By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
Saturday, February 7th, 2015
Philippine Daily Inquirer

As the country in focus at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair, Finland went all out to showcase its literature, calling attention to authors, established and on the rise: Aleksis Kivi, Sofi Oksanen and children’s author and illustrator Tove Jansson, who was marking her 100th birthday. As interesting were all the glowing references to Finland’s educational and library systems that merited several forums in the education area where the Classroom of the Future was featured.

The Finnish educational system has been described as a phenomenon. It has drawn much attention worldwide since it began topping the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) standardized tests administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for high school students in the areas of math, reading and science. (For everyone’s information, the Philippines is not a Pisa member. And besides, we do not yet have a fully implemented K-to-12 system.)

Finnish educator and author Pasi Sahlberg, now teaching at Harvard University, was a plenary speaker at the book fair’s opening night—a gesture that bespeaks Finland’s regard for education. He was much sought by those of us from both developed and developing countries whose educational systems still leave much to be desired.

So what is Finland doing right? What secrets does this country have for us to learn from? How did it gear itself to becoming the country in Europe with the best achievement scores? And yet, strangely enough, it is also known to have the shortest school hours and a no-homework policy.

Sahlberg said there was neither conscious countrywide effort nor pressure on the students to excel. In fact, he recounted, the first time Finland topped the exams, its people did not take the news seriously and wondered if a mistake had been made. The second time it happened, the Finns began to look at their educational system more seriously, as they could not believe that another mistake had occurred. And especially since the joke that was beginning to go around was: “If you want to achieve the American dream, go to Finland.”

In the most recent Pisa tests, Finland’s scores have dropped. While still the best performer among the European countries, Asian overachievers like China, Singapore and South Korea have given it sharp competition. Nevertheless, there are still lessons to learn from the Finns and from Sahlberg, who is a favorite lecturer on education.

In his lectures, Sahlberg typically introduces his young and largely unknown country. The stereotype image of Finland is that it is forever shrouded in snow. Perhaps there is really nothing much to do there but immerse oneself in learning. The Finns are not a very talkative people, either. Could that be another reason?

Sahlberg emphasized two qualities that Finland prioritizes in its educational system: first, social equality so that all students are given the same opportunities no matter their social background; and second, creativity and innovation above all else in learning. The value of using one’s own talent and one’s own mind is immense. With obvious pride, he reminded us all that “Angry Birds” originated from Finland and that the Finns have been rated one of the happiest people on earth. This reminder elicited the remark that those countries with less than efficient educational systems have angry people and happy birds.

A crucial factor that Sahlberg acknowledged as convincing proof of how education is valued in Finland is that its most coveted and best-paid profession is teaching. Everyone wants to be a teacher because of the respect the profession enjoys, as well as its economic benefits.

It is not that easy to enter the profession as all teachers are required to have a master’s degree. Sahlberg cited the experience of his own niece who aspired to be a teacher but had to wait for two years before her application was finally accepted. It was not sufficient for her to have enthused the first time around that she wanted to teach because of the influence of the teachers in her family. Her mettle had to be further tested, so to speak. She needed to further grow in the profession.

It is not surprising that the Finnish educational system is not without its critics among its people. The no-homework policy is disputed by parents, who cite the assignments that their children had stay up nights to complete.

Sahlberg decried standardization as the worst enemy of creativity, but aren’t the Pisa tests themselves a standardized measure of assessment? Their teachers do not teach to the test, it is argued back. The recent drop in scores has been cause for alarm among Finland’s leaders, prompting them to reexamine existing policies. Again, a commendable move among its bureaucrats.

“Finland. Cool.” That was how its slogan went at the Frankfurt Book Fair. And I was green with envy at how it regards and respects its teachers, and better yet, manifests this esteem in a very tangible manner: with a respectable compensation system. Wow, that is so cool beyond words.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.