Finnishness as a strong framework in education

Discussions on Finland and Finnish education centre around the notion of Finnishness, infused with egalitarian values, inclusivity, and ethos of excellence. From an international standpoint, it seems that all is well in Finnish society, life, and its educational system. With Finland as a beacon of education, international learning surveys indicate that equality in education generates quality in learning. Moreover, the success of the Finnish school system fuels many education export projects among universities, universities of applied science, and private companies.

Tuija Itkonen’s doctoral thesis argues that there is a lack of discussion, both nationally and internationally, as to what Finnishness actually means, especially in regard to education. Itkonen takes a critical, in-depth look at the notions of justice, social welfare, and equality within Finnish education.

Equality and justice challenged

Finnish society is rapidly diversifying, and educational institutions, decision-makers, and teachers at all levels are struggling to rise to the challenge. The number of marginalised youth is alarmingly high, and, for instance, the discrepancies between the schooling of girls and boys are significant.

Despite solid efforts, challenges persist in relation to educational outcomes of people with immigrant backgrounds, as well as with those belonging to several Finnish social, ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups.

Itkonen problematises what is currently happening at the intersection of myth and reality within Finnish education. She examines the notion of Finnishness and how it informs different educational actors, perspectives, and contexts, and how the notion could be deconstructed, critically examined, and reconstructed. The data for the thesis comprises two commercial products on Finnish education, vocational teachers’ communication on interculturality and diversity, case studies of pre-service teachers relating to Finnishness, and Finnish ABC books in regard to difference.

Finnishness – mystified and superior

The results of the thesis suggest that Finnishness is set in the realms of the nostalgic and mystified. Discourses on equality/equity and social justice in education appear embellished and ambiguous. Biased or even racist tendencies towards diversity were detected in the teachers’ communication on diversity and interculturality. Much of the communication also highlighted Finnish identity and Western perspective as exceptional and superior.

Itkonen’s results suggest that Finnishness is a powerful framework that guides a teacher’s professional thinking. It has been passed down at home and through schooling, and thus has caused us to take many things for granted.

The patterns of thought and behavior, learned and internalised early on, operate as subconscious roadmaps. They guide us all, teachers and students included, in how we perceive our identities, community, and belonging. The patterns may (unintentionally and implicitly) produce new as well as perpetuate existing biases and injustices. This can potentially create opposing and exclusionary categorisations, which may lead to discrimination and unfairness in the systemic routines and structures of education. Among teachers, they may result in attitudes that generate strict classifications and inflexible identities as well as ethnic, cultural, or other restrictions. Expectations are high towards intercultural competences as prescriptive “quick fixes” to manage challenges in the course of teaching.

Both in-service and pre-service teachers need sufficient time and opportunities to examine their built-in patterns of thought and established ideological assumptions about Finnishness. They need to expand their thinking to include differences from a new, non-exclusionary perspective. Teachers are overworked and left alone with their challenges. Itkonen believes that educational institutions, teacher education, and continuing education of teachers should take this into consideration.

Mystified Finnishness was also apparent in the ABC books studied in the thesis. Many Finnish ABC books depict multicultural or international aspects as exotic, and the “stranger/outsider” is expected to integrate into Finnish culture. The authors and the companies publishing textbooks should examine the notion of Finnishness in more depth and with a more critical approach, in order to consider how it effects decisions on texts, images, and, ultimately, publications.

Towards dialogue and ethical outlooks

The above aside, Finnishness does engender the positive. Many teachers have internalised the ethical values relating to teaching and want to do their job well. The positive indications of the fair and just ways of promoting wellbeing and social justice inspired Itkonen to consider a transition towards a form of ethical thinking that would seek to reduce exclusionary categorisations. Itkonen approaches this transition from a perspective of critical and reflexive interculturality. In addition, she applies and illustrates a specific intertextual method that generates a dialogic space to examine the relations among and between written, auditory, visual, and kinaesthetic texts. As a pedagogical tool, this method enables, for instance, the hidden meanings behind national narratives to become apparent and their critical examination possible. The method also enables the creation of new, multi-dimensional meanings.  

Tuija Itkonen, MEd, MFA, will defend her doctoral thesis "Contradictions of Finnish Education: Finnishness, interculturality, and social justice" on 1 June 2018 at 12 pm at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences. The public defence will be held at the University of Helsinki, Auditorium 302 of Siltavuorenpenger 3A (Athena), 3rd floor. The thesis is available in electronic format through the E-thesis service.

Contact details of the doctoral candidate:, tel. +358 50 341 1396