The real reason why Finland tops everyone at PISA tests

Almost a decade ago, two researchers wanted to know why is it that despite Finland and Norway had very similar education systems, Finland thrived in PISA tests, yet Norway fell to the OECD mean. Norway had been the only Nordic country that had even fallen below that mean in 2005. Another peculiarity was that the standard deviation of Finnish results was very small, compared to anyone, and Norwegian as large as the OECD average. That means, Finnish students had very narrow gap between the high and low performers, and Norwegians had a much wider gap between them.

One sunny day early spring, I believe, in 2007 or 2008, I can’t quite remember, my class teacher came to my class at the break and approached some of us, told our names, that she wants us to come with her. We were confused- What’s happening. Oh! We will get to do the PISA pilot study! How cool! The room was full of middleschoolers, the divide was chasmic – mostly brighter students, and some really poor students, you know, those who’d spend their days racing on scooters around the village, bullying others in school, not paying attention, and bragging how much they drink at parties. It was a common stereotype in my middle school. One of these, a sixth grader, tried to be funny and asked about the “19…” gap left for filling in your birth year that what if he was born in 2000. Considering how we were selected and what the divide in the room looked like, it seemed far from random selection, and rather skewed.

What the researchers, Norwegian and Finn, Hausstätter and Takala (2011) found in their study was that in Finnish schools, first years are mainly focussed on learning to read and everyone who has the slightest trouble are given special education. Its duration and intensity set according to need. However, in Norway, special education was given only to those children who had learning disabilities, and other subjects were taught in tandem. If someone has not mastered functional reading yet, that is, they can read, they understand how to put together letters, but cannot understand what those words in conjunction exactly mean, then how could they understand other topics if most of instruction is heavily reading based?

Remember text based math problems? The PISA pilot in Estonia that I participated in was full of them. I enjoyed them thoughout school, but these make a lot of people churn and growl. Considering this, how can this test say anything about students’ math skills if it requires functional reading primarily? How can anyone start expecting kids to learn other subjects, if they haven’t mastered their mother language that allows them to understand concepts at least to some extent?

But what about Finland revolutionizing education by introducing discovery learning? Wasn’t this amazing that they’re eliminating subjects and have a lot of group learning in place?


Maybe. But I wouldn’t follow the hype.

This new style of teaching will hopefully help with that kids will keep asking a lot of questions and stay curious. However, as learning and knowledge depend on experiences, if you haven’t had a certain experience to learn that it’s possible to think in a totally different pattern, or to ask a question from a totally different perspective, or you just have no knowledge of some basic principle or concept, you won’t just come up with it by yourself. If those who do come up with it do not ask those questions nor make those comments, you will miss out on them and possibly lack the understanding of some possibly vital concept. That’s why it’s important to have teachers around to tell us about stuff. The problem in most schools isn’t that kids are being lectured, but that the way they are lectured is boring.

Discovery learning sounds nice, but through it it’s way too easy to make false assumptions based on what you see. Interpreting the information we acquire through our senses (khmm, that is, all of the information) is an easy prey for confirmation bias, especially if we have to be the ones who make the conclusions. Having someone contradict your beliefs and explain this, resulting, hopefully, in change of beliefs, is a crucial part of learning.

About group and project based learning, some Finns have told how kids they know have been traumatized. The problem was that very young students had to present their work and since the study process was more about discovering by yourself, they lacked the necessary guidance and training of how to do presentations and how to regulate their emotions while being in front of everyone. Kids had their first experiences and many became terrified of public speaking. This is, of course, people’s own stories that is subject to availability heuristics, that is, if we talk about this matter, we will hear more examples from people who have experienced similar situations and ignore the examples that contradict this view. The point made here is one of the threats that can become a problem if it’s not addressed mindfully enough by the teachers who plan their class activities.

Luckily the change in Finnish system is much more multidimensional, so there is hope that the mentioned caveats won’t become overly distinguished.

Why is it good to have subjects in school?

Imagine you’re building a city. That city is a model of all of your knowledge. In one universe you start by building foundations of buildings that will likely be big, each foundation represents a basic topic and is connected to related topics by roads between them. When you lay your stories on top of each other and build that structure, all information about one topic is closely tucked near each other, and when topics relate to others in other buildings at higher floors, you build either a cable or a horizontal elevator to travel between them, or even merge the buildings in some parts. Whenever you need a problem solved, you know where to find the relevant pieces of information.

However, in another universe you build it, project by project. First you build a house, big enough for a very big family. Each room in the house represents each topic needed to finalize your project. Every project you make, you build a house like that. It might be easy to travel between the houses, the ones you visit most, but over time you build so many of them that you get lost and have trouble knowing on which address you had which topics in store. And so, eventually, many different houses store the same information, in slightly different variations, according to how you used it in each of the situations. Your knowledge becomes scattered and hard to find.

Having subjects in school, separated at first like the skyscrapers, is necessary to organize knowledge, and understand concepts. Organizing is relevant to know how they relate to one another, and that helps to retrieve that information when there is need. Of course, many people have the problem that they didn’t throw enough cables around to other blocks, or they were not prompted to merge their skyscrapers at some points, or build two towers on top of one building. If they do, it becomes much easier to use their knowledge creatively: you know where to find what. When you find it, you remember other information related to it. It’s simple to see relationships between concepts.

Eventually, my point was said in the beginning. It is likely that it’s not the revolutionization of instruction that makes Finland top everyone, but it’s more likely it’s the heavy focus on learning to read early in school that results way better and way more cohesive results in the tests. (Or, alternatively, maybe the students selected to take the tests are all the brighter kind? – That’s unlikely though).

I’ll finish off with smart words from Toomela: same observed behavior can be the outcome of several different underlying processes. By observation only we cannot distinguish which of these resulted the observed behavior.



Hausstätter, R. S., & Takala, M. (2011). Can special education make a difference? Exploring the differences of special educational systems between Finland and Norway in relation to the PISA results. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 13. 271-281

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