Why do Finnish students have an edge in science?

By Catarina Filipe Correia and Heather King - November 2015


Geller, C., Neumann, K., Boone, W. J., & Fischer, H. E. (2014). What makes the Finnish different in science? Assessing and comparing students' science learning in three countries. International Journal of Science Education, 36(18), 3042–3066. doi:10.1080/09500693.2014.950185


The Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) is used in more than 60 countries to provide a one-time snapshot of 15-year-olds’ knowledge and skills in science, math, and reading. Though PISA results are highly influential in policymaking, their effect on education is controversial (“OECD and PISA Tests,” 2014). One of the limitations of large-scale assessments is that the results do not provide any information on how differences in performance can be accounted for by differences in science teaching.

Research Design 

To learn more about how instruction influences PISA performance, Geller and colleagues developed an instrument to assess students’ understanding of electricity. They administered the assessment in three countries with different rankings in performance on the 2006 PISA. Finland was the top-ranked nation with an average score of 563. Germany and Switzerland were slightly above average with mean scores 516 and 512, respectively.

A total of 2,193 15-year-old students from these three countries took the 54-item exam before and after receiving instruction on electricity. The nature of the instruction was left to individual teachers. No information on the students’ socioeconomic status or ethnicity was collected.

Research Findings 

In the pre-test, German students outperformed their Finnish and Swiss peers. In the post-test, however, Finnish students outperformed German and Swiss students. Curiously, both Finnish and Swiss students showed marked progression in learning about electricity, but German students seemed to show no progression at all.

An in-depth exploration of these puzzling results revealed that Finnish students’ learning gains were not dependent on the class they attended, while the particular class environment was a factor for German and Swiss students.

Prior to the study, the authors had hypothesised that students’ performance on increasingly complex items would reflect an increasingly complex knowledge base. A Rasch analysis—a psychometric procedure that provides a measure of item difficulty and a person’s ability on the same scale—validated this hypothesis.

The results suggest that, in top-ranking countries like Finland, students develop a complex knowledge base in science, and this knowledge base accounts for their enhanced problem-solving ability. In other countries, however, classroom effects appear more noticeable. Both points raise interesting questions about the nature of teacher training and teacher practice.

The absence of classroom effects in Finland may suggest a particularly coherent teacher training programme. Indeed, Geller and colleagues point out that the ethos of education in Finland is quite different from educational practices in many other developed countries. Finland’s system emphasises teacher autonomy and multiple pedagogical approaches. The system is characterised by a strong sense of trust in teachers and the active participation of the wider community.

Theoretical Background 

Geller and colleagues built on two theoretical frameworks in designing their instrument:

  1. The theory of conceptual change relates to socio-constructivism. Before instruction, students hold their own naïve theories about phenomena; through instruction, they slowly revise these theories to develop a sounder scientific understanding of these same phenomena. This process is called conceptual change.
  2. The theory of knowledge integration is anchored on the idea that learning corresponds to the development of an increasingly complex knowledge base.

With slight variations, both models consider learning as a progression from the acquisition of isolated facts to the ability to weave facts into a meaningful network of increasing complexity. From an assessment perspective, Kauertz and Fischer (2006) have showed that the difficulty of items designed to probe the stages of this progression could be described as a function of the complexity of knowledge required to solve the items.

Implications for Practice

Though the analytical processes in this study are framed by psychological theories on knowledge acquisition, the findings are discussed in the light of sociological perspectives on educator professional practice and society’s view of educators. The paper thus offers considerable food for thought about what both formal and informal educators can learn from Finland’s experience.

If Geller and colleagues are correct in highlighting the part played by the Finnish ethos, educator autonomy would seem to be key in enabling learners to develop complex understandings. Policymakers might also consider the importance of multiple pedagogical approaches and refrain from dictating overly prescriptive curricula and forms of instruction.

In addition, the paper reminds us that while scores on a standardized test like PISA provide an indication of the relative strength of an education system, a detailed examination of specific factors and influences is necessary to really understand what students are learning and why.

Related Briefs:

  • King, H. (2014). Exploring the factors affecting student engagement with science: An ISE research brief discussing Hampden-Thompson & Bennett, “Science teaching and learning activities and students’ engagement in science.” http://rr2p.org/article/293
  • Bevan, B. (2011). U.S. mathematics scores linked to nation’s economic inequalities: An ISE research brief discussing Condron’s, "Egalitarianism and educational excellence: Compatible goals for affluent societies?" http://rr2p.org/article/117
  • King, H. (2011). Professional development through school-based communities of practice: An ISE research brief discussing Ostermeier et al’s, "Improving science and mathematics instruction: The Sinus Project as an example for reform as teacher professional development." http://rr2p.org/article/102