Professor Jari Lavonen: “The long-term approach is a winning asset for the Finnish education system – reforms must transcend government terms of office”

An international expert in education is celebrating his 60th birthday. Jari Lavonen knows which features of the Finnish school system and teaching can also prove productive in other countries.

Why are children not more enthusiastic about studying? Why are the learning results of adolescents in decline? How can we bridge skills gaps? These questions have been wrestled with for decades throughout the world.

Pedagogical innovations – discovery learning, inquiry-based learning and, currently, phenomenon-based learning – are regularly touted as solutions.

“But individual innovations cannot solve the problems of teaching and learning,” says Jari Lavonen, professor of education at the University of Helsinki.

Lavonen speaks from experience. He has been involved in the strategic planning and development of teacher education for over three decades. Most recently, he led the Finnish Teacher Education Forum (webpage in Finnish). In addition, he has had a long-term impact on the curricula of Finnish schools.

“Finnish schools don’t typically chase the latest trends,” Lavonen states.

“Finnish teachers are critical of one-sided approaches. Our teachers are familiar with analysing the objectives set in the curriculum and can use a wide range of teaching solutions in the classroom.”

Focus on long-term approaches and a sense of community

Finnish teacher education and Finnish schools have attracted worldwide interest, and Lavonen himself is one of the most sought-after experts in the field. Each year, he gives dozens of lectures at seminars and conferences throughout the world.

“I must have met hundreds of education ministers, heads of government offices and members of parliamentary education committees interested in learning about Finnish education policy,” he says.

“These discussions have also helped me identify the strengths of our education system.”

Lavonen says that the success of the Finnish education system is not based on standardisation, inspection, testing or competition, i.e., the methods used in several other countries.

Instead, one of the winning assets of the Finnish system is the long-term development of education, teaching and learning.

Lavonen has followed education reforms over a long period of time in countries such as Peru, Thailand, Spain and Norway. He has noticed that their focus areas of development change frequently – too frequently if you ask Lavonen. A new minister or government cancels previous reforms, appoints new staff and reprioritises issues.

“The result is that teachers never really change their ways because they know that another reform will soon be on the way, putting an end to the previous one.”

Teacher autonomy improves quality and confidence

Another unique feature of the Finnish system is the autonomy Finnish teachers enjoy in their work.

“The success of the Finnish school system largely rests on the highly skilled teachers with master’s level academic qualifications. They are willing and able to further develop their teaching,” Lavonen says.

The teachers are able to consider the strengths and weaknesses of various pedagogical approaches, both on their own and with their colleagues, and to choose the right approach for their objectives and pupils. Pupils are treated equally, and diverse learners are supported. 

All this means that public officials and parents have confidence in the teachers’ expertise.

The Finnish model cannot be replicated

When Lavonen talks to an international audience about the factors behind the success of Finnish education, he stresses that our approaches are suited to the Finnish context and cannot be replicated or transferred elsewhere as such.

“There is no single education system that is better than all others. Context is key. To ensure that the education system that works in the Finnish context could function in another country, you would also have to replace the local parents, teachers and pupils with their Finnish counterparts.”

Some things are of course worth striving for in any system. Lavonen says that these include expertise in teacher education, a shared understanding of the methods and direction for developing the education system, and open interaction between the experts at school and their stakeholders.

“Finland excels in all these areas,” he notes.

A message to the minister of education

If Lavonen were able to convince the next education minister of one focus area for the development of Finnish schools in the near future, what would it be?

 “I wouldn’t suggest any one thing, but rather a method of collaborative development,” he says.

He believes that a top-down approach does not work in Finland and encourages, instead, collaboration as the way to achieve the best results. Increasing people’s commitment to the development of education is therefore essential.

We should also bear in mind another of the winning assets of Finnish education that Lavonen mentioned earlier: planning.

“Education policy must be based on a long-term perspective that transcends government terms of office.”

Professor Lavonen’s anniversary will be celebrated at Siltavuorenpenger on 11 September.