Copy Paste or inspiration? Comparing countries in education

We like to compare. How many medals does your country pick up at the Olympics? How far did you travel? Comparing educational systems can have several reasons, but lately it is often inspired by economical motives. A country that scores higher on e.g. the PISA-tests is working on smarter kids and will win the race in a knowledge society. So, what does everybody do if they want to do better? Look at the top to see how they do, off course. That is why everybody nowadays is looking at Finland, being at the top of the PISA-rankings most of the time. Btw, Poland can also be of interest as they have successfully adapted a change in education.

This post is not to say that Finland are wrongly at the top (I do think they are doing a great job, actually), but to describe the difficulty to pinpoint a reason for success.

First of all, what does it mean to have a successful educational system?

The background of PISA is economical and they look at how pupils in regions do at math, language or sciences and possible influences. Means being good at these topics that your education is good? Good question, but what about feeling good? Some of the countries at the top of the PISA-rankings are also on the top of youth-suicide (this does not mean that there is a causal relation).

Secondly education is embedded in a society with specific characteristics and traditions. Some examples. Is the country rich or not? A very young population or rather old? A tradition of free schools or public schools? Btw, ‘free schools’ can have many different meanings depending the region or country.

This is a third problem, words can sound and look the same, but have sometimes very different meanings. I took part myself in several international educational projects and quite often there is a phase of defining what everything means to each other.

These are just 3 problems you can encounter, 3 of many more. Just to say, blind copying an approach or parts of an approach can be very dangerous. Finland has a comprehensive education system but one can’t say for sure this is the success factor, because other ‘comprehensive countries’ are doing much worse even with systems very close to what Finland does.

No, comparing is for inspiration and inspiration can only be found if you thoroughly analyse the educational system including as much of the context from the country or region you can get.

12 thoughts on “Copy Paste or inspiration? Comparing countries in education

  1. And what about inspiration out of a remix by copy pasting good working parts at random since there is no ‘universal’ (single) recipe for successfull education?

    1. Random as in not well thought about? Inspired can and is good, if you are taking into account the context in the other parts of the world and your own context.

  2. Thanks for the post, Pedro. I’ve started doing some research as well into the Finland system. In the US, Finland has been held up as a model, mostly crediting their success to their method of “trusting” the teachers to decide on the curriculum and how to evaluate learning. But I’m quite interested in how public education is funded in Finland versus here in the US. In the US, public schools are funded by local property taxes, so there are huge discrepancies in budgets for schools in higher vs. lower socio-economic areas. Unsurprisingly, test scores, rates of drop-outs, etc. are directly related to budgets. I think there are many issues that are likely to be at play that are less publicized here in the US. I’m having fun doing some digging!

    1. Comparing the different Scandinavian countries can be interesting, e.g. Norway is quite similar looking at the demography and approach, but doesn’t have the same results.

    2. Karen:

      When trying to reconcile high performance with our traditional American funding and local control structure, I find Ontario is a more helpful comparison than Finland. Our neighbors still have a local property tax that fund schools, but have used a combination of things to give parents choices while also equalizing funding. Their methods combine elements of the American right and left, and the result is that public secular and Catholic schools are relatively high-performing, funded, and open to parent choice. Local districts have the ability to direct the use of funding, and the Province ensures that smaller districts can get what they need. This equalization model means giving up some local control, but it has led to more even performance as well, and is a more stable way (I argue on my blog) to equalize funding that the model used here in Mass.

      All this from a top-5 PISA performer makes Canada worth looking at, I think.

  3. Fantastic post – I’m from Finland and fully support your writing. Personally, I went to the “elite” school (publicly funded like 99,9% of Finnish schools) of Eastern Helsinki and it did not teach me anything, I kid you not. I got A’s and A+’s without any effort. But I did get bullied by some violent pupils in my class throughout the 7 years I spent there, and indeed, in my case the school did much more harm than good. Bullying is a massive problem in Finland, leading researcher Christina Salmivalli has written tons of insightful research papers and books about it; at any time in Finnish schools about 15% of students are being bullied (a minimum of 2-3 pupils per class) -> this causes depression, suicidal tendencies, other problems that can ruin the life of these students who often are amongst the “gifted” ones – so it’s a waste of talent. But Finland likes to have everyone on the same level, so the teachers think that the bright students have ‘too much going for them’ anyway and overlook the mental torture that this causes.
    There are other alternative explanations for Finland’s PISA success – all I can say is from my and friends’ personal experience is that is this is the best the schooling system has to offer, then we’ve reached a point of desperation.
    p.s. I went to a Montessori school as a small kid and it made me ‘bright’ , learned to read at 3 etc. Also early music study helped massively. A lot of Finns study music at a young age so this *could* have an effect – it’s in the culture to do this privately at a young age – however do not expect to learn music skills at the school system. Montessori, as we know, is an Italian innovation and one that every educator (who’s familiar with its results) knows should be made the standard. As for the standard Finnish “elite” schooling, wow, it works if you’re dumb and violent. At least in the elite school of Eastern Helsinki (Itäkeskuksen peruskoulu it was called at the time, they may have changed the name).
    p.p.s. I could go on about this topic forever but basically in this space it all comes down to this: Don’t believe the hype.

  4. @Liisa “Finland likes to have everyone on the same level”
    In the Flemish version of the PISA-2003 report we read that Finland succeeded in lowering the spread (between strong and weaker students). The reason: significant decline in the performance of the top-students.

    And apparently the OECD seems pleased, after the conclusion above, the OECD wrote on its website:
    Finland once again came out top in the OECD’s latest PISA study of learning skills among 15-year-olds, with high performances in mathematics and science matching those of top-ranking Asian school systems in Hong Kong-China, Japan and Korea. But some low-performing countries showed only small improvements or actually did less well, widening the gap between the best and poorest performers.

    In other words: doing well = narrowing the gap.
    Top-performer Finland Improves Further in PISA Survey as Gap Between Countries Widens: (,2340,en_2649_201185_34010524_1_1_1_1,00.html)

    I doubt bullying is a much bigger problem in Finland. Perhaps it can be more openly discussed. Since decades, Scandinavia leads in the research of bullying.

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