Postcard from Helsinki: Understanding teaching in a high-performing system 

Posted on July 26, 2018

By Jim O’Connor
Project Director
Advance Illinois 

Advance Illinois’ Jim O’Connor during his trip to Helsinki, Finland, as part of Teach for All.

Over the last year, I was honored to be part of Teach for All’s Global Community of Practice in Education Policy.  As part of this community, we traveled to and learned from schools and education leaders in Finland, which is known for its high-performing schools and is widely regarded as having a high-quality teaching force. I was interested in understanding the key elements of their system. Here’s what I learned.  

Aspects of Finnish teacher preparation 

More than a generation ago, teacher training took place at three- to four-year teacher training colleges. Finland later centralized teacher training sites in 11 universities distributed across the country. The new system required five to six years, resulted in a Master’s degree for all teachers. There are now just eight universities charged with preparing the nation’s 1,000 teaching candidates annually, which are highly selective spots.

Admission into teaching programs 

Using one university as an example, 1,006 candidates took the test to enter the program. This entrance exam includes a multiple-choice test and an essay response to multiple education articles. The interview stage then assesses the 300 top scoring candidates and only 122 of the candidates were accepted into the program. At one of the top universities in Finland, the University of Helsinki, the teacher education program had an admissions rate of 6.8% and was harder to get into than their law school (8.3%) or their medical school (7.3%).2  One of the senior regional education leaders remarked that he was lucky to get into a teaching program, “I don’t know who I fooled to get into a Special Education teacher training program—they are the most competitive.”  

Practice makes permanent  

The Finnish education system provides teaching candidates extended practice time with students alongside cooperating teachers. Finnish teaching candidates teach for six to seven weeks in each of their last three years of their program. They also practice with master teachers in a lab school designed for the purposes of teaching students and training and developing teachers.  

Access to well-designed textbooks   

Finland has a national curriculum with a defined sequence of knowledge and skills that children ought to be taught at each grade. There is a common usage of high-quality textbooks. In her book about the world’s highest-performing education systems called Cleverlands, author Lucy Crehan, a fellow alumnus of Teach for All, notes that, “In Finnish schools, the textbook is the main tool. Experienced and skillful teachers have come together with the publisher to create an interesting, enjoyable and motivating textbook.”  While teachers report a high level of autonomy, there is much consistency in the types of lessons and the materials used.   


Our trek into the Finnish system pushed my thinking regarding teacher preparation and teacher quality, and what constitutes effective teaching.  I asked multiple school leaders what they believed is the cause of Finland’s strong educational outcomes. Extensive teacher training, a high bar for entry into the profession, intensive practice, high-quality materials and autonomy are among the answers.