Professional learning – reflections from a trip to Finland

Recently, we were given the opportunity to travel to Finland to participate in the Global Education Community conference facilitated by the Innokas Network within the University of Helsinki.

Additionally, we were able to visit Saunalahti School, Mantymaki Elementary School and Helsingin Normaalilyseo High School to see the sense of community and personalised learning that is in alignment with the national objectives for education in Finland.

Professor Jari Lavonen, Head of the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Helsinki, and Paula Mattila, Counsellor of Education at the Finnish National Board of Education, also gave us firsthand insight into the reasons for the success of the Finnish education system.

The Finnish system focuses on a core curriculum developed by the government, which is then interpreted and implemented by the districts and schools at a local level. Teachers are given the autonomy to craft their curriculum like an artist would craft a painting. Furthermore, assessment is mostly formative, designed to diagnose student deficiencies, and focusing on the teaching and learning process.

Upon reflection, we identified three key lessons from the Finnish education system.

Lesson one: Broad aims cannot be achieved without a high degree of teacher quality and professionalism

Both Professor Lavonen and the principals of the schools we visited expressed that one of the key factors of why the Finnish system trumps all others is the huge investment that is made in developing high quality teachers. The key reasons include recruiting the best of the best and having teachers with expert knowledge.

A teacher is a highly desirable profession amongst Finnish people. The number of places for teaching nationally in Finland is regulated by the government, so there is never an oversupply of teachers. Around 800 places are offered for education students nationally, and more than 8000 applicants apply for these positions. Higher results in the high school exit examination are needed to enter teaching than for engineering or medicine and, interestingly, the salary for teachers is in alignment with the national average.

Teachers are six year trained and complete a Masters Degree prior to commencing their teaching career. There are no alternative ways to receive a teaching credential. The high quality of teachers equates to a high level of professionalism and teacher effectiveness. This leads to a high level of trust from the administrative bodies and less of a need to focus on teacher accountability.

Lesson two: Decentralisation of the classroom, promoting local decisions

In recent years, Finland has made a significant shift in transferring the decision making and assessment to schools at the local level. This is in complete contrast to many other OECD countries who are favouring increased standardisation of curriculum, continual inspection and national testing.

This shift has placed greater emphasis on teachers as professionals who are required to make important judgements on the length, breadth and depth of the curriculum that they teach, given the changing nature of their students.

In each classroom that we visited we witnessed teachers who were constantly formatively assessing students, using questions, online games, projects, rich tasks or online quizzes. The decentralisation of the classroom is not an easy task to undertake. However, the Finnish education system is based on ‘educational equality', where they aim to minimise the influence of the social and economic backgrounds of the schools.

This is highlighted in the diagram below, which shows the ranking of OECD countries according to the variation of results within a school and between schools. This graph demonstrates that Finnish schools are highly comprehensive; however, the variation between schools is minimal. This shows that standardised testing of schools and subsequent rankings are not needed, as schools and teachers are professionals focusing on the learning of all students.

Ranking of OECD schools according to school variation.

Ranking of countries based on variations between and within schools. Image: Professor Jari Lavonen.

Lesson three: Trust the professionalism of teachers

The excellent results achieved by Finland on the PISA assessment are a result of the autonomy and trust that teachers are given. As many countries move towards increased accountability of teachers through standards, inspections and appraisals, Finland has moved away from these trends.

In Finland they trust their teachers to know their students through collaboration, networking and partnerships. In contrast, many other countries are allocating resources to generate increased competition, nationwide testing of students and subsequent school rankings.

Furthermore, Finland does not rely on test-based accountability. Their system relies on the expertise and professionalism of teachers who are committed to educating all students. As a result, Professor Lavonen says the output of their system is trust and autonomy from quality teachers who undertake rigorous courses.

In Finland, there are also no ‘standards' for teachers to demonstrate, no external appraisals, no inspections of classes and no national testing of students. In our opinion, the removal of check measures in teaching in Finland has promoted a goal-orientated and quality-focused culture within schools that are in the position to promote innovation through the building of networks locally and through global partnerships. Whether it is coding, robotics, project-based learning or other innovations, all teachers have the professional knowledge, trust and autonomy to adapt the way they teach to cater for the needs of 21st Century learners in a global world.

Our next steps

Finland provided some great educational insights. It is important that we seek appropriate opportunities to implement our findings.

Staff in Finnish schools are regularly focusing on tertiary research studies. At present, at Parramatta Marist High in Sydney, we have a number of teachers who are enrolled in postgraduate study. Still, a next step would be to foster a culture where postgraduate study is the norm amongst all staff.

This could be done by providing staff with opportunities to participate in and develop academic research that has strong pedagogical concepts. The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers are a very good framework to support this focus, especially by engaging teachers in applying for higher levels of accreditation.

The second area of focus is the continual promotion of team teaching. This has evolved organically within the problem-based and project-based learning environment at our school as we seek opportunities to effectively integrate our curriculum.

However, our take away from Finland is that teachers need continual support in this collaborative teaching style. It is not simply about putting teachers together in a classroom and expecting great things. Teachers need constant work-embedded training in appropriate strategies and protocols in order to manage this environment. Furthermore, we need to support teachers so they understand how effective differentiation can be achieved through a team-taught learning environment, utilising small group workshops which drive the overall learning intentions.

We can learn a lot from the Finnish system. However, it isn't all doom and gloom for the Australian education system. There is a growing movement of schools taking ownership at a local level to interpret how we teach, rather than focusing just on what we teach. Schools are also attempting to move away from teacher-centered learning environments, to student-centered collaborative environments that are supported by appropriate technology.

As teachers, our professionalism needs to meet the needs of the 21st Century, especially in terms of the graduates coming from university. Teaching is a profession, not a job, and we need well-equipped professionals to ensure that we gain trust-based responsibility from all stakeholders.

In our opinion, it is only in this environment that teachers will be trusted to make appropriate decisions regarding what is ‘best practice' in teaching and learning. This will ensure that there is equality in the education of Australian students, especially in comparison to other students around the world.

Kiitos Finland.

Image © Shutterstock/Olga Smirnova

Have you embarked on a professional learning trip?

What did you learn from the experience?

How can you incorporate this into your own practice?