Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Finnish perceptions of PISA Success: Previous Research, Part One

Finland's success in PISA has led to publications both within and outside Finland addressing the issue.

The University of Jyvaskyla, a respected university in Finland, and especially respected for the caliber of the Department of Education, released two articles on the matter.

A document entitled "The Finnish Success in PISA -- And Some Reasons Behind It: PISA 2000" was written in 2002 by Professors Valijarvi, Linnakyla, Kupari, Reinikainen, and Arffman. A similar document addressed entitled "The Finnish Success in PISA -- And Some Reasons Behind It 2" was released in 2007 and was written by Professors Valijarvi, Kupari, Linnakyla, Reinikainen, Sulkunen, Tornroos, and Arffman.

The second document described the Finnish reaction to high outcomes in PISA and the paradigm shift of educational interest that occurred after the release of PISA results:
The outstanding success of Finnish students in PISA has been a great joy but at the same time a somewhat puzzling experience to all those responsible for and making decisions about education in Finland. At a single stroke, PISA has transformed our conceptions of the quality of the work done at our comprehensive school and of the foundations it has laid for Finland's future civilisation and development of knowledge. Traditionally, we have been used to thinking that the models for educational reforms have to be taken from abroad. This sudden change in role from a country following the example of others to one serving as a model for others reforming school has prompted us to recognise and think seriously about the special characteristics and strengths of our comprehensive school (Valijarvi, et al., 2007, p. 3).

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Data Collection and Research Approach

I conducted research qualitatively, using observations, interviews, and documentary research. The nature of qualitative research assumes a "world in which reality is socially constructed, complex, and ever changing" (Glesne, 1999). In order to fully capture and understand the nuances within the Finnish educational context, I decided on a qualitative approach to the research.

I chose to interview education officials and investigate lower secondary schools, purposely covering the same age group as in the PISA surveys. I also chose to interview Finnish education ministers, Finnish PISA test administrators, professors of education in Finland, PISA test creators at the OECD, heads of schools, an teachers in order to gather data and to explore the research questions.

Research Questions

This research originally stemmed from an interest in Finland. This interested spawned an academic interest concerining the bilingualism of the country. However, the advent of PISA sparked a new twist on the academic interest of the country, relating specifically to its education system.

Many have wondered about the reasons for Finnish success in PISA and the factors behind it.

This is the main research question:
  • In light of the results of the OECD's PISA surveys, how can we explain the phenomenon of Finland's educational success?

Upon further investigation, two sub-questions emerged. The first tackles the perceptions of Finns involved in education on their performance in PISA, as well as the perceptions of the PISA creators at the OECD.

The second one takes some of the warnings of policy borrowing into account and delves into the external factors influencing Finland's success in PISA.

  • What are the perceptions of Finland's education officials, PISA test administrators, heads of schools, and teachers of this success and how do they explain the outcomes?
  • Which external factors, historical, social, political, and cultural, influence the success of Finland in PISA?

Monday, 12 October 2009

Acceptance Criteria and Course Requirements for Teacher Training Programs

For acceptance to the University of Helsinki teacher training program, applicants must:

1) Pass the university entrance examination with a high score
2) Pass a book test
3) Have an interview
4) Perform a teaching exercise based on a group interaction.

During their studies, they must take a research-based approach to teacher training. Therefore, they must study for a master's degree. Teachers of Grades 1-6 must have a master's degree in pedgagogy, while subject teachers must have a master's degree within their subject, although they can choose to write a master's degree in pedagogy.

All teachers have teaching practice in special teacher training schools affiliated with a university's teacher training program.

Teacher Training Today

Curently, twelve universities have teacher training courses. Moving all teacher training to the university level shows the unification within the teacher training programs, no matter what the level or discipline (Begrem, et al., 1997).

Finland has more professors of education than the rest of the Scandinavian countries combined (Kivinen & Rinne, 1994).

Today, teacher training courses still accept approximately 10% of their 5,000 applicants (Kivinen & Rinne, 1994; Sahlberg, 2007, p. 154).

All teachers have a univeristy education. Teachers for pre-primary schools have a bachelor's degree from either a university or a polytechnic. Teachers in vocational schools need to have a higher or postgraduate degree within their subject, either from a university or a polytechnic. If a higher degree does not exist within their field, they must have the highest possible qualification within their subject. In addition to academic qualifications, vocational teachers must have at least three years experience within their field, in addition to the pedagogical coursework.

Professional Teachers

Teachers in Finland are perceived as professionals. This stems from both the shift of teacher training to an academic subject in universities, and the educational reforms decentralizing decision-making to schools (Begrem, et al., 1997).

Professional teachers:

1) Perceive personal enrichment as a professional asset
2) Appreciate cooperation and interaction with students and colleagues
3) Realize their responsibility and value their autonomy
4) Dedicate themselves to their work (Begrem, et al., 1997).

The decentrlization and devolution of school control also add to the increased responsibility of teachers. The current Finnish school curricula allow teachers freedom and autonomy, in addition to a culture of trust for teachers within Finnish society. This trust even includes politicians and economists, something rare in other countries (Simola, 2005).

Popularity of Teaching

Teaching also enjoys popularity. A 2004 poll of upper-secondary school graduates showed that 26% of students naming teaching as the most sought-after profession (Sahlberg, 2007). Even though there are some teaching shortages (especially in mathematics and science) teaching is still the most popular profession and overtakes careers such as law, medicine, engineering, and journalism (Simola, 2005).

The popularity of teaching comes from the master's degree requirement. The degree benefits both schools and society as a whole. A qualified teacher can gain employment not only in schools but also in occupations within both the public and private sector. A teaching degree also allows entrance to other postgraduate degrees, with explains an increase in PhDs among teachers and principals. Master's degrees also indicate the depth, breadth, and general high quality of teacher training, in addition to reinforcing trust in teachers by society and parents (Sahlberg, 2007).

High Status of Teaching

The teacher education reforms have succeeded in improving the quality of teachers and their status in society (Begrem, et al., 1997). The enviable position of teachers in Finnish society reaps great benefits for the education system. The respect and high status of teachers come from people from all types of socio-economic backgrounds (Simola, 2005).

Along with the high status of teachers come respect and satisfaction from the consumers, the parents. A 1995 survey showed that 86% of parents had high satisfaction with teaching (Simola, 2005).

Teacher Training: Major Reforms, Part Two

The reforms to teacher training help explain the respect for teachers and teaching in Finland:

"The long march of teachers from despised and underprivileged civil servants to the core of the academic elite has been more glorious and successful in Finnish society than in most countries of the world" (Kivinen & Rinne, 1994, p. 521).

The example of primary school teachers illustrates this fact. Even as far back as 1890, primary school teachers wanted their training within universities, and not in seminaries (Simola, 2005). Before World War II, more primary school teachers had an upper-secondary education than their colleagues in any other country. After the founding of the Jyvaskyla College of Education in 1934, more universities developed faculties of education, eventually including the training of primary school teachers and raised the level of their training within the educational hierarchy. In the 1950s, the teachers' union insisted that primary school teachers have training at the same level of grammar school teachers, from a university (ibid.).

The educational reforms of the 1970s fully supported the training of primary school teachers at the university level. The comprehensive school reforms (1972-1977) and the teacher education reforms (1973-1979) had a sister reform, the General Syllabus and Degree Reform in Higher Education (1977-1980), which abolished the bachelor's degree and subsequently raised the level of primary school teacher education to the master's level in 1979 (Simola, 2005).

Teacher Training: Major Reforms, Part One

In 1971, the Teacher Training Act moved all teacher training to the university level. These teacher training reforms mirror the school reforms of the 1970s. Seven universities at that time had teacher training departments, one of them Swedish-speaking. These programs all led to a master's degree in education, the formal training for all teachers in Finland, including the primary school level.

Primary teacher training, originally a three-year program at teacher training colleges, expanded to a four-year, then finally five-year programs in universities in the late 1970s (Sahlberg, 2007). The reforms to prepare teachers as professionals and researchers create the foundations of teacher training reforms.

The attention to teacher training within the general educational reforms illustrated the objective of professionalizing and "academizing" teacher training (Begrem, et al., 1997). It also closed the gap between educational science and teacher education. Finnish teachers, even those not currently engaged in any educational research, thus maintain a strong knowledge of educational theory (ibid.).

Finnish teacher training maintains popularity and high quality. In 1982, only 10% of applicants were accepted into teacher training programs (Whittaker, 1983).

Teacher Training: History, Part Two

Independence in 1917 further emphasized the need for a united teacher training system. In 1934, the Jyvaskyla College of Education trained teachers after completion of secondary school. Even at this early time, teaching and teacher training held great respect in Finland, eventually achieving an established academic status (Kivinen & Rinne, 1994).

The reforms of teacher education in Finland illustrate the educational change so closely interwoven with politics, the economy, and society, and the reassessment and reconstruction the Finnish government underwent in the twentieth century (Begrem, Bjorkvist, Hansen, Carlgren, & Hauge, 1997). Post World War II forced Finland to reconsider the role of education in social and economic development.

Despite the founding of post-secondary teacher training institutions, many of the teaching seminaries continued to exist. In 1968, however, a committee determined that all teacher training courses would require an upper-secondary school qualification and that they would consist of a four-year course of study, culminating in a master's degree in education. Therefore, all teacher training would take place in universities (Kivinen & Rinne, 1994).

Teacher Training: History, Part One

We can see the history of Finnish teacher training in three phases:

1) "Quasi-monastic" training, in order to educate the agrarian society
2) Teacher training in seminaries
3) University teacher training

Under Russian rule, a movement began to nationalize education and teacher training. A Finnish-speaking seminary opened up in the 1863, and a Swedish-speaking seminary opened in the 1870s.

The development of a basic national school increased the need for more structured teacher training.

Despite the enviable position that Finnish teachers enjoy today, this ascent to a high place in society took a great deal of effort. This included a resistance from the land-owning peasant class to having schools within their municipalities until the early 1900s, when, at that comparatively late time, nearly every municipality had a school (Simola, 2005).

The bitter Civil War of 1918 divided the country and also its views of teachers and education. The War led some to believe that only missionary-style teaching could save the immoral masses, some to stop believing in a universal society, and the elite to no longer believe in education for all (Simola, 2005).

Not until World War II did the country begin to re-unify in its view of teaching and education, as teachers once again became worthy of trust.

Teacher Training: Background

The teacher training programs of Finland reflect the high status of teachers and the professional reputation of the teaching profession. In the Nordic countries, teaching has an element of professional competition, as those unqualified for teaching become excluded from the labor market. The trend towards professionalism and the movement towards university training also affected teacher training in Finland. The "academic drift" of teaching and other professions to the university level provides examples of this new trend of "neo-academic higher education curricula" (Kivinen & Rinne, 1994). In both Sweden and Finland, th emovement of teacher training to the university level coincided with the reforms of the comprehensive school, showing some consistency between the two countries (ibid.).