Finland Teacher Tales Pt. 11: Australia vs Finland

I keep hearing how great the Finnish school system is.

Is it though?

Hi I’m James Phelps, I’m a classroom teacher from Sydney.
My wife Michelle and I travelled 16,000 km to Finland and Norway to visit schools to see firsthand how the famous Nordic countries 'do school'. With Finnish students constantly outperforming Australian students in international testing, my goal was to identify any key points of difference that make a difference to students learning.


I really wanted to know what are the similarities and differences between their education systems and ours. How are they preparing their young people to live and work in the 21st century? And how does their new future-focused curriculum compare to ours?


There is no doubt that Finnish students do better than Australian students at basic skills. And it appears that Finland's consistent international success in Reading, Maths and Science has been achieved with a relatively simple approach to teaching these core skills - at least in primary school. In my time in Helsinki I saw classrooms, lessons and teaching methods that reminded me more of an Australian classroom in the 1990s. Students sat in rows, teachers instructed from the front, and text books were often used. It was remarkable in its simplicity. Compared to Australia Finland is doing it 'old school'.

Click on image to enlarge

Although change is coming to Finnish schools, with a new national curriculum now being implemented, Australia might well be winning the race towards future-focused learning. When it comes to identifying the key competencies that our current students will likely need to thrive and adapt in the future the Australian curriculum does this better than most other countries. Our Critical and Creative Thinking general capability and Design and Technologies curricula are world-class. When comparing the content of the Australian with the Finnish curriculum Australia looks to have a clear leading edge on future-focused learning - at least on paper.

Out of interest I tested several Year 5/6 classes in Nordic schools using standardisd tests that required students to use critical and creative thinking to solve a problem. The average score for my Stage 3 students in Australia was 81%. The Nordic average for the same test at the same age was 67%.
Also of interest... In 2012 and 2015 PISA tested 15 year olds from OECD nations in "CPS" (Creative/Collaborative Problem Solving) skills.

[The ability to solve complex problems creatively and collaboratively is now considered by employers to be the most valuable skill of all (World Economic Forum, 2016).]


In the 2012 PISA tests in CPS Australia tied with Finland (see table). In 2015 we fell back a little but remained in the top 10.…/australian-students-among-worlds-to…

These are all encouraging signs moving forward. Maybe we will one day become the 'Innovation Nation' and obliterate Finland in the Education game.


The contest isn't over yet.

James Phelps

You can follow us on our teaching and learning journey on the Minds Wide Open Facebook page.