Category Archives: #Notes from the Education Seminars

Notes from the Education Seminars #5: How could we learn from each other and collaborate around the topics of education*?

Auli Toom, Adjunct Professor at the Faculty of Behavioural Sciences in the University of Helsinki blogs about the importance of collaboration in education

The discussion around the topics related to (Finnish) education and schooling seems to be lively, although it has started several years ago after the first PISA results. We have already got used to the thousands of questions that researchers, policy-makers, journalists and other visitors have in their mind when they come to our educational policy institutions, teacher education departments at universities as well as our local schools. We have many relevant and definite answers to the presented questions, but we also have areas that we don’t know anything about – yet. We also have some serious signals, like teachers’ and pupils’ well-being, emotional load and stress related to school work, that should be taken into account immediately.

Based on these conversations and thoughts, I have started to consider how we as researchers and professionals of education could learn from each other effectively and collaborate more innovatively, rather than only compare each other. How could we take a step further from mere comparison and start to work towards shared aims and aspirations? I have also thought what should be done now in order to guarantee the best possible basic education and teacher education also in the future. Future learning environments, teaching and learning methods, instructional tools and equipments as well as professional practices should be created during the next coming days. The efforts from policy makers, educational researchers, teachers as practitioners as well as pupils and parents are truly needed.

I’d like to share some thoughts and topics that could be valuable on all levels mentioned previously as well as a way towards the education and schooling of the future.

Trust between each other and in education

Trust between individuals and groups, is required to provide the basis for social order, and it is a foundation of solidarity and integration within societies. It facilitates stability, co-operation and cohesion and it is the basic premise upon which different approaches to educational policy and educational practice can rest. Trust is of prime importance in education: it ensures that participating individuals at every level of the educational system can be allowed greater freedom and be expected greater autonomy. I consider especially important trust relations between persons (administrators, teachers, students, parents) in all levels of schooling. These experiences of trust (and distrust) in daily schoolwork have deep and lasting impact on individuals and their communities.

Hope for a better society and life

Hope refers to a desire for positive futures that are considered possible, but not guaranteed. The term consists of understandings of future-oriented thought, feeling, and action. It is “an element of human nature, way of knowing, form of action or behavior, [and] learned orientation to the future”. As Inglis states, “a society’s education entails (in all senses) its future”. Hope is premised on the idea that human beings are capable of shaping the forces that structure their lives. In educational literature these themes connecting education and hope are echoed by many authors. These idealistic tones relate closely to education’s tasks and ability to promote social hope in societies.

The language of hope is a powerful tool to move teachers and students in their educational settings. Teaching as teacher’s primary work can also be seen both as a practice and as a “discipline of hope”. Conceptualizing education as a resource of hope gives us an insight to the power it can have for people in general, and people in educational institutions in particular: the hope that education can promise brighter individual and societal futures. Uncovering this idea allows us to better recognize how hope works to orient people’s social action – in this case, shaping the character of educational practices and its’ outcomes.

These themes are enormous and they really demand collective responsibility and continuous negotiations between everyone – but so are the matters of education as well. I think that they are Big Issues, important for us all – and worth the collaboration.

Auli Toom, PhD, Adjunct Professor
Faculty of Behavioural Sciences
University of Helsinki, Finland

* Toom, A. & Husu, J. (2012). Finnish teachers as ‘makers of the many’: Balancing between broad pedagogical freedom and responsibility. In H. Niemi, A. Toom & A. Kallioniemi (Eds.), Miracle of Education: The principles and practices of teaching and learning in Finnish schools (pp. 39-54). Rotterdam/Boston/Taipei: Sense Publishers.

Notes from the Education Seminars #4: Policy transfer, or an opportunity for reflection on ourselves?

Senior Researcher at the RSA, Louise Thomas, blogs about gaining new perspectives on England’s schooling system through comparing it with the Finnish one.

The education debate in the UK seems mired in sets of assumptions about accountability, teachers, curriculum, notions like ‘excellence’, ‘dumbing down’, ‘prizes for all’ and so on. Our opinions of our own education and that of our children, coupled with the peculiar English prejudice towards academic excellence, means that our thinking is often clouded by prejudice. I, for one, have found reflection on the Finnish system a tonic, allowing me to think outside of the particularity of the English system.

The question of whether education policy can be transferred successfully between nations with very different social and political structures is a particularly pertinent one to the UK at the current time. This seminar was therefore timely and asking all of the right questions; providing a critique of the construction of Nordic models of education used by UK politicians to justify reforms at home. Mary Hilson has critiqued this construction in some depth in her blog [link ‘her blog’ to

However, doubtful as we may be over whether policies transferred from one society to another will have the same beneficial outcomes, reflecting on another system is an important tool to enable us to understand our own better, and to imagine possible alternatives.

I’d like to share some of the elements of Finnish education (drawn from the discussions on the day, as well as Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons (2011)) that might illuminate how we might think differently about our own system, and perhaps begin to develop our own ideas about what an improved English education system might look like…not because we need to imitate another system. But because the contrast between the direction of travel for the UK and the assumptions that underpin attempts to ‘raise standards’ are contradicted by much of what happens in Finland, indicating that some of the things that we take for granted as necessary, although perhaps not desirable, might be questioned anew.

Assumption: high stakes external testing of children is necessary to maintain standards

•    In Finland there is no high stakes testing of children before the final certificate, or league tables for schools, yet standards (as measured by PISA rankings) are higher than in the UK

Assumption: Diversity of types of schools and competition between them is the best way to drive up standards

•    In Finland there is fully comprehensive provision for the first 9 years of schooling with very little variation between school performance. Ideas of good and bad schools are not relevant.

Assumption: starting formal schooling early is the best way to give children a head start in their education

•    Formal schooling in Finland does not begin until age 7, and all children have access to high quality, free at the point of access early years provision

Assumption: teachers should primarily be expert in a specific subject area and learn their ‘classroom craft’ in schools

•    Finnish teachers are trained as expert pedagogues and educational researchers to Master’s level in universities. Teacher education takes 5 years.

Assumption: children have different capabilities, and will perform at very different levels at age 11, and these levels can be given a number. A small minority with special educational needs are always going to perform less well than others.

•    All Finnish children are expected to be able perform at the same high level, with additional help provided to any child who is not keeping up. More than half of Finnish children have received some form of special educational needs provision by the time they leave school.

Louise Thomas
Senior Researcher at the RSA

Notes from the Education Seminars #3: Local, National, Transnational

Dr. Mary Hilson, Senior Lecturer in the department of Scandinavian Studies at UCL, blogs about Lessons from the North seminar held at the Finnish Institute in London at the end of March.
The second seminar in the Finnish Institute’s recent mini-series on education, “Lessons from the North”, was a collaboration with the UCL Nordic-Baltic Research Group, as the final seminar in their ESRC-funded seminar series “The Nordic and Baltic Countries in the European Political Imagination”.  Throughout the series we have explored different areas of policy exchange and transfer between the UK and the Nordic-Baltic region, including economic policy, health and welfare, tolerance and diversity, environment and energy. (link to

Our series, and indeed this particular seminar on education, raises the immediate question of how we construct these regions. Finland has been in the limelight recently as far as education policy is concerned (though the Coalition government also refers to the Swedish free schools), but the small countries of northern Europe seem to have had quite a privileged position in UK political discourse over much of the twentieth century. The idea of the Nordic or Scandinavian “middle way” stems from the 1930s but even before then, Danish provisions for adult education – the famous folk high schools – were attracting international attention from the UK and elsewhere. Historic constructions of the Nordic model thus provide an important context for current interest in a Finnish model. Often, though, important national differences are blurred in constructions of the region, and it became clear in the seminar that this is also the case in the UK, when the important point was made that we cannot, in fact, talk about a British education system. Most participants were speaking about English schools, which differ in important ways from their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Indeed, interest in Finnish education is not confined to England: as is well known, there is currently a strong interest in all things Nordic in Scotland, and I see that Pasi Sahlberg will be speaking on Finnish education to the Nordic Horizons group in Edinburgh in May. (link to

The day’s discussions were shaped around three excellent panels.  In the first, on “Education in diverse societies”, Olga Cara presented her research on language and bilingualism in Latvian schools, where Russian-speakers form a large minority but the language has no official status. Yvonne Mørck discussed results from fieldwork undertaken on “class travels” among  the pupils of Danish upper secondary schools. Arto Kallioniemi described challenges and adaptation in the Finnish education system to ethnic diversity as a result of recent immigration. Uvanney Maylor reported on a comparative research project examining different experiences of multi-cultural education in the UK, France, Greece, Poland and Iceland.
The second panel was on “Nordic and British School Models”, and two papers dealt with the Swedish free school model that has attracted the interest of the UK Education Secretary. Stephen Ball discussed the implications of the Swedish free schools for governance and accountability, given that most are provided by private, multi-national companies. Håkan Forsberg considered the implications of the 1992 free school reform in Sweden for patterns of social segregation in schools in the greater Stockholm area.  Sirkku Nikamaa shared some thoughts about assessment and educational access based on her own experiences as an educator (see her post on this blog Kristiina  Kumpulainen presented the Finnish model of a decentralised school system based on municipal autonomy, shaped by the principle of educational equality.
The third panel was titled “Teachers – Academics or Practitioners?” and dealt in particular with the question of teacher training and support. Riikka Koistinen spoke about her experiences working as a teacher in Finland and England. Auli Toom described teacher training in Finland, suggesting that teachers are not academics or practitioners – they are both. Bernadette Youens spoke about teacher training in England, which is extremely diverse but shares many of the principles of the Finnish system.
I attended this seminar as an outsider, with no claim to specialist expertise in education.  But based on the presentations and the subsequent discussions, there seemed to be three main issues:
1.     Can we speak of national models, when all education systems are diverse?
Diversity was one of the major themes of the day, and not just in the first panel. There were many references to the enormous diversity in the English education system, not just in the types of schools but also in the provisions for teacher education and training.  On the other hand, it is also important not to overlook the diversity in other systems, including Finland. In particular, we heard that there are major differences between the Helsinki metropolitan region and other parts of the country, which partly reflect more general differences between the urban areas and the sparsely populated rural districts.  Emphasis was placed on the importance of municipal autonomy within the Finnish system, which might be expected to give rise to some local variations.  Although the issue of bilingualism within the Finnish education system was not discussed in detail, one would also expect this to vary by region, since the Swedish-speaking population is concentrated in the south and west of the country.  Moreover, given the growing role of multi-national business in the provision of educational infrastructure (not just schools but also textbooks, electronic learning resources etc.), which Stephen Ball discussed in his paper, it may also be worth considering how relevant national models of education policy are relevant, and will continue to be so.  Sharing ideas across national boundaries may be more a question of contacts and exchange at sub-national levels. 
2.     How do policy transfers happen?
Scholars from various disciplines have paid a lot of attention recently to the transfer and exchange of ideas across national boundaries, pointing out that this rarely happens in a smooth linear fashion. Instead, ideas and policies are adapted and re-interpreted to suit different national contexts; and politicians may sometimes use another national example rhetorically to construct a rather fanciful utopia or dystopia that bears little resemblance to reality.  Moreover, policy transfer is never an a-to-b transfer, but always the product of a meeting and exchange between the exporter and the importer.  This seems to happen at two levels: on the one hand, a whole system can serve as a utopia, cited for rhetorical purposes; on the other, practitioners can learn from each other by sharing very practical, detailed, everyday experiences and ideas.  It might be unrealistic to suggest that England could import the “Finnish model” wholesale (even if that does indeed exist), but clearly both sides can profit from the transnational exchange and sharing of ideas that might be sparked by this broader interest.
The idea for this particular seminar initially emerged in the very specific context of English interest in the Finnish system.  But the different papers illustrated a much broader context than this: Latvian interest in Canadian bilingualism for example; examples of schools responding to ethnic diversity in France, Greece and Poland.  
3.     The challenges for education are transnational
Some of the problems discussed during the seminar were nationally specific: e.g. the challenges of integrating Russian- and Latvian-speaking groups in the Latvian case; the recent instability in the English system as a result of the change of government.  Several speakers emphasised how path dependencies matter, for example as the English system has to adapt to the legacy of the attempt to find a compromise on the religious issue in the 1870 and 1902 Education Acts. The extent to which Finland and the other Nordic countries have ever been socially homogeneous societies can be debated, in my view, but at least perceptions of homogeneity and national consensus have been rather powerful.
On the other hand, it is perhaps not surprising to find that the challenges faced by education are similar everywhere.  To summarise some that were discussed during the seminar, these include:
        How education systems can help to reinforce or undermine deeply entrenched patterns of social inequality and segregation, including differences of class, ethnicity, gender etc.
        How schools make the most of difference and avoid imposing conformity on their pupils, while at the same time also promoting equality.
        How the autonomy of teachers is best promoted, while making sure at the same time they are accountable and also properly supported by their peers.
        How schools adapt to the opportunities offered by new technologies.
Nobody much likes league tables. Schemes for assessment and testing in English schools were criticised for stigmatising pupils, reinforcing segregation and inequality, and undermining more creative approaches to learning. Moreover, it was suggested that most parents pay little attention to league tables when choosing schools, instead relying on knowledge gained through informal networks (and inevitably this tends to favour middle-class families who have better access to these types of network).  But I must comment on a little paradox here: the Finnish education system often seems to be lauded for its eschewal of testing and the ranking of pupils and schools, while at the same time, the current interest in Finland stems largely from the country’s success in just such a league table, namely the international PISA rankings.
It may be an obvious conclusion, but no system is perfect and we all clearly have much to learn from each other.
Many thanks to the Finnish Institute for hosting this event, and to all the speakers and participants for their contributions to a very interesting and stimulating discussion.
Dr. Mary Hilson
Senior lecturer at the department of Scandinavian Studies, UCL

Notes from the Education Seminars #2: The Times They Are a-Changin’, but what is the course education is taking?

Finnish Educator and Consultant, Sirkku Nikamaa-Berg, one of the panelists in the ‘Lessons from the North’ seminar, blogs about the future of education.

The pace of societal and technological change places increasing demands on individuals and communities yet schools seem to dawdle when they could and they should be fully engaged in the development. The task of basic education is to raise adults of the future, help prepare them for jobs that may not exist yet and to give them tools and capabilities for a good life. The goal of education cannot merely be the delivery of the curriculum, but the internalization of the underlying concepts, and the ability to think critically and act socially.

The slow pace of change in education is all the more astonishing and unacceptable given the fact that our understanding about what really works in learning is better than ever before. There is also an increasing amount of experience on how to implement new methods and how to overcome practical obstacles.
The goals for innovation and development strategies in education are similar everywhere. It is safe to say that every government is interested in developing 21st century skills, they want to engage and motivate students and prevent them from dropping out of education. They want to promote life-long learning, foster creative- and life skills and enhance wellbeing.
To achieve all this education authorities, researchers and schools are busy developing new pedagogies, boosting creative use of technologies in the classroom, encouraging collaboration, forming new partnerships and building bridges between formal and informal learning.
Development and upgrading of education and training are also seen as prime sources of national competitiveness. Rising creative industries, among others, have signaled that education is not meeting their needs. More opportunities for cross-curricular learning, for example STEM and arts is called for. Students also need knowledge and skill related abilities, ability and desire to learn, creative passion, enriching interaction and good self-confidence.
Courses of action
There are countless development initiatives and visionary projects to improve and change learning. Some of these projects generate new knowledge and put the latest research results to good use. As an example I could mention the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” in Singapore, iZone in New York City, Innovation Unit’s Learning Futures and the RSA’s Opening Minds in the UK. Universities world over produce excellent cross-disciplinary research and NGO’s create networks and projects to improve education. In Finland numerous development projects are funded and coordinated by the Board of Education, Cicero-learning Network at the Helsinki University and other universities. It is not uncommon for municipalities and schools to undertake their own development projects.
Interestingly, many development projects in Finland and in the UK focus on similar issues. Invariably they deal, in one way or the other, with engaging and empowering the student and promoting responsibility for own learning. The most commonly used practices are learning by doing, project based- and enquiry based learning, self-directed learning, creating local public private partnerships, innovative use of technology and BYOD (Bring your own device). Methods often include spaced learning and flipped classroom.
An obstacle course
The Finnish municipalities are rather autonomous and the system is based on trust in schools and teachers. The central government leans towards “steering by information” rather than uniform norms. Governing through legislation and resource allocation still play a role, but in Finland municipalities have room to apply the guidelines according to their particular contexts. Project-based development work, together with dissemination of research outcomes and other information, are the key “instruments” of information steering. However, controlling and making the most of this myriad of national and local development projects is challenging. Dissemination of the research results and implementation of the best practices is halting and many good initiatives benefit a limited number of schools and students.
In the UK the education system is more fragmented with independent schools, public schools, state schools, grammar schools, comprehensive schools, foundation schools, Church of England Schools, academies and free schools… just to name a few. The English education model is based on high stakes testing, inspections and ranking of schools. These measures are considered by some people to be important for ensuring the quality of education. They can also seen as instruments for improving education outcomes.
Competition between schools and constant measuring is likely to make schools more risk averse and introduction of new, more radical ideas on education is not easy. The need to stick to relatively fixed learning objectives, to teach to national tests and the fear of inspections make implementation of new ideas and methods seem more risky.
Changing the course
The goals of education and the trends in innovation and development are broadly speaking the same in Finland and in the UK. Excellent work and good practice in individual schools and by individual teachers does not unfortunately amount to large scale change by itself.
Innovative and good practices develop in an atmosphere of trust and a degree of autonomy is necessary. However, dependence and interdependence are essential for system improvement. Increased and improved networking locally and internationally will benefit everyone. In the area of education Finland has a lot to learn from the UK and vice versa. I call for new ways to disseminate research results and to share experiences.
The growth of the community-led Transition Town movement is a good example of networked change, how local action sparked a global movement. The Transition initiative is about local responses to global challenges. Put together, small-scale responses create a big impact that will show the way to people, businesses even governments. Their concept is the same, but different (local) where ever it takes root. 
One of the most difficult things for beginner sailors to learn is to look ahead, not inside the boat, not back or to the sides – but ahead – for where you look, that’s where you will end up. Educators and decision makers have to keep their sight on the student and his / her future needs and co-operate internationally to reach the best results.

Notes from the Education Seminars #1: What Was Said

Ilari Lovio blogs about the key perspectives discussed in recent education seminars, organised by the Finnish Institute with its various partners. These topics will be discussed further in the forthcoming series of blog posts on education.

During the last week of March, the Finnish Institute’s event series that tackles education from various perspectives started. Two seminars were held on the 29th and 30th of March, organised in cooperation with the Institute of Education, UCL Nordic-Baltic Research Group, University of Helsinki, and the Embassy of Finland in London.

The first seminar, held at the Institute of Education, titled In Teachers We Trust: Explaining the Finnish Miracle concentrated in elaborating on the Finnish education system and comparing it to the British model and recent reforms. The motive of this setup stemmed from the vast interest that Finnish education has drawn due to the top ranking PISA results.

The second seminar, held at the Finnish Institute in London, titled Lessons from the North? Education, Teaching and Schools, widened the scope of the comparison to include examples also from other Nordic, and Baltic countries. Differences, challenges and recent developments were addressed through panel discussions.

Considering the number of attendees, both events were hits! More people were eager to attend than was possible to accommodate. Having this in mind, we have decided to publish a series of blogposts that will elaborate on, as well as document, the key perspectives that were presented and discussed. This is why the title, ‘Notes from the Education Seminars’.

Education, teaching, and schools were discussed from various points of view during these seminars. However, I will point out here the key perspectives that rose to the center of discussions. These themes will also be elaborated in the following blogposts.

Equality and Excellence

One of the main underlying principles of the Finnish comprehensive school system is equality. The emphasis has been on narrowing down differences between schools to enable equal opportunity to every child. This can also be seen in the PISA results where Finland has a very low variation between pupils.

In the UK, at the same time, schools are much more diverse. There are, brilliant, high achieving schools, a well as poor schools. There are private schools, run by for-profit companies, state funded public schools, as well as so called faith-based schools.

The big question raised in the seminars is: Why are there such gaps in achievements of different schools in the UK? Is it determined by history, due to the heterogenic population of the UK, or outcome of conscious policies? That is the question.

Regarding Finland, on the other hand, question that was raised is that does the emphasis on equality collide with the pursuit of excellence? Are equality and excellence mutually exclusive in the world of comprehensive education, or not at all?

Teacher Education and Trust in Teachers

Finnish educationalists often emphasise the meaning of academic, research oriented, teacher education of Finnish teachers. To be a teacher in Finland requires a Master’s Degree in education. In the UK, at the same time, there are many ways to become a teacher and different providers offer teacher training, which makes the field much more diverse.

A word that repeatedly surfaced in the discussions around teachers and teaching is trust. While the Finnish educationalists emphasise autonomy and trust in teachers, many argued that in the UK there is distrust in teachers and teacher training from the government’s side, which manifests itself in the continuous testing and ranking of schools and pupils, and supervising the teachers’ performance as well.

At the same time, a question that was thrown to the Finnish was, how does one recognize and deal with poor teachers or ensure the transparency, if teachers’ autonomy is very high.

Changes and Challenges

What became clear during the seminars is that for the Finnish society, the late, but relatively rapid increase in ethnic diversity is a change that has to be considered also in education. A timely question is that, what kind of policies has to be developed to maintain the principles, goals, and features of Finnish education in a changing demographic situation.

Another societal change that was discussed, that both societies, Finland and the UK are facing is the increasing use of information and communication technology. What needs to be researched now is that how learning happens in the 21st century classroom and how does the use of ICT shape it.

Risks and Promises of Policy Transfer

As the purpose of these seminars was the exchange of knowledge, ideas and experiences, naturally the possibilities and conditions of policy transfer were on the agenda as well. Even though the importance of exchanging ideas was probably shared by the whole audience, at the same time, some crucially important notions were raised by the speakers about the risks of policy transfers that are based on superficial understandings of the societies and education systems in question.

To read more about education and the themes that were discussed in the seminars, keep following this blog and the forthcoming posts!

%d bloggers like this: