Listen to the podcast by David Marsh MED ‘Metrics that Matter – Thoughts on the Finnish PISA 2022 Outcomes (10 mins)
The PISA 2022 results were published a couple of days after an event at the Guadalajara Book Fair on if and how Finnish educational practices could be realized in Mexican schools.
These are described in the video ‘What can we Learn from the Finnish Education System?’
So, looking at the news here are some thoughts on the Finnish results.
This latest PISA report reveals a global (quote) ‘unprecedented deterioration and falling of standards’ in mathematics, reading and science.
The decline in mathematics is seen in 41 comparable economies (of which 35 are OECD countries). PISA 2022 involved about 700 000 15 year-olds in 81 participating countries (and economies). In Finland we had just over 10 000 students participating.
Now, embedded in the complex reporting there is a lot of good news about countries that have made significant progress.
But when the news broke, especially in OECD countries like Finland, there were plenty of dark clouds over the reported falling of standards.
No doubt the search for reasons will be wide-ranging. And although people are pointing at the educational shock waves caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there are others in the spotlight.
These include student learning being negatively affected by digital distraction; concerns about the impact of time spent in social media; schools accommodating needs arising from immigration; reduced parental engagement with their children’s learning progress and needs; and disjuncture between overloaded curricula and attitudes of students towards the value of learning. These are just a few.
The positive potential of PISA is in provoking discussion on how to adapt and improve knowledge and skills-building in this fast-changing world. One negative feature is the possibility of pressure resulting from political interference, or other forces, that distorts data collection and statistical reporting.
PISA is like a double-edged sword. Originally launched to make education better, in some parts of the world it has become a political liability in which education serves political interests, to the detriment of politics serving educational interests.
This means that caution is required when we compare country or economy statistics.
Let’s take mathematical literacy. In these results Singapore (575 points) is the best performing country. Finland (484) is positioned 20th out of 81 countries.
However 7 of these countries or otherwise which are termed economies such as Hong Kong China, have been identified as using data that failed to meet the PISA research requirements. What we could call unreliable data. And these 7 are all positioned above Finland.
Now these red-flagged by the OECD are Hong Kong China (540); Canada (497); the Netherlands (493); Ireland (492); Denmark (489); United Kingdom (489); and Australia (487) – as I say all of which are placed above Finland.
Now what we know is that once the PISA country results go into final analysis it is difficult to have them withdrawn if there has been sort of failure with data integrity whether it was intentional or not. All that can be done is to flag which countries have failed to meet one or more of the standards required for inclusion in final reporting.
So, if the data from all red-flagged countries had been reliable would Finland be in position 20, or 15, 13 or higher? It really doesn’t matter but one thing that is important is in the points awarded. A reduction of 20 points is roughly equivalent to one year of schooling. And in the 2022 results this applies to the OECD countries Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Poland. These are the numbers that really matter.
Now, there are many reasons why the integrity of data can be red flagged as potentially unreliable. Sometimes things are done which are not picked up, and not red flagged in certain countries.
But for example, sampling can be affected by types of school, are they private, are they public, are they exclusive, are they inclusive; and the geographical location of these schools are they rural-urban, wealthy-less wealthy; and the attitudes of students towards taking the test, are they incentivized, or are they basically disinterested.
And there is another thing which happens in locations where there is political pressure to get high results in PISA. This is to spend time and sometimes considerable resources on preparing students for the test, something not done in Finland.
Other features of Finnish education which link to PISA results relate to inclusion, and experience of standardized testing. Finland has a high rate of inclusion, over 20% of students with special needs and who are otherwise neurodiverse are in the classes. These students would not be automatically excluded from PISA, as happens in some other countries. And students in Finland only experience their first standardized national test when they end high school, so their interest, motivation in giving it all for a PISA test may not be as high as in other countries. Why bother they may say!
Now in the case of reading literacy Finland (490 points) is positioned 14th out of 81 countries but 7 of those above have compromised data.
And in scientific literacy Finland (511) is 9th out of 81 countries, but there are 2 countries that have question mark data, Hong Kong China (520) and Canada (515).
Anyway, moving away from number-crunching and country comparison, the PISA 2022 results provide significant insights on aspects of human development that go beyond the main literacies being studies and which focus on resilience, agency, wellbeing, a sense of belonging, and lifestyle. Here there is room for optimism, and blue skies thinking.
This study reveals some very interesting and largely positive developments about Finnish education, especially when we think about equipping young people with global competences so that they are ready for the multiple types of future they are likely to experience.
These include high levels of student agency, wellbeing, and resilience.
They include high levels of student sense of belonging and satisfaction with life, confidence in their abilities, and being generally positive about experiencing school.
They include high levels of gender equality (girls in Finland now outperforming boys in mathematical and reading literacy).
High levels of knowledge of reading strategies for assessing the credibility of sources like dealing with fake news and misinformation.
Higher levels of feeling safe travelling to and being at school than the OECD average.
Higher levels of confidence in using digital devices for learning and being motivated to do schoolwork than OECD averages.
Improved levels of classroom standards of behaviour, and cooperation.
The lowest level of mathematics anxiety in the OECD countries, and a more positive and confident attitude towards independent study than the OECD average.
These are a few of the indicators which we can see in the reporting, which are largely positive and actually very, very interesting in terms of where education is going.
Anyway, to wrap up it is useful to remember the old saying – it is important to measure what is valued, and not just value what is measured. If you go beyond often crude ranking of countries, and economies, and numbers, PISA offers deep insight into important aspects of human development in this fast-moving age. Human development that is about building attitudes and skills for young people to be future-ready, resilient, confident, and wise.
And maybe, Finnish education already has one foot in the future.
Providing education for learning, and for being, education that creates a foundation for lifelong learning.
It is here in the report, and it is very interesting in terms of what happens in contemporary Finnish education, and particularly what happens in Finland that can be taken into other countries successfully.