Teacher Education in Finland

For over a decade, Finnish 15 year olds have consistently featured among the top performers in the OECD Programme for International Assessment (PISA). As a result, the Finnish education system has been at the centre of attention of educators and policy-makers from countries around the world1. (Chung & Tsuruta, 2010; Anders, 2011). While the high quality, status and autonomy of teachers; a consistent education policy that has purposefully aimed at equity; decentralized control of schools; and homogeneity of the population are often offered as the possible causes of the Finnish success, there are comparatively fewer studies which systematically seek to delve deeper into what makes ‘high quality, status and autonomy of teachers’ (perhaps the most significant of causes; Rautali & Alasuutari, 2007) possible.

In this paper my main purpose is to attempt a summary of one specific (and, arguably, also one of the most important) part of the Finnish education system: the teacher education curriculum. I will begin by presenting some key features of the Finnish education system, and a historical background of teacher education in Finland. I will then describe the teacher education curriculum being followed presently in Finland and its key features. Finally, I will conclude with a brief commentary on some tentative ‘lessons’ that one could perhaps draw from the study, for teacher education curricula in India.

Finnish Education System: A Summary

That the success which Finnish education system today enjoys is the result of over four decades of sustained and concerted effort, perhaps, gets less frequently recognized and acknowledged, than it should (Kupiainen et al, 2008). The most significant period in modern times, for Finland’s education system, was the period between 1967-74 when – in what would be considered an unlikely event in many countries – “there was a wide consensus between politicians that a small country has to promote equality in education by implementing a system, that opens as long educational carrier as possible to all who are motivated in spite of one’s socioeconomic status, gender or residence (Niemi & Jakku-Sihvonen).”

Significantly, the nation was able to move beyond the usual rhetoric and implement the proposals that were mooted in the Finnish Parliament in 1967; as a result of which, ‘streaming’ of students (into academic and vocational streams) at the age of 11-12 was discontinued in favour of common comprehensive education, decision making powers were decentralised, required education for all teachers (except kindergarten) was raised to the university level and additional support for students who may need it was made a regular feature of all schools (Laukkanen, 2006).

Currently, general, vocational and higher education is provided ‘free of charge’ to all citizens in Finland and adult education is also partly supported. General and vocational education is provided by local authorities and financed by both the state as well as local authorities; whereas the twenty universities – the seats of higher education (of which ten offer teacher education) – are financed by the government.

The right as well as the responsibility of framing the schools’ curricula lies with the education providers – which are mostly, local municipalities and schools (as well as a few foundations who work collaboratively with them). By legislation, education providers are also required to design the curriculum in collaboration with agencies charged with the responsibilities of local health and social services, taking into account “school’s operating environment, local value choices and special resources”; and implement it in a manner to ensure not only “high standards of general education, [but also] commitment from the community as a whole to the jointly determined objectives and procedures.” (Nation Core Curriculum, 2003 & 2004).

This responsibility on the teachers, as we shall see in a later section, is an important factor in shaping the teachers education curriculum in Finland. Another key characteristic of the education system is the culture of trust and co-operation at each ‘touch-point’ in the education system (national level, district, school, family) – there are no ‘inspectors’ and no ‘national exams’ except one at the end of twelve years schooling (McKinsey and Company; Hancock, 2011).

The present structure of the Finnish education system is described below briefly:

Preschool/Kindergarten (6 years or below): Since 2001, access to preschools has been made a right for families; and about 96% of the age group is estimated to attend preschools. The teachers of kindergarten are required to have at least a Bachelor’s degree in education (more on this in a later section).

Comprehensive School: Also called ‘basic’ education, is divided into –

  • Primary level (Grades 1-6): The responsibility of teaching the students is with ‘classroom teachers’ who must have at least a Master’s degree with specialization in education.
  • Lower Secondary level (Grades 7-9): In this section, students are taught by ‘subject teachers’ who specialise (Master’s degree) in one or two subjects (as well as in pedagogy).

All material resources, food and transport, during basic education, is provided by the state. A little less than half of the students opt for ‘vocational school’ for their 9-12 grades. The rest, choose the upper secondary schools.

Upper Secondary School (Grades 10-12): Prepares students for higher (academic) education (though, switching between the two streams is fairly easy). At the end of the upper-secondary, students, take their only formal ‘exam’ – in four subjects (the others being optional) – which gives them a matriculation certificate and eligibility for higher education. All teachers at this level are subject teachers.

Vocational Schools: Like upper secondary, these also accept students from comprehensive schools; and prepare them for work immediately after school. Unlike vocational schools in other countries they include a major ‘apprenticeship’ component. However, many students go on to join polytechnics for a Bachelor’s degree. The teachers of vocational schools are trained in technological universities following a specialised curriculum.

Beyond school, students have the option to join universities, polytechnics, continuing education or adult education.

Historical Context of Teacher Education in Finland

We must briefly note here that teachers in Finnish schools can be categorised, depending on their education and job role as Kindergarten teachers, Crafts teacher, Music teacher etc. Though, each category of teachers is trained using different curriculum. In this paper, we will limit our discussion to ‘classroom’ and ‘subject’ teachers, as together they form a large majority among school teachers.

Two ‘Lines’ of Teacher Education

Before the 1970s, while primary school teachers received their 3-year education in teacher-training colleges, secondary school teachers were first expected to receive academic discipline education for five years and then directly receive a ‘practical training’ in schools connected with universities or teacher-training colleges.

A major reform – which (along with the schools reforms of late 1960s, described above) was to later prove central to the success of Finnish education – took place in 1971 with the coming out of the Teacher Education Act, as a consequence of which, the teacher education for both the newly-formed ‘comprehensive schools’ and the upper secondary schools was handed over to the universities. Faculties of Education were set up concomitantly, in every university (that existed at the time); which, in time, grew to have two departments in most universities: department of Education and department of teacher education. The former, were tasked with conducting research in general education and work on challenges in administration and planning; while the latter focussed on teacher education as well as research in teaching and teacher education (Kansanen).

Committee Report, 1975, a landmark report on Finnish education, stresses that:

  • All teacher education for comprehensive and upper secondary schools should be academic and carried out in universities.
  • Teacher education should be unified for different teacher categories.
  • The initial education of future teachers must give a common and broad qualification to all teachers and this common background can then be flexibly complemented by in in-service education.
  • Pedagogical studies should be developed in such a way that teachers are prepared to be educators in the board sense of this concept and can attend to their pupils’ socio-emotional growth. Teachers should have a pedagogical, optimistic attitude to their work that is grounded in the latest research. Theoretical and practical studies as well as subject academic matter and pedagogical studies should be more successfully integrated.
  • Teacher education should consist of societal and educational policy studies.

As we will see again in the next section, the roots of what are today the ‘hallmarks’ of Finnish teachers and education – teaching seen as an ‘academic’ career, unification and flexibility of teacher education, strong research orientation and collaborative nature – can be easily noticed in this seminal document of the mid-1970s.

Following a further reform in 1979, the minimum qualification required for both comprehensive school and upper secondary school teachers was defined as a Master’s degree requiring about five years of rigorous academic and practical work. This served three main purposes : one, it unified the elementary and secondary school education by giving them both a ‘common core’ (thus, not just simplifying the training but also making ‘movement’ of teachers from one stream to other possible2; two, teachers even at the primary level were expected to meet high academic standards (and benefit from being ’academic-equals’), and three, upper secondary teachers too were now expected to train in pedagogical studies (Niemi & Jakku-Sihvonen, 2006).

The next major change in teacher education came as a result of the Bologna Process (or Bologna Accords3) under which, supported by the Ministry of Education, all universities responsible for teacher education came together to form a national network (Vokke project, 2005) and collaboratively prepare new curricula for teacher education.

As part of the process, teacher education in Finland changed to a two-tier degree