Obsessing about Finland

Does the (success of) the Finnish education system have any relevance for Japan?

The degree to which some of my interlocutors in Japan obsess about Finland and see Finnish education as a panacea for all that is wrong (presumably, but see my argument for the central importance of perceptions) with Japanese education has puzzled me for some time. The somewhat less urgent interest in Singapore falls in the same category, I think.

Now, Keita Takayama who has been doing some terrific work on the place of Japanese education in a comparative and global context, makes the case that the reference nation status of Finland (and the lack of such status for E Asian education systems that perform equally well in PISA and similar comparisons) is due a) to the proximity of Finnish policies to OECD precepts, and b) to Finnish pre-PISA status as a “tabula rasa” among education systems that is not burdened by any of the preconceptions about E Asian education systems. Takayama makes this case in an Asia Pacific Memo on February 16, 2012.

Takayama makes his case very succinctly, but Finland’s status as a reference nation has come up in N American debates as well.

See for example:

If I were to start from the premise that there are things about Japanese education that could use reform, what countries would I look to? Or, what countries might I not look to?

I do think that education systems vary significantly by scale. According to Eurostat, the total number of primary and secondary students in Finland is about 1.2 mio. Japan’s comparable figure is 18 mio. This reflects the ratio of the two populations with about 5.3 mio Finns in 2010 and 127 mio Japanese. Clearly, an education system that is fifteen times as large in terms of the number of students enrolled involves different complexities than a smaller counterpart. That is not to say that there aren’t aspects of Finnish education that are worth examining in considering reforms for Japan, I’m just not convinced that Finland is the most relevant example in this regard.

Why not pick more proximate comparators? While South Korea is not even half as populous as Japan its education system operates on a scale that is much closer to Japan. Likewise France which would be an example of an education system that has some structural similarities (high degree of centralization, for example) and operates on a similar scale, though a comparison between Japan and France on comparative educational achievement would likely lead to a large-scale visitation movement from France to Japan, not the other way around.

What about Canada? Again, not quite on the population scale of Japan, but similar success to Japan…

I see the interest in Finland as primarily a faddish one will raise some questions that are wonderful raise about education elsewhere (including in all the countries mentioned in the above), but will not provide panacea.


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