Kirsti Lonka: Education lifted Finland out of poverty, but we need to keep developing to remain at the cutting edge

An equal school system, a science-based teacher training programme and a high regard for teachers. These are the ingredients that make Finland's education the best in the world. In the future, phenomena and learning skills will also increasingly gain ground in the mix.

Within a period of 50 years, Finland has progressed from austere conditions to the global cutting edge. An equal education system and high quality teaching in schools have played a significant role in this process.

Finland’s success in both PISA and many other surveys has attracted international interest in Finnish schools and teacher education. For example, recent studies have shown that Finland is the happiest country in the world, with the best air quality and the least corruption. Thanks to our consistently high rankings, the whole world is keenly watching what the Finnish school system does next.

But what makes Finland’s education system so special?

Teacher education is based on science

The success of Finland’s education system has always been founded in world-class research-based teacher training. The University of Helsinki's overall rank in the international THE World University ranking is 90, which is excellent in itself, but we are the 35th in educational sciences. If English-speaking universities are excluded, we rank among the very best.

The teaching profession is particularly valued in Finland. The Finnish school was built on a solid foundation of equality and the world’s best teachers. These are the values that we wish to hold on to in the future as well.

As the world changes, so must teaching

To remain at the cutting edge, both the school system and learning methods must change to keep up with the changing world. The greatest threat to the future school is clinging to our past achievements. If we compare the workplace of the 1980s with the workplace today, we see a very different picture. Digitalisation is undoubtedly among the great reformers in work, and the reforms should also be made in the school world.

Rapid changes in society, such as globalisation and the transformations in work, have introduced new challenges for schools and learning. Work is now increasingly done in projects, with non-permanent teams solving complex issues together. Information is not only acquired, but also created together.

These are the very challenges that we seek to answer at the University of Helsinki by developing sustainable, research-based teacher education.

Learning skills at the fore

Traditionally, teachers have primarily taught school subjects. Today, however, we are moving away from subjects and towards a future where teachers will increasingly teach comprehensive learning skills. This will make teaching more and more problem and phenomenon based.

As a result, future learning will take place in multidisciplinary projects that centre on complex phenomena and develop learners’ problem‑solving and thinking skills. New technologies will also be integrated into teaching, and learning environments will be increasingly modified to promote learning.

Our memory does not work like a scanner that accepts information as given. Instead, we draw conclusions and construct meanings for and on what we have learned.

Our schools already rely on these and many other findings in neuropsychology and educational psychology. In practice, this means that schools have begun to offer multidisciplinary learning concepts and universities multidisciplinary degree programmes.

Continued success requires constant progress

The top five countries in natural sciences, reading and mathematics in the 2015 PISA survey were Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Taiwan and Finland. This makes sense: technologically advanced countries that apply the latest findings in international research tend to do well in educational rankings.

The narrative of Finns rising from rags to riches speaks to many countries – many African countries, for example, are still combatting poverty. Finland’s education system enjoys tremendous appreciation in many countries, especially in Asia, where children spend almost twice as much time at school as Finnish children to beat Finland in rankings. In fact, in many countries, teaching is still largely based on learning things by heart. In contrast, Finnish schools seek to activate and engage children.

Finnish education is in high demand internationally. But we should not export the school system we used to have, because we are among the leading countries in creating new innovations in education. Instead, we should – as we do – develop new export products in collaboration with universities, universities of applied sciences and companies.

Retaining our place at the global top is possible only through continuous development, research and learning. If we want to continue to be the best, we cannot hold on to today or the past. Instead, we must invest even more in education and in the top research that drives it forward.

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