Q: What makes Finnish teachers so special? A: It’s not brains
by Pasi Sahlberg
David Cameron argues we need to train the smartest to teach. But Finnish universities select only 10% of applicants – and not the cleverest
When my niece was finishing school in Finland, more than anything else she wanted to become a primary teacher. Despite her genuine interest in teaching she failed to get into a teacher education programme at the University of Helsinki. She was smart and bright, yet she was not deemed qualified.
This is not unusual. Finnish universities regularly turn away applicants such as my niece to try again or to study something else. In fact, Finnish primary school teacher education programmes that lead to an advanced, research-based degree are so popular among young Finns that only one in 10 applicants is accepted each year. Those lucky students then have to study for five to six years before they are allowed to teach a class of their own.
There are those who think that the tough race to become a teacher in Finland is the key to good teaching and thereby to improving student achievement. Because only 10% of applicants pass the rigorous admission system, the story goes, the secret is to recruit new teachers from the top decile of available candidates. This has led many governments and organisations to find new ways to get the best and the brightest young talents into the teaching profession. Various fast-track teacher preparation initiatives that lure smart young university graduates to teach for a few years have mushroomed. Smarter people make better teachers … or do they?
Who exactly are those who were chosen to become primary teachers in Finland ahead of my niece? Let’s take closer look at the academic profile of the first-year cohort selected at the University of Helsinki. The entrance test has two phases. All students must first take a national written test. The best performers in this are invited on to the second phase, to take the university’s specific aptitude test. At the University of Helsinki, 60% of the accepted 120 students were selected on a combination of their score on the entrance test and their points on the subject exams they took to complete their upper-secondary education; 40% of students were awarded a study place based on their score on the entrance test alone.
Last spring, 1,650 students took the national written test to compete for those 120 places at the University of Helsinki. Applicants received between one and 100 points for the subject exams taken to earn upper-secondary school leaving diplomas. A quarter of the accepted students came from the top 20% in academic ability and another quarter came from the bottom half. This means that half of the first-year students came from the 51- to 80-point range of measured academic ability. You could call them academically average. The idea that Finland recruits the academically “best and brightest” to become teachers is a myth. In fact, the student cohort represents a diverse range of academic success, and deliberately so.
If Finnish teacher educators thought that teacher quality correlates with academic ability, they would have admitted my niece and many of her peers with superior school performance. Indeed, the University of Helsinki could easily pick the best and the brightest of the huge pool of applicants each year, and have all of their new trainee teachers with admirable grades.
But they don’t do this because they know that teaching potential is hidden more evenly across the range of different people. Young athletes, musicians and youth leaders, for example, often have the emerging characteristics of great teachers without having the best academic record. What Finland shows is that rather than get “best and the brightest” into teaching, it is better to design initial teacher education in a way that will get the best from young people who have natural passion to teach for life.
The teaching profession has become a fashionable topic among education reformers around the world. In England, policy-makers from David Cameron down have argued that the way to improve education is to attract smarter people to be teachers. International organisations such as the OECD and McKinsey & Company, Sir Michael Barber for Pearson, and in the US, Joel Klein, former New York education chancellor now working for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, have all claimed that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. These are myths and should be kept away from evidence-informed education policies and reforms.
A good step forward would be to admit that the academically best students are not necessarily the best teachers. Successful education systems are more concerned about finding the right people to become career-long teachers. Oh, and what happened to my niece? She applied again and succeeded. She graduated recently and will be a teacher for life, like most of her university classmates.
Pasi Sahlberg is visiting professor at Harvard graduate school of education and author of Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?