School Reform, Educational Technology and PISA Results- A Debate in Finland

From the end of 2018, there have been lots of discussions in the Finnish media -both for and against- about whether the new Curriculum, phenomenon based learning and use of technology in schools are weakening the learning results or if new method of pedagogy that supports self-paced learning leaves students without actual teaching (as they are left making the assignments by themselves). A caveat for this discussion was an article published in one of Finland’s biggest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat. It was based on an interview with a Finnish psychiatrist and stated that the new curriculum, phenomenon based learning and the use of educational technology have resulted in Finnish students performing worse in recent international PISA rankings (Program for International Student Assessment).
There were a few issues in the article that incited criticism. The article referred to a study that had not been published yet, which is problematic as there were not a way for anyone to check how the results of the study were actually interpreted. The research paper (as it was later clarified in another article) would be about correlations between technology and learning. It was not intended to argue about the cause and effect between the two factors- that the article in the newspaper forgot to mention.


Besides, it is not customary to make conclusions in any matter based on a single study. Furthermore, the results covering the PISA rankings in the article were drawn from the studies made in 2010 and 2015; overlooking the fact that the new Finnish curriculum was taken into use in Finnish schools starting in 2016 at the earliest. One can also argue that PISA does collect data from a certain kind of learning, but it actually does not measure the kind of skills that phenomenon based learning is designed to teach.


How did Finland perform in PISA 2015? The chart below shows that in natural sciences, Finnish 15-year-old students were ranked third amongst OECD countries, second in reading skills, seventh in mathematics and fifth in collaborative problem solving. In overall results, Finland ranks third.

Are these bad results? Not necessarily. Although it is true that compared to the PISA results in 2006 there has been a decline in Finland’s rankings, but in the subject-specific rankings, the decline is not dramatic and the overall results are still excellent. The statistics that give reasons for worries come from the fact that boys tend to fall behind girls in learning. Family background is a factor that has not played a role in defining students’ learning results in Finland as well, but has changed now; 10 years ago, it did not have an effect but now this particular advantage in our educational system has diminished when compared to others.


How about school reform and its effect on learning? Yes, there is a new curriculum in use and has introduced new terms and ideologies about what schools should be like or how things should be taught. However, the Finnish basic education is still based on school subjects, phenomenon based learning is used only to a certain extent in schools and technology is not an intrinsic value in teaching. Of course not, as Andreas Schleicher said, “The problem with schools is that they use technology from the 21st century, pedagogy from the 20th century in an organization from the 19th century.”


The OECD sees school as an institution that should always look forward and take concrete steps ahead. Still, one side of the criticism towards school reform has been that it is done without the backing of scientific research data as critics say that it should be the only way to make changes. Where can one gather scientific evidence about a change process and its effect when there are no predecessors? There is, of course, a need to study the effects of both new and traditional methods of teaching and learning, with and without technology. The body of evidence, wherever it points to, will accumulate in due time, as we get results from long-term research projects from around the world, from different kinds of learning environments.


In the meantime, it is a fact that we can thrive to give students the best possibilities there is to learn and build learning environments that support both individual and collaborative learning, giving students the skills they need in the world of tomorrow. Educational technology and school reform are here to stay; to discuss whether it is good or bad is as useful as discussing fire: fire can cook our food but can also burn us. It is all about how to utilize them that matters. There are challenges ahead: gender division in learning, alienation of a group of teenagers, special education needs, educational resources, etc. that need to be addressed. In summary, educational technology, school reform, and pedagogical practices are only pieces of a puzzle in the context of learning.


by Dr. Keijo Sipilä