitude of “Sisu” or how persistence and determination made the Finnish educational system the most successful in the world

*Interview with Sorana Stanescu,  editor of EduDor section, Decat o Revista


Ressu Comprehensive School in Helsinki
Ressu Comprehensive School in Helsinki

The Finnish educational system is one of the most successful in the world today, and there are more and more people trying to identify the explanations of this success and to follow the example. You have been recently in Finland, where you have visited several schools and you had a series of meetings with teachers. What are the explanations of the Finnish success in the field, in your opinion?


In short, the answer to the “why is the Finnish educational system so successful“ question has to do with three key elements: responsibility, accountability and autonomy. And to put it in a simple sentence: teachers feel responsible for the quality of the education they provide, students and society as a whole hold them accountable for that (which in Romania doesn’t happen), whereas school principals have enough autonomy to hire and fire teachers and to change whatever is not working so well in their school (in Romania no school headmaster can do that, as the system is still extremely centralized and bureaucratic).

Another very important element is flexibility: the curriculum, which just changed for the basic education (7-16 years), was discussed at a national level, municipal level and then on a school level over four years (!), so that no stakeholder was left unquestioned. The aim was for each municipality and each school to adapt it to their own needs, resources and values, as a school in Lapland that has Sami students, for example, will always have a slightly different culture than one in central Helsinki, that has more and more pupils of immigrant background. And last abut not least, I would also name “sisu” as one of the key factors for the successful educational system. Sisu cannot be thoroughly translated into English or any other language for that matter. Sisu is a combination of determination, resilience, perseverance and grit and is, I believe, what makes Finland one of the top countries in the world.


Almost a half a century of reforms and a huge financial and social investment led to the most performant educational system in the world – the Finnish school. Could you please briefly tell us the story of the most advanced educational system in the world, with whose representatives you have recently talked?


In brief, that would be the story of how much appreciated and high ranked the teaching profession is and the historical context that helped to create the educational system that we see today. It always struck me how high status being a teacher is in Finland and I was told it has to do with the beginnings of formal education in Lutheran countries, where, in order to get married, you had got your confirmation in Church. And to get that, you had to attend a confirmation school and learn about the Bible and catechism and know how to read. Basically, if you couldn’t read, you couldn’t get married. So teachers became these wise men, these experts who would give you the basic knowledge and skills in life.

Secondly, Finland is a young independent country (1917), after having been under Russian rule for one hundred years and under Swedish rule for 600 more years before that. Therefore, building a strong national identity has always been a challenge and a priority and, of course, it could only be done through education. Moreover, after the Second World War, Finland was an agricultural society with huge war debt to pay to the Soviet Union. And in order to do that, they needed everyone to work, so they could produce everything they had to pay back; but they also needed to develop as a society, and education was the only means. So there was massive investment in education in the ’50s and ’60s, and then in the ’70s the nine year-compulsory classes were introduced and that was a success (that’s when a free, warm meal was also introduced in schools and it’s still in place. Romania is only now experimenting with such a system in 50 schools nationwide).


Which are the particularities of the Finnish educational system, and in what extent can this successful model be imported in Romania?


It would be impossible to name all of them, so I will not even try. I will only name a few simple facts I’ve noticed while visiting a few schools in Helsinki, that I think could be implemented here: it’s mandatory that, during breaks, students go outside and play. They are simply not allowed inside, as it’s important to exercise and consume their energy. And when it’s too cold outside, there are pool and fuss ball tables and other games on the hallways. There is no physical attendance and grading-list for the teacher to take with him in class (the Romanian “catalog”, well known instrument of terror) – therefore students are not stressed by its presence. All marks are recorded in an electronic system called Wilma, that students and parents also have access to and can use to communicate with their teachers. Students get to choose a third of the classes they take in highschool (in Romania they can choose only 10%, out of a very limited offer), and these courses are well-connected to everyday life and students’ interests: an advanced English-class on chick flicks or Tudor English or a music class where you get to make your own music out of any sounds you choose. And when you know you’ve got such a class in today’s schedule, you kindda look forward to going to school, I think.


In what way teachers are trained and formed in Finland, so that the quality of the educational performance prevails without giving homework in excess to the children, and also without the stress of the national assessments?


As I already mentioned, the teaching profession is highly valued. Therefore the competition to become a teacher is also very high and only about 8% of the applicants actually get into a teacher-training program (as a fact, becoming a physical education or a religion teacher is extremely challenging, as there are very few places available). Once selected, they do a lot of hands-on, practice based training in one of the 11 teacher-training schools affiliated to one of the eight universities that prepare teachers. All teachers have at least one year of pedagogical studies and a Masters. A Math teacher, for example, will get a three-year degree in Math, then do the one-year pedagogical studies and then the Masters. They are also trained to teach at least two different subjects (eg: Math and Physics/Chemistry, Biology and Geography etc.), and that gives them more flexibility in their career, but also more flexibility to the school.


Which is the role of the vocational school in the Finnish educational system?


Vocational training (VET) is also very valued in Finland. 40% of the students choose VET because, on the one hand, they get to learn a profession that’s actually in demand for (eg: a chef in Lapland can specialize in what and how to cook in the wilderness, while a waiter in Helsinki can specialize in working on the ferries that connect Helsinki to Stockholm) and, on the other hand, because VET is no dead end. After getting such a degree, they can still continue their formal education and go on to university (in Romania that became an option only in 2014). Moreover, the Finnish National Board of Education had an Anticipation of Skills Unit, in charge with analyzing the qualitative and quantitative needs of the different economical sectors, so that they know what specializations to introduce and what to let go of.


 How Finnish teachers succeed to motivate students to enjoy learning?


I have yet to find a teacher – in Finland or elsewhere – who can safely say they manage to make their students learn with pleasure. What they are saying though is that they try to do that by getting them involved in the educational process as much as possible and this is something the new curriculum that’s just been set in place for basic education focuses on. Because when students get to decide what and how they learn and how they are assessed, they become more responsible and can even start to like what they’re doing. Something else Finnish teachers are working on implementing is more flexibility in the classroom: depending on the students’ learning styles, the latter can choose to work independently or in teams of two or in larger groups.


Gathering so much information about the key to success of the Finnish educational system, where from do you think that change should start in the Romanian educational system which produces performance, although it faces a lot of problems and dysfunctionalities: low salaries for teachers, discrimination against children depending on their abilities or performances, etc.?


Change and improvement will only happen when Romanian teachers will be trained to teach 21st century students (eg: who were born in a very interconnected world and have been online since the age of 3), using 21st century teaching methods, and they will we assessed accordingly. Because, in contrast with their overall performance, what strikes me the most is the self-sufficiency of Romanian teachers: according to the latest TALIS report, that measures the self-perception of teachers in 35 countries, Romanian teachers think they are most prepared when it comes to both the content and the pedagogy of what they teach. Finnish teachers, on the other hand, are the least happy with themselves.


School abandon is extremely rare in Finland, while in Romania figures look worrying. What can Romania import from the Finnish system, so that this phenomenon can diminish? The Finnish educational system is equitable, while in Romania, despite some efforts, the membership to the rural areas or to disadvantaged social groups is still associated to major drawbacks, meaning that vulnerable groups from the social point of view continue to be also socially disadvantaged, having access to educational resources of a poor quality. What can we do here, for removing these shortcomings?


Finnish experts on education say that the country’s performance in PISA and other international tests was not a goal in itself. The goal was to give every child, no matter what their parents do, what they live and how much money they earn, a good start in life, so that they can find their own place in society. So maybe that’s where Romania should start as well. Regarding school drop-out, one thing we could do more is focus on preventing school drop-out (and not try to just lower it, once it’s already there), by working more closely with parents and extended families. On the other hand, this can only be done as part of a larger set of integrated social policies, because as long as we continue to have 47% of all children at risk of poverty and social exclusion (compared to 15% in Finland), no “smart” educational method we import from Finland will ever work.


What are the lessons that Romanian society and the decision-makers in the system should learn from the Finnish society?


Responsibility, accountability and long-term planning.


*Featured image: Upper Secondary School of Languages in Helsinki



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