Guest Post by Ingvar Stål: Education in Finland, Part 1

This post is based on my correspondence with Dr. Ingvar Stål, Senior lecturer in physics, chemistry, and science at the Botby Junior High School. Dr. Stål and I began corresponding three years ago and I wrote about his work in designing inquiry-based and optional science courses at Botby Junior High. Dr. Stål has designed a science curriculum at his school and you can read about his work at the Botby school website.

After reading the post What the U.S. can’t learn from Finland about ed reform?, I asked Dr. Stål to comment on the article. What follows are insights into education in Finland from one of the leading science educator’s in Finland. His approach to science teaching has been highlighted not only at teacher development programs in Finland, but at research conferences, and when visiting groups of educators from other countries, especially in Europe visit Botby Junior High. Much of what you will read about in this post is based on his presentation to a group of 55 teachers from Estonia earlier this month, and recent papers on teaching sciences in Finnish compulsory schools, and research on humanistic and scientific inquiry.

Teachers in the U.S. will be very interested in how Finland tests its students, especially in grades 1 – 9.  Comparing education between different countries needs to take into consideration the foundation of the country upon which its educational system rests.  In Finland, for example, all children, by law, have access to childcare, health care and pre-school.  All citizens have a right to education, grades 1 – college, free of charge.  All schools in Finland are funded on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources, regardless of the school’s location.  None of these is true for U.S. students.  Yet, at the same time, it is valuable to find out what the is nature of schooling in other countries, and compare that to our own system.

Here is the first of two posts on Education in Finland.  This one will focus on education in general in Finland; the second will focus on science education, and pedagogy.  Much of the discussion of this post is based on this paper by Dr. Stål

By Dr. Ingvar Stål

Overview of the Finnish Educational System

Eduction authorities must secure equal opportunities for every resident in Finland to get education also after compulsory schooling and right to pre-primary and basic education according to the Basic Education Act (1998). The Finnish government underlines that the Finnish educational system is geared to promote the competitiveness of the Finnish welfare society. Finland, as a member of EU, support the overall lines of Finnish education and science policy with the EU Lisbon strategy.

Nowadays the Finnish Educational system is the result of several changes and reforms. The content of curriculum and the goals in education changes approximately every 10 years, but the Finnish Educational system remains traditional (see figure 1).

The Basic Education Act contains the main goal with the Compulsory Education in Finland:

The objective of basic education is to support pupils’ growth towards humanity and ethically responsible membership of society, and to provide them with the knowledge and skills necessary in life. The instruction shall promote equality in society and the pupils’ abilities to participate in education and to otherwise develop themselves during their lives (Basic Education Act, 1998).

Basic Education

Basic education in Finland is provided for children between the ages of 7 to 16. The basic education is compulsory and free of charge, what is more it is forbidden to charge students. All students during their compulsory studies receive books, notebooks, pencils and all needed material so that their studies remains free, it is even an obligation for the school to provide students with study materials. As a
rule, all children are to be educated in the school closest to where they live, but parents may chose other schools if possible.

Basic education consists of Elementary School (grades 1 – 6) and Lower Secondary School (grades 7 – 9).  The curriculum of elementary school consists of “mother tongue (Finnish or Swedish), mathematics, foreign language, nature, geography, religion (or ethics, visual arts, physical education, music and craft. In elementary school, there are no examinations.  In the fifth grade, however, student are introduced to the mark-system.

In order to assess the students’ level of knowledge in different subjects, teachers themselves prepare the tests.  These tests assess the students in the material which teachers choose to teach to the students during class as well as material which are obligatory according the National curriculum. Teachers’ freedom to teach what they want is the main cause for students with different background to have a different level of knowledge when they arrive to the Lower Secondary School.

Lower Secondary School

At Lower Secondary School (grades 7 – 9, & grade 10 for students who want to improve their marks) all lessons are held by subject teachers. Teacher training of subject teachers takes 5 years and is carried out by universities and as additional training to obligatory specialization. After this training teachers receive a Masters Degree in their main subject and a Teacher Certificate. For example, a teacher may have a Master Degree in Mathematics and Certificate of Teacher in Mathematics at Lower Secondary and Upper Secondary Schools. In order to receive this certificate candidates must have 60 credits in Pedagogy Studies and Practice.

At the Lower Secondary School, the Curriculum (Figure 2) consists of with (even more) languages, Environmental studies, Civics, Religion or Ethics, Physics, Chemistry, Home Economics and several optional subjects.

In order to asses students’ knowledge in the different subjects, teachers organize “competency test”. Competency tests may take place several times during the academic year. Every subject teacher has a responsibility for test content. The syllabus is defined by the National curriculum for every individual subject. In this document there is no assessment scale, it only contains a description of required knowledge and skills earning mark 8 (good). It is up to every school (and teacher) to specify the assessment criteria for other marks, which is derived from the mark 8 description. There are no examinations for students, during the Lower Secondary school period. In order to measure students’ knowledge level in different subjects, every teacher has the possibility and right to order the National test, but this test is not compulsory.

Upper Secondary School

The Upper Secondary school is a three-years program which ends with the national matriculation exams – it consists of a compulsory exam and 3 or more are elective exams. Students must have at least 4 subjects on their matriculation certificate. Approximately 70% of a students courses were compulsory, while the rest were optional or electives. Passing the matriculation exams makes student eligible for higher education in principle, but most universities and polytechnics hold also entrance examinations, interviews, aptitude tests or such.

Slide Show on the Finnish Educational System

As a summary to what has been presented so far, here is a slide show presented to 55 Estonian educators earlier this month in Helsinki.

IngvarSchoolSlideShowmovie: education in Finland

Next Steps

If you are a teacher, how does your experience in your school compare with  the work of teachers in Finnish schools?  

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.