The three REAL reasons for Finland’s high PISA scores.

IMG_0459I bet all of you are tired of my rose-colored posts on the seemingly perfect Finnish Education system.   I just imagine you saying at home “Ok, we get it. Finland has a utopic education system, with a never-ending supply of recesses, free lunch, snack times and breaks. Students have less homework, fewer classes and less stress. We have read your article on how “Less is More”, and we understand that Finland has created an idealistic learning environment. But this really doesn’t explain their high scores on international assessments like PISA.”

You are right. It is confusing and counter intuitive. If I am being brutally honest with you, the math in a typical secondary level Finnish classroom is not particularly rigorous or advanced. While the instruction is sound and I have few critiques on the actual teaching, the topics covered in most classes were not extremely difficult.   The actual calculations and content covered in a 9th or 10th grade level class, even the honors classes, were all topics I could easily assign to my high achieving 7th graders (Finnish 6th graders).

So, what enables Finnish 15 year old students to rank at the top of the PISA scores while the U.S. scores remains incredibly average or even below?

How do Finnish students, who spend their evenings skateboarding, playing video games or hanging out with friends, perform almost as high as those from Singapore or Korea where kids go to a “second school” after public school until 10:00 pm and follow that up with 4 or more hours of homework? It doesn’t add up.

Finland’s education system sounds great and wonderful and full of sunshine and rainbows, but how does it work? How are they getting such great scores in math?

1.  It is all about the law of Averages. Finland is a country where everyone does “Well”.

Finland, a country that prides itself on equitable education, does a great job at getting and keeping everyone on the same playing field. Mirroring the philosophy of their society and governmental structures, education in Finland is more concerned with the collective good and making sure that every student does well instead of focusing on competition, tracking and ranking.

The result is that every student learns what they need to learn and does quite well at the basics, but not much more. There are very few high achievers. In fact on the recent PISA assessment Finland, while ranking far above the international average, Finland only had around 15% reach a top performing category, while the Asian Nations who beat Finland had between 30 to 50% of their students reach that top category. Yet, at the same time Finland had very few students on the low spectrum.

In Finland no one is pushed to become great, but no one gets left behind either. When everyone in society is doing at least “okay”, this creates a collectively high average that beats the average of a country like the U.S. or China that have gigantic educational achievement gaps that mirrors their societal and economic structures.

It isn’t a secret that the U.S. society is obsessed with competition. This mentality has created an education system that continually pushes students to learn and achieve at high levels. Which isn’t necessarily bad. Our system, that is based on competition and ranking, is very good at creating a huge group of students who excel and thrive in very advanced mathematical courses.

However, we have become so focused and intent on pushing our kids to learn more and more, that we create a hole in actual student understanding and their natural progression of learning.   It is starting to become common practice to put 5th and 6th graders into Algebra, which I think is crazy, unnecessary and detrimental!  U.S. kids are very good at following steps and getting the correct answer, but they have no idea what those answers mean or how they can be applied to real life situations.

And while all U.S. students are exposed to much more mathematics than the average Finnish student, this doesn’t mean they actually understand or retain all of that math information.   And many can’t keep up with the impossible standards. Thus, we have the flip side to the American coin. We have a massive amount of students, especially in less affluent States and communities who are failing math completely.

In the spitting image of our American economy, we have a large successful group at the top but an even larger group at the bottom who pull our collective score below international averages.  Finnish academic performance also reflects its economy. Everyone does well or at least okay and so the collective scores are high.

It is no accident that academic achievement mirrors the country’s economic structures.  We will never fix our broken education system in the U.S. until we fix our broken economic system.  Students will continue to fail academically as long as they live in fear, hunger and poverty- no matter what educational reforms or policies we enact.  To the most extent these roadblocks do not exist in Finland.  All students are fairly equal in terms of provisions and care at home.  Most Finnish students come to school feeling safe, fed, loved, wanted and ready to learn.

However, I wonder if this “everyone is doing okay, so lets not worry about it” mentality is going to be a problem for Finland in the future. I have visited several math classrooms all around Helsinki and I often think that there are a handful of students that could be pushed to learn more and perform at higher levels. Perhaps a little more competition and challenge would be healthy for Finland’s youth.   Like everything in life, there is usually a happy medium.

 2.  It isn’t about Calculations, Formulas or Factoring!

Math classrooms in Finland do not focus on calculations, solving algebraic equations, or what I would call formal mathematics. In fact I visited a 9th grade honors classroom where students were learning how to calculate the volume of a triangular prism for the first time. They were also struggling with what I would consider basic algebra concepts that would be simple to my 7th graders.

However, It didn’t take me long to recognize that Finnish math education isn’t overly concerned with calculations or formulas. The kids in Finland don’t do rows and rows of algebraic problems. They don’t sit around factoring complex equations for months on end. They are taught more practical skills and ways of thinking about and learning mathematics.

And if you take a look at the PISA questions you can quickly see why Finnish students are succeeding and U.S. students are failing. The questions do not look like the questions on an American math exam. There are no equations to solve or problems to calculate.

I recently took the PISA exam out of curiosity and to my surprise it looked more like a logic exam than a math exam. There were no what I would call “pure” math questions. They were all logical real life questions. I could do most of the problems in my head. All I had to do is sit and think the question through rationally and use my previous experiences and knowledge of the world to help me work out the problem. I didn’t reach for a pen and paper once to calculate or solve.

This is the KEY my friends. The PISA exam does not measure a students ability to solve a mathematical equation or calculate the answer to a directly given math problem.   It doesn’t require factoring skills or differentials.   The mathematics used in this international assessment of “What students should know” is actually fairly simple and straightforward every day math.

The math itself is not complicated or difficult. The students must read the problem, assess the situation, and figure out the answer. And the Finnish students who have been treated more like adults than children have more real life experiences from which to pull to problem solve. They have been given independence at a young age and have therefore figured out how to deal with real-life issues and problems on their own.

They have also had an education system that has not spoon-fed them all of the answers. They have learned how to read through a problem, think it through logically and actually attempt to find an answer before they give up.

The U.S. needs to focus less on actual drill and skill in mathematics and work more on problem solving and logic.  Our students, who are very good at solving equations and doing calculations, have no idea WHEN to use one equation/ calculation over the other. Yes, they can apply their good calculation skills 30 times in a row, but being able to read a problem and identify which calculation should be used in a given situation is a different story altogether.

Also we need our students to actually read the math questions and not give up when they see a paragraph. They need more mathematical literacy skills and less “formal calculation” skills if they are going to compete globally.

 3.  Physics, Physics and More Physics

In any given week in Finland I will meet or talk to more people who have a degree in physics than I have met in my ENTIRE life in the United States. I swear- everywhere I go in Finland I find someone who studied physics or is currently getting their PHD in the impressive and very allusive field.   It is crazy to me- Physics is not something that is very common in the U.S.

I am a math teacher. I have a degree in mathematics and I have never taken a physics course. Ever. The physics teacher in my high school was crazy so I avoided her class. I therefore was too intimidated to take a college level physics course and opted to take a chemistry course for my science requirement instead.

The concept of Physics is terrifying to most Americans. We don’t know it, we don’t understand it and we assume it is a field for only the highly gifted and talented.  While it is common for U.S. students to take ONE physics course in high school, it isn’t a requirement. They also are not exposed to very much physics before the age of 16.

However all children in Finland take physics as part of their regular curriculum. As early as 4th or 5th grade Finnish students learn the basics of physics. They have a physics class every year in middle school and high school. Most of the math teachers are also qualified to teach physics.

It is a common subject and one that does not breed disdain and fear. In fact many of the students I have questioned or interviewed stated they actually prefer their physics classes to their math classes. Why? They prefer physics because it is actually APPLIED mathematics. The students can see how math is being used, applied and how it is relevant to the actual physical world in which they live.

When you look at the questions being asked on the PISA test the questions are more geared toward an understanding of physics than actual mathematics. This is the huge difference.

While American 15-year-old students can calculate circles around Finnish students, they are clueless when it comes to physics and mathematical application.   Our students don’t know how to properly apply the math they know so well. Where Finnish students, who have had years of physics classes, understand the questions being asked and know how to apply their knowledge of math in a real and logical way.

32 thoughts on “The three REAL reasons for Finland’s high PISA scores.

  1. Than you for your honest observation and helping demystify the Finnish Education System. I have been following your post and find them very informative. I am interested in your observations on Finnish students, teachers, and parents acceptance of diversity. I’ll be more specific. What have been your observations on inclusion and welcoming of students of color. By color I mean non-caucasian. Have you had first hand experience of interacting with students who are not native Finnish fitting into Finnish schools?


    • In the EU 28, only 8 countries have a colonial past: Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Vatican, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands. The former Eastern block countries, they hardly had any chance to meet Africans and visa versa. The Scandinavians idem ditto. When I see black, I rather connotate it with laughing, singing, dancing, sports, holidays, happy times. I know about colonialism and slavery. But the whole thing about anger, discrimination and that blacks put all of the 20 white EU countries in the bag of the 8 colonial powers, I wasn’t aware. I’ve learned about black facism: anti-colonialism, urge for self-determination, frustration of African corruption, leap over in black colored people opposed to white and chinese and actually just everybody else, and when these all the non blacks have been casted out, it continues with casting out all the blacks who don’t support them. Sad. But give yourselves a break and go work with people from the EU-20 who didn’t have a colonial past. It will be a relief !


  2. Hi, Kelly,
    Congratulations for your post. I’ve translated the “Less is More” post and published in my own blog, in Portuguese, as you have authorized.
    In fact, I have noticed that there is no special reason for the performance in PISA, unless the simplicity and the seriousness with which the Finland deals with the term “Education for All”.
    I would summarize the success into four basic principles followed uprightly: everyone have access to a school, opportunities to learn, must learn the value of work and be independent.


    • I think that was Iceland. Even so, I don’t see the correlation between the education system and the economic health of the country’s financial system, especially when that system is tied to external markets. The take away here is that the median scores for all Fin students are higher compared to other countries, however, the percentage of over and under achievers are also lower. So gifted students will not be as a challenged and that may limit their potential.


      • Thank you for your prompt response. I apologize as it was Iceland and I made a mistake. Thank you.


      • The gifted may not be formally challenged by the formal curriculum but;
        if they are motivated students encouraged to proceed at their own pace and challenge themselves the model does not exclude the possibility of the gifted being challenged by a teacher who has the energy out of class to prepare for this and the time in class to spend with an individual.

        As per another post about continuity with the same teacher if I know Bobbi is a gifted student I can still provide or direct towards more advanced/challenging material because I know what Bobbi’s needs are.


  3. Pingback: The three REAL reasons for Finland’s high PISA scores. | Filling My Map | Language Pathways

  4. Regarding the first issue u addressed, that the Finnish classroom is not exceptionally different in terms of curriculum or difficulty, I think it’s the fact that “never-ending supply of recesses, free lunch, snack times and breaks. Students have less homework, fewer classes and less stress”, which has the highest incidence on the student’s positive association of academics to their personal life, their society and success. Also teacher’s are exceptionally well-trained, and are in constant review of their own pedagogical practice. In most countries teaching has become a clock-in and clock-out job, especially in the public sector (at least in my country, Chile #1 neoliberal) .


    • Fortunately that’s not the case in the school our 9 yr old is going to. The teachers are all helping out each other. Also because there are moments in their career when they become like a support teacher and butterfly between the classes and help out e.g. take apart a group of 6 out of the class of 18, so the energy level in the class changes, an impact that lasts through the remainder of the day. Sometimes, kids from a higher year become the teachers for kids from the year younger. Or you have some young kids that are very passionate or fast and speed up to the year above.
      It is also about 1. smartly organized societies/villages and towns where there is a lot of space where kids and parents can play outdoors and indoors 2. money: that everybody can pay for following music and sport classes etc.
      I do remember that remoteness is an issue for some parents who have a kid that’s doing nothing but playing online games.


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  6. Singapore, 2nd in PISA math rankings, teaches algebra in 5th grade too. So does South Korea, which is 5th. There is nothing insane about teaching algebra at 5th grade, and it does not bring down your average, if it is done well.


  7. Another reason that Finnish students do better on the math tests may have to do with how well they learn rather than how high they are taught. One day in my Honors Junior English class when I handed back an exam worth 50 points, half the class whipped out their calculators to figure out their percentage. Seriously. It happened often. I could calculate percentages in my head while my students currently taking Trigonometry were still opening their devices. They can pass the class but they have no bone deep understanding of arithmetic, much less advanced mathematics. It is pathetic.


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  9. I really like that you’re not trying to disprove their system or put them down. This was a truly objective piece, and a rare gem of an article. What I gained from this are ways to improve our own system and an understanding of why their system works. I can also see where they could improve their own schools, and perhaps where we could make our own educational discoveries that would compare with the intuitive nature of the Finnish school system.


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  11. This is the first intelligent piece I’ve gotten on the question about why other countries, particularly Finland, are doing so much better on the PISA. I just read through the study done by Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein of Stanford. This one was more compelling. Thank you!


  12. Pingback: Experiencing Finland’s Educational System Sparks Self-Awareness for Emory Student Coordinator - Global Atlanta

  13. I very much enjoyed this entry and I think I can partly explain the Finnish emphasis on averageness — it’s called “The Law of Jante”, which you can read about on the internet. Janteism is good in the sense that it keeps people from becoming alienated as they drift off to extremes of the bell curve, but it’s quite badly oppressive in the sense that it becomes downright stultifying when you just want to spread your wings and fly for once, but the Jante rules forbid it.

    PS: You forgot the word “to” in line one of the fourth paragraph of the section on physics. Near the end it should say “to take physics”. Do you see it? I would like to have messaged you in private about it but you don’t list an email address or anything. At any rate, no biggie — it’s an excellent analysis regardless.


  14. Pingback: The three REAL reasons for Finland’s high PISA scores.

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  17. About the competition and challenge you find lacking in the Finnish system: I think a better way to think of it is not in terms of competition, but perhaps in terms of the challenge as you mention.

    You could give individualized feedback where everyone is encouraged to not look to their peers, but look to how they can improve from where there are, and then have faster students do more things on their own. Grades on an absolute scale are not helpful here. Instead of giving an A, say “That’s great! Could you do this and this, and perhaps improve this next time?”

    Competition is not something to encourage institutionally. It means there are losers, and those losers are going to be looked down upon both by others and themselves, setting them up for further failure.


  18. Pingback: “The three REAL reasons for Finland’s high PISA scores” – Searching For The Truth

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