Is the Finnish school system better than the Italian one? Lights and shadows on the two teaching methods

Do you know the story of the finnish mom ended up in all the newspapers because of his inexorable ‘j’accuse’ against the Italian school? Well, net of any controversy, we thought this story could be a good opportunity to make a comparison between the two education systems and not only. So, we went to ask an expert, the professor, a few questions Paul Landriprofessor at the University of Naples “Federico II”, first researcher of the Cnr Irpps and co-editor of the European Educational Research Journal.

Paolo Landri, professor at the University of Naples “Federico II”

Professor Landri, what makes the Finnish school system different from ours?

“The Finnish school system has a remarkable orientation towards social equity. This has not prevented him from being, according to the first OECD-PISA surveys, among the ‘top performers’. Over time, the result has created a real academic tourism aimed at understanding its secrets. It is a success that has been created in recent times. There Finland is a ‘late comer’ in the development of the Nordic welfare. Our school system, on the other hand, is centralist, bureaucratic, elitist and among the ‘low performers’ in the OECD-PISA survey. One can naturally and with many reasons question these international investigations. There is, however, a large scientific literature which converges in saying that the school in our country it is still a reproduction-oriented institution of the elites and the middle class. The reforms that have taken place over the years have not changed its institutional legacy. Of course, this does not mean that there have not been transformations. Think of the reform of the middle school, of the elementary ones, of the attempts to modify, sometimes in a fragmentary way, the upper secondary school. In addition, Italy has a remarkable pedagogical tradition which is expressed in many experiences of pedagogical activism. Reggio Emilia schools, Montessori pedagogy, Don Milani, Mario Lodi, Loris Malaguzzi, Ettore Gelpi, Danilo Dolci etc. it can be said that they have contributed to shaping the lexicon of contemporary pedagogy. Those innovative experiences, however, fail to become the heritage of the whole Italian school. They remain confined, sometimes ‘caged’ or ‘neutralised’ despite having inspired educational reforms elsewhere in other European and non-European countries”.

What can we Italians learn from the Finnish system? And what can the Finnish system learn from us?

“The Finnish school shows that it is possible to have a fair and quality school. To do this, it is necessary to focus on decentralization and professional autonomy in the context of an overall economic, cultural and social investment in education. The Finnish case shows that autonomy does not mean privatization and that it is possible to govern a school system without aiming for a strong accountability regime oriented by learning outcomes and standardized tests. Its characteristics are: a school that is inclusive for all, ie one that limits internal differentiation and lengthens the time of scholastic transitions (recently the obligation has been extended to 18 years of age); a strong professionalism of the teachers that has developed in a university course and on stage; a long-term investment in school and in education and finally a broad culture of trust among the institutions that contribute to the governance of scholastic institutions. Finland has learned to extend the directions of pedagogical activism. It can certainly be said that the attention to play, to spaces, to educational materials, to self-evaluation and not to grades are present in the experiences and teaching of Montessori and of many of the Italian masters of pedagogy, in turn also inspired by tradition of Dewey’s pragmatism. In truth, now the Finnish school is no longer among the top performers on an international level. Despite having excellent results on quality and equity, it is experiencing a phase of decline”.

The Finnish family who criticized the Italian school system
The Finnish family who criticized the Italian school system

How come?

“The reasons are different. The austerity policies, from 2008 onwards, the adoption of new public management measures, already tested by us, the presence of foreign students and the transition to digital appear to negatively affect reading skills in particular. If we really wanted to learn from these international comparisons, we should express some perplexity about the dominant trends in the educational policies which are part of an increasingly exhausted neoliberal agenda. Both the Italian and Finnish cases indicate that this perspective is producing effects of growing inequalities”.

How much does the question of cultural difference have to do with the story of the Finnish family?

“Elin Mattson’s letter has unleashed a trend of responses in which so many discursive planes have been mixed. Frankly, the possibility of generalizing from her experience is doubtful. Neither she, her family, nor the school, or rather the Syracusan classes in question, are representative. Therefore, it seems to me that the debate is developing along the tracks of a culturalist essentialism, as if our identity were shaped in a deterministic way by the country in which we were born and live. Mattson’s family is rather cosmopolitan. You have freedom of work and movement and tend to hypostatize the vision of the Finnish school. Similarly, the reactions of the Italians are quite stereotyped and it doesn’t seem to me a very fruitful discussion on a cognitive level. Honestly, it seems unproductive to me to discuss it. The fact remains that this lady described a non-ideal situation from an educational point of view. Limited spaces, an organization of times that does not take into account the dynamics of learning, a context of asymmetrical and unidirectional relationships between teachers and students in which there are no turns and conversational tones marked by dialogue. Her complaints about her are, therefore, well founded and her concerns about her are those of any parent or guardian when she observes a ‘difficult’ functioning of an institution. Even in our country we have parents who would have expressed similar considerations. We recall that the state of school buildings is a problem. It certainly doesn’t help when it comes to implementing active pedagogies such as those requested by the Finnish mother”.

The Finnish school system develops in the context of a country that moves in the tradition of Nordic welfare
The Finnish school system develops in the context of a country that moves in the tradition of Nordic welfare

Yet great luminaries and scientists emerge from the Italian school system…

“It is a consequence of the elitist nature of the system. An excellent few, carefully selected who are often forced to go elsewhere to gain recognition and prestige. In a certain sense, if we broadened the discussion, the school system could be related to the semi-peripheral position of our country in the global economic system. Surplus subjectivities emerge and are absorbed elsewhere.

Another point to reflect on is why the choice of a family, unknown to most, has caused such a stir. Could it be that we Italians have straw tails?

“Hard to say. The letter was an indictment. The Finnish mother has publicly expressed her dissatisfaction and her decision to leave. Perhaps a disappointment in a country that she admires and that she decides to leave to find more congruent educational architectures elsewhere. The stereotyped reaction of many on social media, in some cases even ironic (there are many ‘memes’ circulating on the web, ed) indicates, however, an affective tone towards our school. It basically means that we have a connection with our school and we are sorry for its state. And it’s frustrating that we can’t change it to be proud of it. After all, test-based accountability policies leverage this emotional reaction to activate transformation mechanisms. ‘Name-and-shame’ as they say in English. In this case, however, it was not a scientific investigation that determined the reaction, but a letter from a mother from another country. As if to remind us that there are clichéd stories that are very effective in producing emotional reactions. More than data. I am also inclined to think that social networks have produced mechanisms of amplification”.

Italy has a notable pedagogical tradition
Italy has a notable pedagogical tradition

Yet we are not the last to arrive: the history of pedagogical activism in Italy is very rich…

“Yes, as I said before, it is a very rich history that informed the reconstruction of our country after the war. Our school owes much to these men and women teachers. Unfortunately, this tradition has to deal with an institutional architecture that is struggling to transform itself and welcome innovations. Moreover, this tradition is hard to reproduce, it remains episodic. Naturally, the Italian school is very varied. There are strong regional differences between North and South and sometimes between institutes in the same city. It follows that quality and fairness are very differentiated and there are islands of excellence. Our school also shows a great capacity for adaptation, despite the institutional structure. Let’s think of the inclusion practices with regard to pupils with non-Italian citizenship, or of the regulations for the inclusion of students with disabilities”.

According to the annual Global Gender Gap Index report, it is in second place among the most advanced countries, while we are in 63rd after Uganda and Zambia. Right now they are represented by Sanna Marinethe youngest premier in the world and raised in a rainbow family…

“The Finnish school system develops in the context of a country that operates in the tradition of Nordic welfare, always attentive to the universality of rights and equality, the so-called social democratic welfare model. In this perspective, the attention paid to the reduction of the gender gap and the rights of LGBT+ community. This attention has gone hand in hand with the generational turnover, as evident in the assignment to Sanna Marin. The comparison with our country could not be more strident due to thepatriarchal system and conservative who acts as a brake both on the level of gender gap than of the youth”.

However, it must be said that Finland also wins the ranking of the happiest country in the world according to the UN World Happiness Report…

“There are also rankings where Finland is not at the top. In a World Health Survey Plus survey, only a small percentage of students are happy to be a school. Furthermore, the risk of social exclusion of young low-income segments of the population, creating a growing polarization with those youth segments who have positive values ​​in many areas of activity, from work to leisure. The rankings depend on the indicators and the performances may vary over time”.

Is the Finnish school system better than the Italian one? Lights and shadows on the two teaching methods