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Is it a Mistake for West Virginia to Use Finland as an Education Model?

Updated on September 4, 2015

Dr. Steven Paine, the new West Virginia Schools Superintendent, is using Finland as a model for reforming West Virginia's educational system. Finland is one of the top scorers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, which is given every three years. Students in dozens of countries take the exams, which cover literacy, math and science.

Dr. Paine obviously assumes that Finland's PISA success is the result of it's educational system and methods. However, there are other possible reasons for Finlands success. In addition to an excellent curriculum, the ease of learning and logical structure of the Finnish language may be a big factor in Finland's PISA success. If this is the case, using Finland as an educational model may be a mistake for West Virginia. It will be interesting to see how West Virginia fares academically as a result of it's adoption of some aspects of Finland's educational system.

The state of West Virginia plans to model it's education system on that of Finland
The state of West Virginia plans to model it's education system on that of Finland

Possible Reasons for Finland's Success

In another article titled The Finland Case Against Early Learning, I listed some possible reasons for Finland's academic success. Finland has one of the lowest rates of poverty in the world, an education and reading centered culture and very involved parents. Finland is the top producer of children's books. About 30% of Finland's students can read before starting school. Another 43% have basic reading skills already in place. Finnish schools quickly intervene when students start to fall behind. They provide a lot of tutoring to help students catch up.

West Virginia could try to do the kinds of intervention that Finland does when students start to fall behind. But this will probably be much more challenging for West Virginia. The child poverty rate for West Virginia is 23% versus only 5.4% for Finland.

Dr. Paine also wants to raise the status of teachers, which is definitely a good thing. Teacher pay in the US is comparable to pay in Finland but teachers there are highly respected. Their status level is similar to that of doctors. Only 10% of all applicants for teacher training programs are accepted each year. So, Finland can easily choose the best and brightest to enter teaching. West Virginia probably won't have the luxury of attracting it's best and brightest students to teaching.

Finland's teachers spend 3 years in a teacher training program and many go on to earn Masters Degrees. Teacher training schools in Finland teach primary school teachers the subjects they will teach in the classroom. American teacher training programs tend to focus largely on teaching methodology and generally don't teach the material that will be taught in elementary schools. Finland's teachers are likely much better prepared to teach than their West Virginian counterparts.


The Finnish Language May Be a Big Factor in Finland's Academic Success

In a fascinating blog post titled Why does Finnish give better PISA results?, Taksin Nuoret makes the claim that the Finnish language, rather than it's educational system, may be a major factor in Finland's success on the PISA exams.

About 21% of Finland's students are actually speakers of the Swedish language. These Swedish speaking Finns are concentrated in two areas of the country and are better off financially and generally are in a higher social class than Finnish speaking Finns. However, the Swedish speaking Finns don't do as well on the PISA test as their Finnish speaking counterparts.

In PISA 2003 Finnish-speaking students clearly outperformed their Swedish-speaking peers in scientific literacy, with an average difference of 26 points. However, also the Swedish-speaking minority was doing very well, since their results were on a par with those of the Netherlands.

So, Finland would still do well on PISA if it was a Swedish speaking country but wouldn't be on top. According to Nuoret:

(Let's take the opportunity provided by this quote to note that if Finland's population happened to be mostly Swedish-speaking, the Finnish educational system would not be the focus of international attention.)

Same country, same Ministry of Education, inferior socio-economic background on average, yet superior PISA results. The question is not whether the Finnish language is a key factor to Finland's PISA results, but why.

Nouret suggests that learning to read in the Finnish language is much easier than other languages. Finnish is largely phonetic with a richer "derivational morphology." Derivational morphology refers to changing the meanings of words by applying different derivations. Someone who knows the meaning of the word pilot can easily figure out the meaning of the word piloting.

Large numbers of words in Finnish come from the same lexeme or linguistic unit, which makes it easier to build a vocabulary and comprehend text. Nouret uses "kirj" as an example and lists almost 30 words based on kirj that relate to writing.

Thus, the number of roots needed to reach comparable vocabulary is lower in Finnish than in, say, English, Spanish, French or Italian.

Finland's success in literacy, science and math may be the result of superior reading ability due to speaking a more logical language. The PISA math test is a very text heavy exam, so even in math better reading skills may provide an advantage. Unfortunately, Finland does not participate in the TIMSS math test, so there is no way to know how they would compare on an exam with far less text. It's also possible that the ease of learning to read and write leaves more time for math and science instruction in school.

English is not a completely phonetic language. There are far more spelling rules to learn. English has a much more varied vocabulary. West Virginians will have to learn to read, write and comprehend using the the English language, which is far more complicated than Finnish. Far more class time will have to be spent on reading, improving comprehension, expanding vocabulary, writing and spelling than is necessary in Finland. If Nouret is correct, West Virginia may not fare too well using Finland as an educational model due to the comparative difficulty of the English language.

Derivational Morphology in the Finnish Language

This is a partial list of words that come from "kirj" taken from Why does Finnish give better PISA results? by Taksin Nuoret. It is clear that there is a logical structure to the Finnish language that does not exist in English. It obviously is far more difficult for English speakers to build a large vocabulary and to figure out the meaning of words in context.

English
Finnish
book
kirja
author
kirjoittaja
writer
kirjailija
literal
kirjaimellinen
font
kirjasin
scribe
kirjuri
alphabet
kirjaimisto
letter
kirje
to complain in writing
kirjelmöidä
typographer
kirjaltaja

Conclusion

It is a good idea to look at best practices in other countries. However, we should keep in mind that America has a lot of challenges that countries like Finland don't have. This should be kept in mind when reforming education. We should try to implement Finland's strong knowledge-oriented curriculum but we need to keep in mind that Finnish students learn to read more easily and don't have the rates of poverty that a state like West Virginia has. Finland's students enter school much better prepared to learn and their teachers are much better prepared for teaching. An idea that may work well in Finland may not work as well here. This must be kept in mind when trying to model the Finnish system.

References:

Sample PISA Math Questions - these math problems will give you an idea of the kinds of questions that must be answered.

Why does Finnish give better PISA results? by Taksin Nuoret - read Nuorets full blog post on the language advantage Finland's students enjoy on the PISA test

West Virginia learns Finland's 'most honorable profession': Teacher - this article from CNN details the plan to model West Virginia's educational system on that of Finland

Comments

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    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      JA Jehan 

      4 years ago from California

      Sanxuary,

      That's true. In a lot of European countries, you can't attend college or going into specific majors without achieving certain test scores. I don't know if they have alternative adult education programs though.

    • profile image

      Sanxuary 

      4 years ago

      I have no idea what Finland does but most European countries have a modified diploma program. If you got bad grades in high school you got a diploma that does not allow you to attend higher education in most cases. In America if you do not want to get smart until later in life you would not be granted such an opportunity. There are a few states that have attempted to create such a program but it is a lousy idea. Could you imagine being denied a job because you do not have the right diploma and you can not attend college as well?

    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      JA Jehan 

      5 years ago from California

      Tara,

      The Swedish kids do take the test in their native language. It doesn't seem to be the ease of learning the language that's a factor. Because English is also easier to learn than Finnish. It's seems to be the phonetic nature of the language and the use of common word roots that makes it easier for native speakers of Finnish to progress much faster in reading than native speakers of languages like English.

    • profile image

      Tara 

      5 years ago

      Many Swedish kids go to Swedish schools in Finland...we are looking at moving there and are looking at English speaking schools. English speaking schools often use the British method of teaching. Do the Swedish schools use a Swedish method o teaching? And What about Estonia? They should be at the top of the pile with Finland if all it takes is an easy language, but then again...Swedish is considered easier to learn than Finish...So, why are they not at the top? Last, are the Swedish speaking students in Finland taking the test in their native language or Finnish?

    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      JA Jehan 

      6 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment David. I was aware that Nuoret's piece was written anonymously. I did look to other sources and the argument about the ease of achieving high levels of literacy in Finnish is a strong one. I think whoever wrote the piece may be concerned about excessive focus on the set up of the Finnish educational system when there are probably lots of other factors that account for Finland's PISA success.

    • profile image

      David Pepper 

      6 years ago

      It is worth noting, as per Rey (2011), that Taksin Nuoret appears to be a "fictitious Finnish ‘academic’" and I note that the author's name translates at 'Taxi Youth'. Whilst a plausible name and an institutional affiliation are not prerequisites for a strong argument, it is worth casting a critical eye over confirmatory approaches to international comparisons and to research in general. As Learn Things Web suggests here, it is important to consider the evidence not only for but also against a range of factors.

      For the Rey (2011) reference, see: http://www.academia.edu/1023464/PISA_knowledge_and...

      David Pepper (King's College London!)

    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      JA Jehan 

      7 years ago from California

      Jari,

      That makes sense. When I researching the article I was surprised by the number of students that were Swedish speakers because it was a lot higher than the Swedish portion of the overall population.

    • profile image

      Jari 

      7 years ago

      One correction to the article: About 5.5% of Finland's students are speakers of the Swedish language, not 21%. They were just overrepresented in PISA 2003.

    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      JA Jehan 

      7 years ago from California

      "Who, in their right mind, could possibly love English with its messy spelling system, full of irregularities."

      You're right! And it isn't only that learning to read or write in English is harder for younger students. English doesn't have a logical vocabulary like Finnish, so students at all levels need much more help in terms of building knowledge. Finnish children can build knowledge more easily on their own because it is much easier to figure out word meaning from context. This is hugely important in terms of how kids can be educated. Methods that may work well in Finland may not work well in other places.

    • profile image

      Pierre Demaere 

      7 years ago

      The blog is http://finnish-and-pisa.blogspot.com/ .

      My apologies!

    • profile image

      Pierre Demaere 

      7 years ago

      John, Canadian teachers teach the "hows" and, in spite of a system that closely resembles the Finnish school system, it cannot compete (4th place)! BTW, adding insult to injury, Finnish kids start school one year later than US and Canadian kids. Morevover, as described in the following blog, Estonian students came fifth and Estonian is like Finnish. The blog is well worth reading as it delves into the subject in detail. ( http://bertmaes.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/why-is-ed...

      I would love to learn Finnish! Who, in their right mind, could possibly love English with its messy spelling system, full of irregularities. To think that the horrendous English spelling system does not affect teaching and learning is absolutely preposterous. Everything has changed, but English spelling! Maybe we should go back to using the printing press to write, time when the English spelling system was last changed! Maybe it is time to make things better, including English.

    • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

      JA Jehan 

      7 years ago from California

      John,

      It's a bit simplistic to suggest that the only reason Finnish schools are better is because they teach students how to think and not what to think. They have a lot of other things going for them. And, as was pointed out in this piece, Swedish speaking students don't do as well as their Finnish speaking counterparts, despite using the exact same educational techniques.

      Finnish schools have an easier time teaching how to think because they have a highly literate population to begin with. It is harder to teach low knowledge students how to think. This is why I'm concerned about using Finland as a model for education reform. The student populations are simply too different.

      You misunderstood my point about Finnish being easy to learn. It isn't easy to learn as a foreign language. However, because Finnish is almost completely phonetic, it is easier for native Finnish speakers to learn to read Finnish than it is for native English speakers to learn to read in English. It is always a good idea to read carefully and make sure you understand what is being said before commenting.

    • profile image

      John Henry 

      7 years ago

      I'm exhausted reading weak excuses for Finnish academic success.

      Finland's schools succeed because they teach HOW to think, instead of WHAT to think.

      And if you think Finnish is an "easy" language, I invite you to learn it.

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