The slow decline of Finnish education

Surprise! Finland has climbed to the top of the list of the best school systems in the world. Since that time, Finnish education has exercised a certain fascination among many education players from all over the world, including Quebec. However, since then Finland has started its slow decline in the same list. Why ?

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Our collaborator Marc-André Girard is on an educational expedition to Finland and documents it here.

When I announced that I was going to Finland to visit schools and meet researchers in education, reactions to the antipodes manifested themselves: there are those who envied me and who are interested in " Finnish miracle And those who find it ridiculous to seek inspiration from a model in decline.

In 2006, against all odds, Finland climbed to the top of the world education ranking. Rather than taking the usual means to stay there, for example imposing a results-based management of the system, it has chosen to strengthen its student-centered approach: “Finland has the particularity of having little applied the global principles. school reform. It does not provide for standardized tests [for all pupils] nor for inspection of establishments ”. (Aedo, Alasuutari and Välijärvi, 2017). As a result, it declined, but for the past 15 years it has nonetheless remained among the best education systems.

Some blame the constructivist approach for this decline, the same approach that propelled this system to the top of the charts. Indeed, Finnish constructivism in education is certainly not the most effective approach, but it has been part of the school fabric since the early 1990s (Rantala, 2012). Moreover, the term constructivism is broad and used in all sauces, but when it comes to Finnish education, it is a question of two key terms grouped under the constructivist approach: collaboration and realism. According to Professor Tapio Puolimatka of the University of Jyväskylä, “the conception of learning in Finland is mixed, namely that it is both an individual and a collective process, based on the pupil's activity but also those of his learning environment ”(Puolimatka, 2002, p. 91-92). Following the first conclusions drawn by the pupils, there is a confrontation between the individual and collective conclusions to, subsequently, begin a negotiation of meaning making it possible to transform the whole, thanks to the guidance of the teacher, into learning. The teacher's role is essentially one of facilitation focused on the knowledge of his students and his ability to implement universal and differentiated teaching approaches.

On the spot, when I discussed Finland's decline in the world education ranking with several interlocutors, no one seemed moved by this situation. For them, the goal is not to be at the top of the list. Rather, it is to ensure that the students are at school as they are at home: happy, comfortable and very relaxed, as the tradition of wandering around the school in slippers or on "Bottom foot". The importance of “living together” is evident in each of the schools visited. The level of stress seemed minimal to us, even if our teacher interlocutors said they were stressed given the end of the stage and the delivery of notes, correction requires. It is not for nothing that Finland is, once again, designated as the happiest country in the world. The article following highlights the balance between students' academic performance and their well-being at school.

I was talking about it with Pasi sahlberg, professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He explained to me that you don't have to go to North America to hear the criticisms of the Finnish model in education. Even within the country's university network, voices are being raised to say that constructive pedagogy explains Finland's decline. However, other elements would explain this decline, elements which vary according to the people questioned and their epistemological position. According to teachers we met, the number of students in class would be detrimental to the quality of the link and to the teacher's ability to properly support each of the students placed under his responsibility. Also, Professor Sahlberg mentions that students' lifestyles have changed drastically since 2010 with the advent of video games and social media. He is currently conducting research in this direction and, although the conclusions are still not known, he thinks he finds some elements of answer.

However, we live in an age of polarization and, as a result, it seems that all social debates have to take a Manichean form: this is good and everything else is bad. It seems to me that there are so many factors and nuances in education, especially these days, that it is rather risky to draw up comparisons one way or the other, which includes rankings like that of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). This writes, the fact remains that the Finnish system does not operate solely on a constructivist basis. Teachers demonstrate, model, explain, problem-solve, and employ directive approaches as well. The inspiration for the entire system is decidedly constructivist, but the approaches vary according to the needs of the students and the themes to be taught.

Finally, several Western systems emphasize the importance of standardization and uniformity, on disciplinary knowledge and skills and on a principle of individual accountability for student results. In Finland, it's different. Instead, according to Puolimatka, the emphasis is on flexibility and diversity (also known as " small data »), On general knowledge, on transversal skills and, finally, on trust in teachers, thanks to a monitoring system carried out by school administrators. Obviously, each of the professionals working with the students is de facto responsible for the results of the students, but they are not "held responsible". If there are similarities, there is nevertheless a major difference: in Finland, the results obtained by the pupils serve as a basis for a discussion of a reflective nature on the pedagogical approaches deployed and the assistance to be given to pupils in difficulty, which differs from a system, such as in the United States, where schools deemed to be inefficient may be closed.

It is also important to underline, in conclusion, that teachers, management, decision-makers and the school network in general are very close to the educational research community. Researchers play a preponderant role in the implementation of educational approaches, but also in establishing the general orientations of the system. Faculties of education are very influential, and in Finland as in many other countries, educational research has a tradition of rigor, excellence, and it produces theoretical and professional knowledge at an impressive rate, perhaps because do teachers have a master's degree and have a teacher-researcher profile?

Aedo, C., Alasuutari, H. and Välijärvi, J. (2017). Education: the Finnish miracle? Spotted at

Puolimatka, T. (2002). Opetuksen teoria: Konstruktivismista realismiin. Tammi.

Rantala, J. (2012). How Finnish adolescents understand history: Disciplinary thinking in history and its assessment among 16-year-old Finns. Education Sciences, 2(4), 193-207.

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About the Author

Marc-André Girard
Marc-André Girard
Marc-André Girard holds a bachelor's degree in social studies education (1999), a master's degree in history education (2003), a master's degree in education management (2013) and a doctorate in education (2022). He specializes in school-based change management and educational leadership. He is also interested in the 21st century competencies to be developed in education. He is a principal in a public high school and gives conferences on educational leadership, pedagogical approaches, change in schools and the professionalization of teaching. He has participated in educational expeditions in France, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Morocco. In September 2014, he published the book "Le changement en milieu scolaire québécois" with Éditions Reynald Goulet and, in 2019, he published a trilogy on the 21st century school with the same publisher. He is a frequent contributor to L'École branchée on educational issues. He is very involved in everything that surrounds the professional development of teachers and principals as well as the integration of ICT in education. In March 2016, he received a CHAPO award from AQUOPS for his overall involvement. He is a recipient of the Régent-Fortin 2022 scholarship awarded by ADERAE for the significant contribution of his doctoral studies to the development of practice and knowledge in educational administration.

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