How Finnish, not East Asian Education Became a Global Reference

Memo #132 (Japanese translation available here)

By Keita Takayama –

Finnish education has become the global symbol of educational excellence since its success in the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) implemented triennially since 2000. Every year, a few thousand international visitors, including many from East Asian nations, flock to the small Nordic nation to discover “how Finland gets it right.”

Overshadowed by the global attention to Finnish education is the consistently high performance of East Asian nations. Since 2000, South Korea has been performing just as well as Finland with the former educational “poster child” Japan following behind. In recent years, more East Asian nations and cities such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Shanghai have begun to participate and dominate the PISA league tables, though the appropriateness of comparing cities (e.g. Hong Kong and Shanghai) with countries needs to be questioned.

One has to wonder, then, why PISA has generated so much global enthusiasm for Finnish education but not for East Asian education?

First, the OECD has actively promoted Finnish education as the global model of educational excellence. At the same time, Finnish education scholars Risto Rinne, Johanna Kallo, and Sanna Hokka maintain that since the 1990s the Finnish government has been “too eager to comply” with the OECD’s policy recommendations. The OECD’s promotion of Finnish education thus warrants some caution, as it actually serves to legitimize the OECD’s educational policy directions and its role as the “global think-tank” in education policy matters.

Second, there are pervasive stereotypes perpetuated by Western media and some researchers about East Asian education as test- and competition-driven, dominated by didactic teaching, and controlled by governments to meet their political and economic needs. Though such a one-sided view has been challenged, or at least complicated, by many studies, negative associations are firmly established.

In contrast, Finnish education was virtually unknown when it was first “discovered” by PISA 2000. With so little preexisting stereotypes about Finnish education, it was a “tabula rasa,” in the words of German researcher Florian Waldow. Any preferred images could be projected to legitimize different political agendas, ranging from social-democratic, egalitarian measures that the political left prefer to quasi-market reform that economic rationalists favour.

Keita Takayama – teaches sociology of education in School of Education, University of New England, Australia. Memo #47

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