Educational Innovations as Identified by Some Finnish Decision-Makers

Kirsi Tirri & Seppo Tella, University of Helsinki

Paper presented at the Symposium on "European Identity in Change", in Vasa in May, 1996. (This is a slightly upgraded and updated version of Dr Tirri's National Report submitted earlier to the European Observatory.)



0 Introduction

The present article has three main aims. First, it presents an analysis of the interviews made in November and December 1995 in order to gather information on "innovation", the key concept of the research project of the
European Observatory. Second, it gives some basic information on the Finnish educational system to be used by other partners of the Observatory. Third, it aims at identifying some of the major educational innovations in Finland, which, at a later stage, will serve as Finnish case studies.

The European Observatory on Educational Innovations (
L'observatoire européen des innovations en éducation et en formation, 1994--1998) is an educational consortium, which aims at conducting research on educational innovations in all the 15 member states of the European Union. The Observatory is run by the French INRP (Institut National de Recherche Pédagogique), with the help of researchers from all member countries. Finland is represented in the Observatory by Professor Seppo Tella, a member of the Scientific Committee of the Observatory, and by Dr Kirsi Tirri, the Finnish National Correspondent, both from the University of Helsinki Department of Teacher Education. (At present, Professor Tella directs the Media Education Centre at the Department of Teacher Education, University of Helsinki, while Dr. Tirri is a Researcher at the Finnish Academy, located at the Department of Education, University of Helsinki.)

The European Observatory has identified the following five themes to guide the work of national respondents: equality of opportunities, foreign language and intercultural learning, coordination of European projects, training of teaching personnel, and training of support personnel. Our emphases will be on "equality of opportunities" and "training of teaching personnel".


1 Research Methodology
1.1 Aims of the Finnish Interviews


As the first goal, we aimed at gathering information on Finnish educational innovations as expressed by a number of educational civil servants and educationalists in Finland. Our primary goal was to find out about the official policy concerning current or undergoing educational innovations in Finland. For this purpose, seven interviews were carried out by Dr Kirsi Tirri in late 1995.

Through a pragmatically and theoretically informed selection (instead of probabilistic sampling; cf. e.g., Goetz & LeCompte 1984, 8), seven interviewees were then chosen from three different institutions to illustrate the opinions of the organization they represented. A structured questionnaire based on the general guidelines agreed in the Observatory was designed, including five questions about educational innovations. The questionnaire was sent to the interviewees before they were contacted personally. Six of the seven persons agreed to be interviewed; one of them, however, answered the questionnaire in writing.


1.2 Data of the Interviews

The data to be analyzed in this article are based on the answers given by the seven interviewees. The data include opinions of seven leading civil servants or educationalists and are therefore likely to represent an administrative point of view on educational innovations. This limitation has to be borne in mind and acknowledged that any opinions expressed by teachers or pupils might differ substantially from the opinions of the interviewees. However, we find it appropriate to initiate our survey by exploring the viewpoints of those who have influence on the official educational decision making. Teachers and pupils will be studied later in the case studies following the present study.


1.3 The Finnish Interviewees

The seven interviewees represent (i) the
Finnish Ministry of Education (three persons), (ii) the National Board of Education (two persons), which is a national agency reporting directly to the Ministry and which has both administrative and pedagogical tasks to be fulfilled, and (iii) The Teachers' Professional Union (two persons). The interviewees are among the most influential persons in their respective organizations.


1.4 Research Instruments

The main data gathering instrument in our survey was a structured questionnaire sent in advance and then followed by an interview. The written questionnaire consisted of five Finnish-language questions which are given in the following in English:

1. How would you define the concept "educational innovation"? Feel free to indicate synonyms or any other concepts closely related to innovation.

2. Indicate some educational innovations which you consider the most important in Finland during the past five years.

3. How does your institution identify a potential innovation in education? Please tell something about the ways and resources you use to find and identify educational innovations.

4. In what ways does your institution attempt to spread and support an innovation once it has been identified?

5. Suggest an innovation in education that we would follow in Finland and report to the European Observatory. Mention a theme and a potential place for investigation (school, municipality).

The questionnaire was sent in advance with a description of our study and some information on the European Observatory. After having sent the questionnaires to the persons selected, Dr Tirri contacted them on the phone and made appointments for the personal interviews. As mentioned above, six of the seven informants were then interviewed, while the seventh sent his answers by mail.

Each interview lasted approximately 30 minutes and took place in the office of the interviewee. In addition to the five questions above, an extra question on teacher education (the qualities of a future teacher and the future challenges for teacher education) was asked. All interviews were recorded on a cassette recorder and later transcribed.


1.5 Method of the Data Analysis

The method used in analyzing the data was a content analysis with a special emphasis on conceptual traits in the answers, i.e. we paid special attention to keywords used by the interviewees. The questions from the questionnaire with the voluntary question constituted the item categories used in the data analyses. [The datamatrix presented in Appendix 1 is not accessible electronically]. When analyzing the interviews we identified the following eight categories:

1. Affiliation of the interviewee
2. His/her professional or personal viewpoint
3. The concept of innovation
4. Latest innovations in Finland
5. Identification process
6. Ways to spread and support innovations
7. The innovations identified
8. Emphases on teacher education

In the following chapter we will discuss categories 3 to 8 in the context of the Finnish educational system and the current national trends to renew education.


2 The Finnish Educational System
2.1 The Finnish School System


The Finnish educational system covers preschool education (up to the age of six), basic education (the nine-year comprehensive school, with an optional 10th year), upper secondary level (senior secondary school and vocational education) and higher education. The aims of the comprehensive school are to promote social and regional equality by providing teaching, materials and school meals free of charge for every pupil. The aims of education are to support the growth of pupils' whole personality. The cognitive goals of education are to strengthen study skills and thinking skills of pupils. The affective and social goals of education are met by providing socio-ethical and aesthetic education alongside the conventional learning of facts (Framework Curriculum for the Comprehensive School 1994; Framework Curriculum for the Secondary School 1994).

The comprehensive school has two parts. In the lower stage (classes 1 to 6) the teaching is the same for all and is generally given by a class teacher, except for foreign languages which are taught by language specialists (specialized FL teachers). The teachers at the upper stage are specialized subject teachers. The Finnish comprehensive school is intended to give a general education to all children. Compulsory subjects at the lower stage include religious education, environmental studies, Finnish or Swedish (depending on the child's mother tongue), a foreign language (generally English but can also be Swedish, German, French or Russian), history and social studies, civics, mathematics, natural history and geography, physical education, music, art and handicrafts. The same subjects continue at the upper stage except for environmental studies, and in addition a second foreign language (usually Swedish), chemistry and physics, and home economics. At the upper stage the pupil can take optional subjects, for example a third foreign language and computer studies.

There exist two types of upper secondary education in Finland. On one hand there is the (traditionally) three-year senior secondary school, which represents the rather academic general education tradition, and on the other hand vocational education with its many forms. When the pupils have completed senior secondary school, they take the matriculation examination consisting of nationwide exams in various subjects. This examination is a general university entrance qualification. Each year over 30,000 pupils take this examination but, however, only one third of those who pass this examination can access the universities. The rest of the pupils seek vocational education or a job (Facts about Finland 1990).


2.2 The Finnish Teacher Education

Today in Finland all the teachers are educated in the universities. Teacher education has during the last two decades gone through big changes in structure, style and content. The overall aim has been to improve the quality and status of the teaching profession. Gradually, and in addition to secondary-school teacher education, different forms of teacher education have been linked to the universities. The most recent change has been the integration of pre-primary school teacher education into university education in August 1995. In a recent international review of Finnish education policy the initial teacher education, especially primary and pre-primary teacher education received high evaluations (Buchberger et al. 1994, 9). A more thorough description and analysis on teacher education in Finland is presented by Sven-Erik Hansén in the national report prepared for a European evaluation conference (Hansén 1995, 3--26).

The Finnish teacher education in general and the
Helsinki University Department of Teacher Education in particular have emphasized academic aspects of teacher education. Thus, research-based academic studies dominate the contents of teacher education. The aim of education is to promote pedagogigally thinking teachers, who can combine their theoretical knowledge with everyday work. The academic emphases can also be seen in the teachers' classroom practices. In a comparative study of teacher effectiveness (Tirri 1993) the Finnish primary school teachers evaluated themselves as most effective in promoting academic learning. This tendency manifested in teachers' time-on-task behaviour. In the same study the American teachers emphasized their dynamic, stimulating teaching, which integrates external projects and sources in the regular teacher-centred classroom teaching (Tirri 1993).

New trends at the
Helsinki University Department of Teacher Education include the establishment of the Media Education Centre in August 1996. The Centre, directed by Professor Seppo Tella, aims at enhancing research in the field of media education, open learning and virtual pedagogy but it will also organize teacher education programmes for class and subject teachers as well as for adult educators. Different modes of distance education will be used, such as audiographics and video conferencing, computer conferencing, intensive face-to-face periods, and e-mail. For all students in the Department of Teacher education, the Centre offers an opportunity to do part of their teaching practice (about 2 credits) in distance teaching. (Tella 1996a)

With increasing technology in teacher education the philosophical and ethical aspects of the teaching profession should also be acknowledged. The increasing autonomy in teachers' work, growing cultural diversity in the Finnish society and the changes in the national framework curricula indicate that the moral dilemmas in school are likely to expand. In teacher education one of the main challenges is to prepare the students to identify and solve different kinds of professional dilemmas (Tirri 1996). Students should be guided to see themselves as ethical professionals and change agents who can make a significant contribution to the lives of their learners and to society. The challenges of teacher education include creation of a new culture of teacher education and schools where teachers and learners collaborate with each other and the schools' stakeholders. The aim of such partnership is to improve social justice and change society through better education. (Kohonen & Niemi 1996)


2.3 Current Developments in the Finnish Educational System
2.3.1 Curricula


Curricular redesign characterizes all levels of education in Finland. It is closely connected to other megatrends, such as decentralization and deregulation, both visible also in some other countries of the European Union. Decentralization implies that decision making, concerning both the organization and the contents of general and vocational education, has mostly been transferred to the municipalities. At national level, only general guidelines provide the framework for steering education. The new framework curricula for the comprehensive schools and for the senior secondary schools were approved in 1994 (Framework Curriculum for the Comprehensive School 1994; Framework Curriculum for the Secondary School 1994).

The informants interviewed recognized and acknowledged the importance of the curricular changes. Four persons out of seven identified curricula-related areas as the most important recent innovations in Finland. The topics were reflected on these comments taken from the interviews: "more power to municipals in designing the curricula" (I 2), "curriculum integration" (I 3), "municipality-based curricula" (I 4) and "increasing possibilities for teachers to plan their teaching" (I 7).

2.3.2 The Emerging Concept of Man, Knowledge and Learning

Another recent change in the area of learning and teaching is due to the emerging concept of man, knowledge and learning, which in the Finnish context most often refers to cognition-based views on learning and to constructivism in particular (cf. e.g., Tella 1996b; Tella & Mononen-Aaltonen 1996). If constructivist principles are implemented in teaching practices, it will certainly have an effect on teachers' and students' roles (cf. e.g., Peretti 1993). This new view on learning and knowledge was strongly reflected in the interviews on quite a few areas. One of the interviewees identified constructivism as the main recent innovation in Finland that has produced a lot of other changes. A majority of the informants (5 out of 7) identified the ungraded school system as one of the latest Finnish educational innovations. We can therefore presume that the modern view of learning has been one of the main stimuli for starting an ungraded school system in Finland. The modern concepts of learning emphasize the students' responsibility for their own learning and their active role in seeking and using information. The role of the teacher changes from being an information-transmitter into being a tutor guiding the students. One of the best ways to describe this change is to cite an American educationalist who put it briefly, "From `a sage on the stage' to `the guide on the side'"(cf. e.g., Tella 1994).

2.3.3 Modern Information and Communication Technologies (MICT)

MICT were referred to by three of the informants as recent innovations. They all mentioned the national strategy advocated by the Ministry of Education (1995). The national strategy sets up the goals to provide every student with the versatile basic skills in acquiring, managing and communicating information, which are necessary in the information society. The goals are also set up for the teachers to acquire new knowledge, skills and competencies in order to be able to use information technology as a tool in their teaching (Developing a Finnish Information Society 1995; Ministry of Education 1995 ).


2.4 The Concept of Innovation

The interviewees were first asked to give a definition and also indicate potential synonyms for an educational innovation. One person gave a definition with two synonyms for the concept of innovation (I 1), two persons identified the concept and named one synonym (I 3, I 7), and four persons were able to define the term with one definition (I 2, I 4, I 5, I 6).

The keywords that most often appeared in the definitions given were "creative" and "new". Six persons out of seven used the adjective creative or new to describe their idea of the nature of an educational innovation. The definitions given were the following: "a creative, new solution in educational policy" (I 2), "a creative way to renew education" (I 3), "a creative solution" (I 7), "creation of a new educational culture" (I 1), "a new opening" (I 4), "a new idea to overcome some problems in education" (I 6).

They also emphasized the process-nature of innovation by defining educational innovation as "a starting power" (I 1), or "an idea that makes things move" (I 5). Considering these interviews and the current national educational strategy we can argue that in Finland the concept of innovation is closer to the concepts of "development" or "experimentation" than the term "reform", which is rather seldom used at present.


2.5 Present Policy on Educational Innovations
2.5.1 The Themes of Innovations in the European Observatory


The European Observatory has identified five major themes or thematic areas that are expected to guide the work of national correspondents. These themes are the following:

1. Equality of opportunities
2. Foreign language and intercultural learning
3. Coordination of European projects
4. Training of teaching personnel
5. Training of support personnel

Considering the interviews and the Finnish educational strategy our emphases will be on the issues related to the themes of "equality of opportunities" and "training of teaching personnel". Ssome attention will also be paid to Theme 2. The present article mainly gives an administrative point of view on these issues. In the following case studies we intend to highlight these themes more precisely from the local point of view. In these case studies the voices of teachers and pupils will also be heard.


3 Educational Innovations in Finland
3.1 The Ways of Identifying an Innovation


All the informants emphasized the importance of efficient networking and contacts in the process of identifying an educational innovation. The interviewees at the Teachers' Union have wide contacts with other European interest groups, including other teachers unions. The interviewees at the Ministry of Education emphasized national networks and contacts with people who develop new things. Visits to the schools were also mentioned. Likewise, they follow current research and publications in the field. In the National Board of Education the innovations are identified with the help of international contacts and other interest groups. They have a national network of schools called Aquarium, which also makes extensive use of e-mail contacts.


3.2 The ways to Spread and Support an Innovation

The Ministry of Education plans nationwide strategies and provides grants for development work and research. Their influence on political decision making at the national level is naturally decisive. The National Board of Education supports experimental work in the field and provides teachers with in-service teacher education courses and modules. They follow the current research on educational innovations and organize seminars on recent trends in which both national and international experts are invited to contribute.

The Teachers' Union has a certain amount of political influence and they can do a lot in spreading and supporting an educational innovation in Finland. They plan strategies for teachers' organize in-service teacher education courses, and work in close contact with the Ministry of Education and the National Board of Education. The good international contacts with ETUCE, EI and EIE contribute to making Finnish educational innovations better known in the whole Europe.


4 The Finnish Educational Innovations to be Observed

The informants were asked to identify a couple of educational innovations in Finland that the national respondent could follow as a case study and report to the European Observatory. The most common theme identified as an innovation was related to the modern information and communication technologies (MICT). Five interviewees out of seven named MICT or media education as the most important innovations to be studied. Two of these persons referred to the national strategy plan advocated by the Ministry of Education and used its motto "Finland Towards Information Society". One of the main goals of this plan is to have all schools networked by the year 2000. This network would make media and distance education conceivable and open up possibilities for pupils to receive high quality teaching regardless of their geographic location. The national strategy is based on the fact that the telematic infrastructure is exceptionally well developed in Finland, so networking schools via telematics and with the aid of various technological tools is not that far-fetched (Tella 1995a; Tella 1995b; Tella 1996c).

One informant emphasized the importance of information technology/MICT in teacher education (I 1), another advocated media education at schools (I 3).

On considering the current debate and the information we got through the interviews in Finland, it seems obvious to us that the major innovation to be observed later at the macro level could be the Finnish national strategy to develop this country as an information society.

Two of the informants (I 5, I 6) named "Aquarium" as an important educational innovation in Finland. Aquarium is a national project less than two years old which already consists of 800 subprojects. These subprojects form dozens of school networks that exchange ideas about developing learning and teaching. The National Board of Education is in charge of the project and sets up meetings between people involved in the subprojects. Every subproject has a theme of its own and a domain for development. The project publishes a journal and uses e-mail as a major channel of communication.

Aquarium is a good example of an innovation at the meso-level. The subprojects give an option to choose one of them as a case study to be observed more closely. Subprojects also function at the school level and make it possible to study teachers and students. The informants emphasized the unique nature of Aquarium and recommended it as an interesting Finnish case study to be reported to the European Observatory.

The persons from the Teachers' Union identified several potential innovations especially in teacher education. The other areas named included preschool education, the Finnish matriculation examination and the ungraded school system. One of the two informants (I 2) also named MICT as a potential innovation for our study.


5 Innovations in Teacher Education

The extra question in the questionnaire dealt with teacher education and the qualities and education needed for the future teacher. All the persons interviewed answered this question too. Five of the informants emphasized the importance of a teacher's personality. According to them, a future teacher is a person who has found his or her own way to teach and masters a broad knowledge base to be able to teach different learners. In addition to a mature personality the teacher will need a strong content based knowledge of the subjects he or she teaches. Two of the informants (I 2, I 6) advocated more studies in science and mathematics for the future teachers.

The informants from the Teachers' Union paid attention to the status of the teachers in the society. They wanted to raise teachers' status as professionals. This emphasis is understandable regarding the role of their organization in protecting and improving teachers' rights, among other things.


6 Conclusions and Future Work

In this article we have described the first phase in investigating educational innovations in Finland. The study includes the views of seven leading government authorities in Finland based on a questionnaire and an interview. We have analyzed the interviews using a content analysis emphasizing conceptual traits in the answers. We have also paid special attention to the keywords the interviewees used.

Considering these data analyses we have identified two potential areas to continue our study on educational innovations. The interviewees were very much in accord to recommend the Finnish national project "Finland Towards Information Society" as the major Finnish educational innovation to be observed more closely. Choosing this theme equally allows us to contribute to the themes "Equality of opportunities" and "Training of teaching personnel" identified in the European Observatory. This theme will also exemplify a macro-level educational innovation in Finland.

A promising theme for a case study at the school level will be "Aquarium". This network of many subprojects will allow us to choose one of the subprojects to be observed and analyzed in more detail. Through this case study we will be able to contribute to the same themes as through "Finland Towards Information Society" but the point of view will allow the voices of teachers and pupils to be heard as well (the "polyphonic" analysis).

When comparing the Finnish innovations to those of some other member countries of the European Union, we can see quite a few similarities with Ireland, Germany and with the other Scandinavian countries. The concept of innovation is seen as developmental work or as a new process in education. In countries like Italy and Spain, the concept of innovation is often seen as a synonym for a reform. A more detailed comparison of the countries will be possible once we receive the national reports from each country.


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© Kirsi Tirri and Seppo Tella 1996.