CLOUD by Caitlind Brown & Wayne Garrett during LUX / Helsinki / 9 Jan 2016 / Photo: Jenna Grimley

CLOUD by Caitlind Brown & Wayne Garrett during LUX / Helsinki / 9 Jan 2016 / Photo: Jenna Grimley







Footsteps across the frozen Lake Päijänne /   Jyväskylä / 17 Mar 2016 / Photo: Jenna Grimley

Footsteps across the frozen Lake Päijänne / Jyväskylä / 17 Mar 2016 / Photo: Jenna Grimley


The famous Finnish education system. Many pages have already been dedicated to Finland’s educational success. The news media, researchers, and popular reports paint a rosy picture. In this image, Finland’s schools are educational wonderlands, unmarred by the intrusions of politics, shifting policy, budgetary concerns, and the myriad other external forces that shape education in the United States. The truth in this case, like any truth, is much more nuanced.

Yes, it has performed admirably on the PISA examinations, but changing demographics and an increasingly multilingual society augurs an impending drop in scores. Yes, Finland is among the highest ranked education systems in the world, but its success has not yet provided much-needed economic stimulus the country needs. Unlike other top performing countries like South Korea and Singapore, Finland eschews the rigorous knowledge-based memorization pedagogy in lieu of holistic skill-based development.

But even in Finland, there are those who predict falling scores as the population becomes more diverse, as language education takes precedence over specific skills. And as the economy continues to shudder and stall, education spending will contract more and more. Also, part of what makes Finnish education so effective doesn’t entirely translate to American or other global settings. Finnish education is exactly that: Finnish education.

However, there are lessons that American researchers and educators can take from Finland beyond that of mere school design. Mostly, the success in Finland demonstrates the power of education as a source of social values, ideology, and social cohesion. In Finland, education is a priority. It’s success is achievable wherever there is sufficient political will.

Mural work on an underpass near Martinlaakson lukio / Vantaa / 19 Jan 2016

Mural work on an underpass near Martinlaakson lukio / Vantaa / 19 Jan 2016


There is evidence that, above the skill development and career preparation and other individual benefits of Finland’s comprehensive and voluntary upper secondary education system, the most important function is to ensure social cohesion. The school system seems to be designed all the way down to reinforce the type of consensus driven decision Finnish public life prizes. The physical environment as well as the teaching methodology used in upper secondary classrooms tends to reinforce group allegiance.  

The overwhelming majority of students, when asked to identify the primary function of education in Finland, replied that they somehow felt it had to do with understanding how to peacefully coexist, to participate meaningfully in society, or to develop social skills. Any of the other articulated objectives were secondary – skill development, for example, or having the ability to get a job right out of school, were also popular replied, but respondents emphasized the need to be prepared for the culture of the workplace. The actual skills, they thought, would more likely develop through apprenticeship.

The clearest example how schools work towards social cohesion is also one so integrally a part of Finnish life that it went all but entirely unmentioned by nearly all the teachers and students interviewed: Finnish school lunches.  The fact that the students, throughout their schooling year, regardless of geography or socioeconomic background or really any other variable, the fact that they all eat together, eat together for free, and eat together in a mixed way, rejecting the social divisions in American lunchrooms, makes for a Finnish school that truly feels like a student body.

Which is not to say that Finnish schools totally lack the game of social hierarchy that other countries have, merely that in addition to that game, possibly mapped over it is a sense that at the end of the day, there is a type of undeniable and unalienable loyalty. 

“In Finland, school is the center of the community, notes Schleicher. School provides not just educational services, but social services. Education is about creating identity.” Choi (2014)

First year, I think we have lot of different ways to participate and not only student counsel. I think that the most challenging thing for us is there are lots of events. There are lots of different kinds of team. There are lots of students in participating in secondary school for making curriculum and they have a team for that. The church comes and they have a praying day and then comes the cities department and they have this great activity. Student counsel when we ask where do want to use your spare time and they are like there is so many things happening. We have thousands of hobbies. We don't want that many new things. The problem is not that we don't have things, but how to organize it and what is the role of the student counsel. – Timo, Ethics Teacher, Helsinki

I believe the most important thing to learn in school is how to start relationships, how to interact with people and how to cooperate and do substantiate. – Venny, 15, Joensuu

“[N]ational culture is seen to exert influence on, and be shaped by, both institutional and individual culture through mutually transformative interactions. The predominant framework of values and control mechanisms embedded within national culture is the vehicle for determining the principal goals and practices of education -and hence, the functions of teachers and schools.” Pike (2000), 70

There are several authors in Finnish literature, who are key parts of the Finnish curriculum. Aleksis Kivi, who attested that Finnish language could be used also in literature. Juhani Aho was a diverse author, who succeeded in portraying women’s emotional lives. Minna Canth, who improved women’s social position. Arvid Järnefelt, who was ahead of his time. He had confidence in humanity and was a pacifist, much like Tolstoy; Mika Waltari, who was a true cosmopolitan. He proved that a Finnish author is able to write on international topics and issues. Väinö Linna, who made Finnish history alive in literature. – Hilkka, Finnish Teacher, Helsinki

“Although the preparation of citizens is a stated goal of many schools’ mission statements and a primary concern of many citizens, knowledge of whether and how schools actually fulfill the democratic aims of education remains quite limited.” Kahne and Sporte (2008), 739

School for me has always been important, because my mom always said if you go to school and succeed in school, you will succeed in life. That's always been the relationship with education for me. For me it's important, and I'm grateful for Finnish education. It makes me wonder, why Finnish education is so good, because we have very short days. How it's possible that everyone around the world is coming to Finland, saying that your education is one of the best? Not all of students are like that welcoming. I don't know. It depends a lot on what attitudes you have, because if you're like in school and you're like, "There's nothing useful for me", then of course you won't get anything of it. – Reeta, 18, Helsinki

“By the end of the 19th century, there was an active nationalist movement based largely on Finnish language and culture and commonly carried to the local people by Lutheran ministers and schoolteachers. At the time, Finland was a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire-giving it a special status-with autonomy in language, education, and local political authority. Because of this autonomy, the nationalist movement worked more to educate the peasants and proletariat to become good citizens in the future independent state than to preach revolution. The idea was that the intelligentsia should lead the others so that the future state would have an educated population that would participate fully in a democracy.” Armstrong (2000), 596

Society. We need education nowadays, but also to learn some social skills and to learn about languages. Because families are so different that this gives like same possibilities to everyone. Values. I think that many teachers are thinking they are very old-school persons and that's not a good thing, but I hope that we are going to weigh that we are more...we teach students to be more open-minded and we teach. – Mona, 23, Student Teacher, Helsinki

“A major contradiction embedded in the goals of social studies in any society is that the subject has a double mission, to educate students in critical literacy and to function as a channel of socialization, although the latter may not be that obvious in the written curricula.” Löftström et al (2010), 3

It's challenging, but I teach the students in a way that questions what they can get with money. I draw them a ladder that you climb up the ladder, and you get more of these rungs. You get more of these from the government, and that's how you get higher. Then there's the next, like in the circus. When you drop, it saves you. It catches you. This is paid by the taxes, and that's why you pay high taxes. That's how I put it. That's one of the things which is a major thing here as well. The thing is that I put the wealth as a headliner. Wealth gives you an opportunity and saves you when you're in trouble. In every case, you need to operate there as well by yourself, but that's what it does. – Mika, History Teacher, Vantaa

“Among the many hopes attached to school and teaching social sciences in school, the highest one clearly seems to be the need to find a forum that bridges the gap between the rigid and hard-to-understand democratic-bureaucratic system and the fragmented reality experienced by young people; a forum where the old and new ways of active engagement can meet.” Eränpalo and Karhuvirta (2012), 70

“The concept guiding almost every educational reform has been equity. The Finnish paradox is that by focusing on the bigger picture for all, Finland has succeeded at fostering the individual potential of most every child.” Gross-Loh (2014)

We have a new curriculum and I think as a teacher in history and social sciences that it is keeping up the society at the base that we have it now. I think that democracy is very important, and I think that they can belong and be a part of this society and work in it. So it is for preparing the youngsters for surviving the society, and being good members as I understand it. Also, so they can find themselves. It is very important that they understand themselves. It's not only for society but for themselves also. – Petter, History Teacher, Helsinki

“What educators need is a pedagogy that redefines national identity not through a primordial notion of ethnicity or a monolithic conception of culture, but as part of a postmodern politics of cultural difference in which identities are constantly being negotiated and reinvented within complex and contradictory notions of national belonging. A collective dialogue over nationalism, national identity and cultural differences is not going to be established by simply labeling certain forms of social criticism as unpatriotic or national identity as a shared tradition that exists outside of the struggles over representation, democracy, and social justice.” Giroux, H. (1995), 55

P: Cultural differences seem to be really really important at the moment because we're not just teaching languages, we're not just teaching English anymore. I was taught just English, and then I went to the U.K and the first response was "how can you speak such perfect English and you can not say please?" I was like, "we don't have word for it" I tried to explain it, but no one really listened, and now they do try and teach it more based on the culture. In the U.K you would say please, no matter what you're asking for. I made the distinction with like "can I have the salt?" or "could you pass me the salt?" And the Brits really wanted me to use please, and I just didn't at the time. Now, I can. Now I really can.

S: We're trying to teach cultural differences and not just English culture, but culture from different places and our own culture as well, and try to basically show the differences between them.

P: I think the emphasis is not just the differences, but also kind of understanding and sort of ... because we're getting a lot of immigrants at the moment so this is one of the biggest issues in the Finnish society at the moment and the schools have a great responsibility here to teach not only the differences but also kind of understanding.

S: Not just ... it's not like the old saying "when in Rome,” but now it's more like we have to be aware of the differences as well. We can't just expect that the immigrants that come here and the refugees know exactly what Finnish culture is like and instantly act upon it. It's like awareness on both sides basically.

P: That seems to be some of the emphasis in schools are teaching that kind of global awareness, global understanding.

S: Yeah, and then your curriculum emphasizes that as well. That's quite new, because I think this year we study all the basis of Fins have been very homogeneous and now we're getting people from all around the world and so we have to take that into consideration as well, within the curriculum and in actual teaching and everyday life that we have. We have lots of foreign students in our school, or people in our schools. – Paulina and Saara, Student Teachers, Joensuu

“Academics isn’t all kids need. Kids need so much more. School should be where we teach the meaning of life; where kids learn they are needed; where they can learn community skills. We like to think that school is also important for developing a good self-image, a strong sensitivity to other people’s feelings ... and understanding it matters to take care of others.” Kiuru, quoted in Gross-Loh (2014)

The big one, I know is idealistic, but hope is one that I want to give to the kids. Like, you're going to be all right, and you're going to grow and learn. You're going to go far. I think that's one thing that I, at least within the last year, it's been quite... For me the last year has been a bit, not depressing, but somehow unsafe. There are a lot of things happening in the world. That's what I've been thinking lately. The kids, we tell them that it's going to be all right, somehow we're going to move forward. Don't let our worries ... The principal said actually in one of his speeches, don't let the middle-aged people's worries bother you people. You're the youth, you're the future. – Vuokko, Religions Teacher, Tampere

Social skills are pretty important. You learn in school, I think you learn more like to interact with people than you learn how to read or how to do stuff with your internet and your books. – Eetu, 15, Joensuu

“In PISA, the effect of ESCS (index for economic, social and cultural status) is analyzed at three levels: students, schools and study programs. In Finland, the impact is low compared to the OECD mean for both students and schools, while study programs have no effect in Finland, as there are none during basic education. Part of the low socio-economic variance is due to the relative homogeneity of the Finnish society, but part is undoubtedly explained by success in implementing the equity goals of the basic school. After all, one of the main reasons leading to the basic school reform in the late 1960s was the equity-problems related to the parallel school system in terms of social mobility and growth of human capital.” Kupainen (2009), 38-40


  1. How can social cohesion somewhat explain Finland's educational and economic success?
  2. American audiences: What aspects of school aim towards social cohesion in American schools? Is this social cohesion as important in the U.S.?
  3. Finnish audiences: To what extent do you feel social cohesion is the primary goal of Finnish education? If it is not, what is?
  4. Can you explain and explore the ramifications of Giroux's call for "a pedagogy that redefines national identity not through a primordial notion of ethnicity or a monolithic conception of culture?"
  5. What kind of gaps can you find in either the academic research or the interviews?
  6. What comments from the Finnish students do you agree with, disagree with, or find interesting? 
  7. In what way do the selected images in this section complement or relate to the text?
St. Henry's Ecumenical Chapel / Hirvensalo, Turku / 17 Mar 2016

St. Henry's Ecumenical Chapel / Hirvensalo, Turku / 17 Mar 2016


Based on my interviews, research, observations, and recordings, it seems that the success that Finland achieved arises from the strength of its educational foundations. The fundamental components of education are sound, supported, and explicit.

First, the Finnish school belongs to the students. From master schedule design to school architecture, students are the center of the institution. Some teachers described students as colleagues rather than pupils, the idea being that students are true collaborators, equals in their education. Secondly, the classroom is mostly preserved as a sacred space, with few administrative interventions or intrusion. As a result, there’s an inherent respect in the work that happens in the classroom. Third, Finnish teachers seem to practice a type of instructional minimalism. Coursework is carefully selected and narrowly focused on a single skill. Homework, when it is given, is done so with a clear articulation of the reason why and what it is designed to strengthen.  In terms of what happens in the classroom, Finnish education looks a lot like classical instructional methods, albeit of a very refined variety. It is, in truth, quality American education with a lot of the marginalia and errata and nonsense stripped away.

Lastly, however, there is a structural, inherent appreciation and acknowledgement of the power and importance of education throughout Finland. Finns tend to have an appreciation of education that grants it an outsized social importance. As a result, it’s vested with authority – and a place as a representation of Finnish society as a whole – that helps it remain a reflective and critical institution.

Throughout CIMO’s summary of education, which offers some of the official stance toward education in Finland, equality, free, fair, and even appear throughout, and the statement of principles is titled “Equity in Education.”

“Educational autonomy is high at all levels.” CIMO (2012), 12

“Quality assurance is based on steering instead of controlling.” CIMO (2012), 13

“Teachers are recognized as keys to quality in education.” CIMO (2012), 17

“It is difficult to measure how the theme of civic activity is incorporated into the everyday routines of teacher training institutions and university training schools. Although courses and larger modules may be included in the degree requirements and curricula, in the end it is up to individual teachers to decide whether or not they discuss civic activity in their teaching and how they work towards making the operating culture of departments more supportive of active citizenship. This is why continued attention must be given to the topic in the future.” Hansen and Rantala (2009), 148

I think there's a lot of responsibility and independence. In all subjects, you have to be responsible of your own work and your deadlines and your projects, and get things done on time, and those life skills for later on in life as well. I'm quite strict with my deadlines as well and I always say that when you know them ahead of time, plan your days, plan your work, don't leave them until the last minute. These kids are quite busy as well. They have lots of hobbies, their music and dancing, some have practice most nights of the week. So again, plan your days, practice time, homework time, and so on. These kinds of skills, I think, and just responsibility and independence and taking charge of your work. Sort of prepare you for life. – Katariina, English Teacher, Helsinki

Schools give us the tools to manage ourselves in the future, I guess? To know about Finland, but also about the whole earth. But also how to manage with other people in work life. – Annika, 17, Tampere

“The change of the curriculum seems to be, in the long run, like a pendulum: first it moves to one extreme and after that it irrevocably starts to move towards the opposite end. In the 1990s Finnish education policy and national framework curriculum moved strongly towards the idea of de-centralization. After that the pendulum has started to move backwards, towards more specific and more centralized national curriculum. However, Finnish teachers are still considered autonomous pedagogical professionals who are allowed to work with their students free of the pressures of strict standards, external national tests, public league tables or inspection systems. It is still allowed to use pedagogical deliberation in Finnish classrooms although many external interest groups would like to see more standardized learning environment in Finnish schools.” Ropo and Välijärvi (2010), 215

I don't even know. It's not I don't even know ... I think how they educate our teachers is good. I think in my previous school, I think we had the best teachers there. They're so amazing people, but they're also taught really good. They were like, "Don't stress. I'm going to help you. Just calm down. I'm just going to explain it to you. If you want, I can just ... You can ask me after class. I can stay with you to explain." A couple of days ago, I was stressing really badly about the matriculation examination, and the teacher was like, "Hold on Reeta. Just stay after class. We're going to just have some cup of tea, and we're going to talk, and you're going to explain to me, and I'm just going to help you." Like, "Okay, good."

After that, it just really felt good, because you see that they care. The tea was good. “I stress too because I know how stressful that is, and I feel sorry for you, because it's really hard. You have limited time, and you have a lot to read, and it's really stressful.” – Reeta, 18, Helsinki

I went to this private institution to study English for a year. There, I had this Canadian teacher, he changed the way I saw the world. He really inspired me. I wanted to be like that, as well. I wanted to be a spark for other people to see things in a different light. Because I think it's really important. Children and young people are our future. If we don't actually provide the funds for them and actually give them a good basis for their life later on, they're essentially doomed, I think. It's because we're a small nation, so we have to have an expertise on a lot of things and make the most of what we have, basically. Especially languages, because we are a small nation, so we have to reach out to other people. Let's face it, no one's going to learn Finnish. – Paulina, Student Teacher, Joensuu

Here in Finland they give us a lot more freedom, especially the system where you have elementary, you have lower secondary school, then upper secondary school and gymnasium. Lower secondary school is elementary. Upper secondary school is like middle school. The high school portion is gymnasium, that's almost practicing for University life. They give us that much freedom. We choose our own courses, we kind of choose our way, which path you want to go to. I feel like in America, yeah, you can take voluntary courses, but it's not as broad. I think a huge difference, even though it's just like vocal, it does make a difference. In America, I had a teach named Mr. Volara, here I have Steve or Pete. Yes, and I don't know if this is true, but I can imagine that it gives the student more of an openness to ask the teacher questions because you are on a first name basis. - Emma, 18, Helsinki

“In Finland, only one in ten applicants to teaching programs are admitted. After a mass closure of 80 percent of teacher colleges in the 1970s, only the best university training programs remained, elevating the status of educators in the country. Teachers in Finland teach 600 hours a year, spending the rest of time in professional development, meeting with colleagues, students and families. In the U.S., teachers are in the classroom 1,100 hours a year, with little time for collaboration, feedback or professional development.” Choi (2014)

I just like teaching and it has been my dream as long as I can remember. It was a big decision when I was in high school and I felt safe with the decision because it was my dream. Then I decided that, "Okay, that's my thing. Let's go and try." I was already going to stop two years ago, my studies. I wasn't that sure that I want to do this, but now this is the right thing again. Meeting kids, be with them, give your best, and so on. I think that's the most important because nowadays we have many kids with many problems, and many kids feel unsafe at home, and parents are busy and so on. A teacher is one of the most important grown-ups in their lives for many years. For example, Ava had to teach these kids for six years, so I think she's so important part of their lives. – Mona, 23, Student Teacher, Helsinki

I was inspired by my high school teachers. I just really liked their enthusiasm and how they actually inspired me. They basically wanted me to become better. I didn't really ask to be a student in high school. They kind of inspired me, and because I like to interact with people, I like to teach people. I'm a big sister to all of my cousins. It's just felt natural. Pretty much. How can you survive in the society, see what the government does, or how can you take care of yourself if you don't have the know-how? If you don't know languages, if you don't know math, and so on. It's a basic right. – Saara, Student Teacher, Joensuu

“The success of Finnish students in all literacy domains of PISA in the past three cycles has not only raised acknowledgment abroad but has also raised perplexed questions in Finland. How to understand or explain that the Finnish comprehensive school, with its ever expanding need for remedial teaching and student welfare services, would parallel or outclass even the most rigorous Far-Eastern and the very best European and Anglo-American education systems?” Kupainen (2009), 48

“The pre-school year, basic education and both strands of upper secondary education are free of charge for everyone, and in all but the general upper secondary, also text books and other requisites are provided by the school. Free daily school meals are provided for all in both basic and in upper secondary schools without charge, a 60 year old tradition stemming from the early elementary schools, established to entice school attendance and to support learning.” Kupainen (2009), 15

“Because most Finnish schools are small, they often forge close educational communities of teachers and pupils. Most teachers in primary schools are highly educated and continually update their professional knowledge and skills. Curriculum reform has made primary schools a place where play and learning are combined with alternative pedagogical approaches to help children master basic academic knowledge and skills. Many primary schools therefore have become learning and caring communities rather than merely instructional institutions that prepare pupils for the next level of schooling.” Sahlberg (2007), 24

I think I've always wanted to be a teacher. Although there was a period when I didn't. For as long as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a teacher. My mum is a teacher, so it might come from there. The school was always very familiar to me in that sense. I saw my mom doing work at home and so on. She taught, she's retired now, but she taught Finnish, not in high school, I guess, but 7th to 9th grade, so composite school. I guess I thought that would be fun. Most of the time, it still is. Hopefully for the rest of my career as well. I knew that I wanted to be a teacher, but then I learned to love English so much. English was my favorite subject throughout my school years. I knew that I wanted to study English at university, and then I could just combine the two. If I loved something so much, as I do love this, than maybe I could teach it in a good way as well. My own high school English teacher was this older man who was, I think, bored out of his mind. He was not a very good teacher. I remember always looking at him and thinking "I'll never be like him. I want to be the one who's actually enthusiastic about what they do". There was kind of a motivation there as well. I was like "Not going to be that. I'm going to be a better version of it". – Katariina, English Teacher, Helsinki

We’re always told Finland is the best country when it comes to education, so ... everything. It's a pressure thing, we have to respect the education system. – Eetu, 17, Joensuu

“A typical feature of teaching and learning in Finland is encouraging teachers and students to try new ideas and methods, learn about and through innovations, and cultivate creativity in schools, while respecting schools’ pedagogic legacies. This does not mean that traditional instruction and school organization do not exist in Finland; quite the opposite. What is important is that Finnish education policies today are a result of four decades of systematic, mostly intentional development that has created a culture of diversity, trust, and respect within Finnish society in general and within its education system in particular.” Sahlberg (2007), 152

It seems like we're giving the students more responsibility all the time and there's been talk about getting rid of the final exams, which has always been the important thing about Finnish high schools, that you have the final exams which are the same for everyone in the country, which also makes sure that the teaching stays at about the same level. We don't have really weak schools. We don't have bad schools. It's about the same, since we know we're heading towards the same final exams, and there is the constant discussion about whether we should just get rid of the exams and just let students study for life. I am feeling that it will go to that direction, and everything will collapse, and then we'll decide that, okay, we need to go back to the teacher who knows what's going on. – Annukka, English Teacher, Vantaa

I think it's a typical school. All the schools are quite similar. I can see there are of course, if you live in Helsinki, the students are the most rich. The social-economic standard of these kids is high, one of the highest in Finland. That can make this school a little bit more unique that they are travelling more and their parents perhaps demand more from the school than others. But I haven't seen that the parents demand so much from the school. They could demand more but they don't. They think the school is good and they don't want to mess with the school. You'll always find some students' parents that are messing with the school and make it awful to live with it. I haven't met enough in two years. – Petter, History Teacher, Helsinki


  1. How does the attitude towards teachers and education impact Finland's educational success?
  2. American audiences: What elements of Finnish education as described by students and teachers are exportable into the American system?
  3. Finnish audiences: Do the Finnish students and teachers here accurately capture the nature and role of Finnish education?
  4. Does the emphasis on autonomy as described by CIMO appear in the commentary and research?
  5. What kind of gaps can you find in either the academic research or the interviews?
  6. What comments from the Finnish students do you agree with, disagree with, or find interesting? 
  7. In what way do the selected images in this section complement or relate to the text?
Not in use / Porvoo/ 4 February 2016

Not in use / Porvoo/ 4 February 2016


 Finland’s schools would not be celebrated if it wasn’t for the outcomes. And those outcomes are impressive indeed. Besides scoring in the highest echelons on various international performance assessments, Finnish students tend to graduate into a high quality of life with clear possibilities for upward mobility, entering a society that considers equality a prime directive.

These academic successes and life outside of school seems to be a direct result of the emphasis on skill development in Finnish schools rather than rote memorization. Throughout classrooms in Finland, students are deliberately given vague, broad, and general questions, applying a variety of approaches and methods in order to construct some type of meaningful answer. For example, language classes, while definitely spending time drilling conjugations, emphasize natural oral language, language as it appears in the wild. Whether Swedish, Russian, or English, students develop flexibility in using the language, a willingness to take risks or make experiments that turn into an ease in using second and third languages. Humanities – social science, history, or mother language classes – rely on a wide range of documents and mediums. In math, too, recent research done in Finland is working on developing independent learning plans in high-level math classes.  

Partially, this emphasis on skills rather than just knowledge, at least at the upper secondary level, is a response to the demands of the matriculation exam for lukio students and qualifications for vocational students. In both sets of assessments, students must demonstrate a wide range of skills, the ability to do different things. Knowledge has not been eliminated in Finnish education, but it seems to always be knowledge in service of something direct, something demonstrable, and something useful. 

“Educators' perceptions of the impact of globalization, caused by the operations of global systems, have resulted in teacher and school-based initiatives to increase students' understanding of, and participation in, those systems. In so doing, individuals and institutions are further contributing (via cross-cultural and international links, and the interchange of knowledge and ideas) to globalization itself. Global education is both a response to, and instigator of, global change.” Pike (2000), 70

First of all, school gives a sound general education to all students, regardless of what their background is. It also gives the ability to continue studies further. – Hilkka, Finnish Teacher, Helsinki

“Students need to develop the knowledge, attitudes, and skills that will enable them to function in a global society. Globalization affects every aspect of communities, including beliefs, norms, values, and behaviors, as well as business and trade. Worldwide migration has increased diversity in most nation-states and is forcing nations to rethink citizenship and citizenship education. National boundaries are eroding because millions of people live in several nations and have multiple citizenships.” Banks (2008), 132

L: In every test we have to write something about ourselves, not just about some picture or text. We have to think for ourselves, so we cannot just pick answer A or B. That's good.

J: That makes cheating a lot harder too. – Lauri, 15 and Juhani, 14, Helsinki

“At the heart of recent progressive work in rhetoric, race, and pedagogy is a fundamental commitment to democracy as an ongoing educational and ethical project; to teachers as intellectuals who connect knowledge to the pressing demands of everyday life; and to ethical and political practices that enable students to comment broadly on society, politics, and culture. The rhetoric of civic education provides a language of possibility steeped in democratic – rather than market – traditions.” Giroux, S. (2000), 342

The general direction of education and it's very clear that the purpose of education is to train people to go to working market. That's a fact. The fundamental knowledge. In my opinion you should have Latin, Greek, Mathematics, sport, music, wide variety, and you make better your how to evolve in the human way. Humanistic. I think that people are just fixated on play and no one in the corridors, they don't read books. Everything nowadays must happen very quickly and the student knows their rights and they think results not the whole project, how things are going. If I say create a book, they ask what do I get, what is the reward, what is the number? It's not that it could make them happy or that they could learn something. Maybe ... they are a little bit in general way selfish. When I was in school we were just do it and things. In our generation we have very big sense of save, but in this generation "well I'll get it, with less, that's good." – Markku, History Teacher, Vantaa

“A sustainable knowledge society is grounded upon the power to think, learn and innovate. It depends equally on individual and collective ways of doing these things. Learning to think, to learn and to innovate requires more than orderly implementation of externally mandated regulations and technical reforms. Learning together, creating new ideas and being able to live with other people and the environment in peace and harmony, all high-demand features of modern schooling, best occur in a context decidedly different from what some of our schools offer young people and their teachers today.” Sahlberg (2007), 22

Kids these days get better education than before. Because before it was so much easier to get into university because there was so little people who wanted to go there. Now it's really hard to get into universities. Because the education is too good. – Sanceri, 17, Vantaa

Q: What do you think school is trying to teach you?

T1: To be nice people. They teach you how to behave, how to really be better.

A: How to be a successful part of the community?

Q: what does that mean?

T2: Basically having a job and being able to raise a family and pay taxes.

I: They are just preparing us for the future and giving us all-around knowledge and teaching...

T1: Swedish.

I: I think also thinking on your own, not believing everything you read and that you have to think your own and challenge your views.

A: I challenge everything I'm told all the time. Yeah, it's working for me.

T2: In the psychology lessons, because I'm not that much of a religious person, sometimes I think the teacher is teaching from a religious viewpoint. I don't really think like that - psychology and religion are different things. - Tuomas, 17, Alina, 18, Tia, 17, and Iiris, 17, Joensuu


  1. Explain the connection between skill development and global systems and globalization that Pike and Banks describe.
  2. American audiences: Does the movement in American schools towards Common Core standards seem to follow the same trend as in Finland?
  3. Finnish audiences: What impact does this emphasis on globally-oriented skills have on national identity?
  4. What skills seem to meet the stated objective of creating cohesive communities and fostering global engagement?
  5. What kind of gaps can you find in either the academic research or the interviews?
  6. What comments from the Finnish students do you agree with, disagree with, or find interesting? 
  7. In what way do the selected images in this section complement or relate to the text?
The shared campus of Mercuria Kauppiaitten and Martinlaakson lukio / Vantaa / 19 Jan 2016

The shared campus of Mercuria Kauppiaitten and Martinlaakson lukio / Vantaa / 19 Jan 2016


There is a history of diversity in Finland. In the last quarter of the 20th century, immigrant communities of Somali descent grew throughout the country, although mostly in the population centers. There have also been significant communities of other European nationalities in Finland since before the country was even independent. But on the whole, Finland has been a mostly homogenous country for most of its history both as a Swedish and Russian territory and now on its own.  

However, as a result of the myriad global uncertainties, Finland’s population is changing – and therefore so are the schools. The public discourse on immigrants, immigration, and the future of Finland has not yet really addressed education as a possible sphere where this issue is being resolved. However, teachers and students are now starting to recognize that issues of growing diversity appear beyond merely second-language acquisition.

The cultural urge to develop strong communities and the desire for consensus are encouraging conditions for new immigrants in Finland. Hopefully, students from diverse, international backgrounds will ultimately become more engaged in collective decision-making, like equal participants in their learning. 

“Indeed, globalization is a cultural paradox: it simultaneously unifies and diversifies people and cultures. It unifies national education policies by integrating them with broader global trends. Because problems and challenges are similar from one education system to the next, solutions and education reform agendas are also becoming similar.” Sahlberg (2007), 19

“Ethnic minority students in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France-as in other nations throughout the world-often experience discrimination because of their cultural, linguistic, religious, and value differences. Often, both students and teachers perceive these students as the ‘Other.’ When ethnic minority students - such as Turkish students in Germany and Muslim students in the United Kingdom - are marginalized in school and treated as the ‘Other,’ they tend to emphasize their ethnic identities and to develop weak attachments to the nation-state.” Banks (2008), 132

“Multicultural democratic nation-states must grapple with a number of salient issues, paradigms, and ideologies as their school populations become more culturally, racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse. The extent to which nation-states make multicultural citizenship possible, the achievement gap between minority and majority groups, and the language rights of immigrant and minority groups are among the unresolved and contentious issues with which these nations must grapple.” Banks (2008), 132

We have many schools in Helsinki that are very, very multicultural. Nowadays, I think that kids don't even see the difference between kids from different backgrounds and that's a good thing. Adults are much more difficult and I think we know this, and we think it's taboo. Kids don't think about that. – Mona, 23, Student Teacher, Helsinki

“As students with immigrant background form a very small minority of the Finnish 15-year-olds participating in PISA 2000, 2003 or even 2006, the composition of the Finnish lower end of proficiency differs considerably from that in many other countries in comprising a far greater share of native-speaking students. Accordingly, the time might not be ripe yet to see whether the Finnish system will succeed any better in meeting the challenge of non-native speakers than others have done.” Kupainen (2009), 53

School culture has changed, yes, and the population here in Joensuu as well with the immigrants, and also for example the former Soviet Union. With the Russian students, we get lots more Russian students and of course we didn't have them before. They're integrated here quite well and with our students, but of course they have their own little cliques there and groups that they mingle with. It has changed, a lot. – Paulina, Student Teacher, Joensuu


  1. What reasons can you offer for why so few interviewees commented extensively on diversity in schools?
  2. American audiences: Does diversity seem to be as much a part of the historical fabric of Finnish education as it is in America?
  3. Finnish audiences: In what specific ways has diversity changed Finnish compulsory education?
  4. What predictions can you make for Finnish education in the near future?
  5. What kind of gaps can you find in either the academic research or the interviews?
  6. What comments from the Finnish students do you agree with, disagree with, or find interesting? 
  7. In what way do the selected images in this section complement or relate to the text?
Sled dogs after their morning run / Sodankylä, Lapland / 23 Mar 2016

Sled dogs after their morning run / Sodankylä, Lapland / 23 Mar 2016


A corollary to the social cohesion encouraged in Finnish schools is the consistent citizenship education.  Beyond just the yearning for consensus decision-making and social loyalty, citizenship education helps create a unified national identity. Especially in a small and young democracy, the need to establish a collective national duty approaches imperative.

 Civics and the responsibilities of the citizen appear throughout the lower and upper secondary curriculum. Students, empowered by their teacher and the freedom the institution provides them, consider way to express meaningful citizenship in their immediate communities. Teachers, not just in history classes, but in ethics and language classes, have regular conversations about justice and responsibility and duty. Even in the lower secondary and comprehensive schools, students are encouraged to find ways to participate in school life and are even given membership positions on school boards and other decision-making bodies.

Schools also seem to serve a political and ideological function. In some ways, schools are one of the major repositories of the public trust. Teachers and other educators in Finland are respected, appreciated, and listened to, probably more so than almost any other profession. Schools also seem to take up a great deal of public discourse. General conversations seem to involve education as a meaningful topic. These aspects, combined with compulsory military or civil service for men, help create some obligatory sense of participation in society as a whole. 

“The skepticism of the young about the meaningfulness of active civic participation and engagement has probably following explanations: society appears often too complex for the young to grasp, and politics seems to lack ideological differences and tensions that would motivate personal investment of time and effort in politics.” Löftström et al (2010), 7

“The emphasis on solidarity translates into a model of citizenship, which places greater emphasis on the bonds between citizens and— to varying extents—participatory citizenship than do those models which focus on the relationship between individuals and the state. At the same time, it is premised on a much more positive construction of the state, and in particular the welfare state as integral to citizenship, than exists in liberal models of citizenship.” Lister (2009), 246

I hope my students will learn to respect other human beings, to listen to each other, to have a real dialogue with each other and to be critical as well as to think and contemplate independently. – Hilkka, Finnish Teacher, Helsinki

“From a developmental perspective, the creation of robust and broadly distributed civic practice in a democracy is in direct proportion to society’s ability to help its citizens integrate democratic civic and pro-social commitments into the core of their identities and form increasingly sophisticated habits of thought, feeling, and action.” Lowenstein (2010), 36

I think the education is actually really, really important, because everyone has the same opportunities, and because we get so much information, I think the information is the key to develop, if we have problems, if there is a lot of well educated people, then they might fix the problems and then it works even better. – Emmi, 17, Tampere

“Active engagement, particularly in areas of controversy, is seem by many teachers as problematic. Studies show that teachers are reluctant to engage in contemporary issues, and that they sidestep the contentious. Active learning requires engagement. This is not to argue that young people need not develop an appreciation and an understanding of the citizenship rights that have been achieved in the past. These rights were hard-fought for, and should be valued, and we should value those who fought for them. Not all of them are secure, and many rights that are formally established still need to be reiterated and argues for, both in Britain and elsewhere, particularly the rights of minorities. But how can we translate this abstract conceptual knowledge into enactive forms?” Ross (2007), 299

“As a result of studies revealing young people’s passive attitudes, the Finnish National Board of Education surveyed the state of democracy education in Finnish schools. In summary, it can be said that the reality in Finnish schools with regard to participation and democracy is that civic skills and democracy education are not as highlighted as they should be. The survey points out the weak discussion culture related to political and social issues and calls for society as a whole to provide the prerequisites for building an identity that allows positive encounters, interaction and democracy between people. The survey also charted teachers’ views on strengthening democracy education and young people’s inclusion in social and democratic processes.” Eränpalo and Karhuvirta (2012), 54

I think school is a very big part of becoming Finnish. I think it makes things much easier. If you will learn the language, then you will learn habits and how you discuss or behave with other people. I also hold that they get to see the feeling that they are Finnish when they are around these people here. If we have some adults, then I don't know. It's probably very difficult. Finnish people are not very open-minded yet. – Mona, 23, Student Teacher, Helsinki

“Transformative classrooms and schools help students to acquire the knowledge, values, and skills needed to become deep citizens.” Banks (2008), 136

I think it's changing as well. I think of course the main goal there is to have people who can work, who can study, who can benefit the country in the future, but I think the focus in high school as well nowadays is moving towards the youngsters themselves realizing that they can do all kinds of things. It's becoming more focused on the students themselves, and them finding their own ways to do things and finding their own paths in life. I think the end goal still is about having the work force in the future. If you think about Finnish high school, then definitely more and more academic jobs, vocational schools if you're looking for workers. I think it's definitely a new thing. Definitely last ten years, because if I think about 13 years back when I started I think we had a completely different approach to teaching, to studying, and to what happens to our students once they graduate from high school. So definitely a reason, and it's been moving really fast, and it seems like we want it to move even faster, we want things to change quickly. – Annukka, English Teacher, Vantaa

“Mere knowledge does not turn someone into an active citizen; one also needs skills. Citizens need to know how to speak, write, listen, discuss and interact with others. For active citizenship to be realized, one also needs to add the skills of participation and collaboration. More advanced skills include knowing how to validate one’s arguments, negotiate and influence, evaluate a range of matters, solve conflicts and be reasonably critical, and having the ability to see how society works.” Eränpalo (2014), 105.

I would like to call it like a political realism. I refer to our President Paasikivi after the second world war. He kind of made the free world. We call it Paasikivi. The free work of Paasikivi and Kekkonen and foreign politics and also the politics inside Finland. So, some kind of realism that we are a small nation will survive whatever is the result of the war. But we are maybe not surviving. We are so small a nation. The realism that we are a small nation could do us more interested in foreign politics, foreign languages, studying foreign cultures, history and learning from them and kind of not going inside Finland but all the time to referring to outside and understanding what the others are doing, and so be able to survive and flourish as a nation. – Sinikka, History Teacher, Vantaa

“Embarrassed by the growing intensity of political antagonisms in the Finnish society in the early years of the twentieth century and the Civil War in 1918, the political authority saw civics as a tool for socializing the young into conservative values and institutions of the Republic. Internal political tensions remained strong in Finnish society after Second World War. In the precarious situation those responsible for politics of education considered it best that social studies (civics) would remain an ostensibly neutral space for transmitting ‘cold facts’ about society, economy and law, without any critical analysis of the prevailing structures.” Löftström et al (2010), 4

“Transformative citizenship education needs to be implemented in schools if students are to attain clarified and reflective cultural, national, regional, and global identifications and understand how these identities are interrelated and constructed. Transformative citizenship education also recognizes and validates the cultural identities of students. It is rooted in transformative academic knowledge and enables students to acquire the information, skills, and values needed to challenge inequality within their communities, their nations, and the world; to develop cosmopolitan values and perspectives; and to take actions to create just and democratic multicultural communities and societies.” Banks (2008), 135

“Learning must be rooted in the ethical imperatives of global citizenship which require new ways of listening and potentially transforming ourselves in response to pressing global challenges such as profound poverty and repeated genocide, in response to often difficult forms of difference, and in response to changing, hybrid forms of knowledge.” Heilman (2006), 207

“Emergent discourses of citizenship implicate education in profound ways because schools are customarily regarded as sites that inculcate in young citizens a shared national identity and prepare them for participation in communities within national borders (Banks, 2008; Hahn, 1998; Noddings, 2005). The diversification of student populations and the interconnected challenges faced by societies compel a reexamination of school programs to accommodate novel, critical conceptions of citizenship (Banks et al., 2005).” Alviar-Martin (2010/2011), 39

If I can start about the student counsel, we have a student counsel from 1st to 9th grade. I'm now the counselor the second year. First year, we had lots of challenges how to organize it because, between the 1st graders and the 9th graders, they had really separate goals. We had only 1/2 hour break. Students were coming ten past twelve and then we only had 15 minutes to discuss about things with the 1st and 9th graders and everything between it. For example when we get some appropriate money from the city, where to spend the money I think the 1st graders and 9th graders want to do totally separate things. We learned from that and now we have this team system. The 6th graders can decide but 7th, 8th and 9th graders are leading teams where you have from four to six 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders. We have a sports team. We have an event team and so on. – Timo, Ethics Teacher, Helsinki


  1. Explore the claim Löfström presents as reasons why people feel civic engagement is difficult for students.
  2. American audiences: How does American education create or discourage habits of positive civic engagement?
  3. Finnish audiences: Why were Finnish students possibly unable to articulate the civic education component of school?
  4. How are schools, as quoted by Alviar-Martin in Banks, et al, "sites that inculcate a shared national identity and prepare them for participation within national borders?" 
  5. What kind of gaps can you find in either the academic research or the interviews?
  6. What comments from the Finnish students do you agree with, disagree with, or find interesting? 
  7. In what way do the selected images in this section complement or relate to the text?
Red storehouses along the Porvoonjoki / Porvoo / 4 Feb 2016

Red storehouses along the Porvoonjoki / Porvoo / 4 Feb 2016