Q: What makes Finnish teachers so special? A: It’s not brains

Writing in the Guardian, Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg takes David Cameron to task over suggestions we need to train the smartest to teach…

…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?

…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…

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…

More at: Q: What makes Finnish teachers so special? A: It’s not brains


So passion for teaching beats academic prowess – agree or disagree? Please let us know in the comments or via Twitter…


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Categories: Overseas and Policy.


  1. Is this an appropriate question for a poll?  
    Neither passion nor academic prowess, on their own, make a good teacher.  A person could have either, or even both and still not be able to teach well.
    Teaching is a set of skills.  Some teachers have some of these naturally, but all the skills can be learned.  Being passionate may motivate you to learn these skills, but it may also blind you to your own incompetence.
    Good teaching ‘educate’; from the Latin to ‘draw out’.  They assess their students current knowledge and draw them out towards new learning offering appropriate challenge, feedback and repetition.
    It’s not a big secret.

  2. Northantsteacher

    Teaching requires empathy with those struggling to learn. If you have sailed through your own education because you are in the top 10%, what grasp are you likely to have of what it is like to be in the bottom 50%? 

    The best teachers I know have almost all failed or struggled somewhere along the line and have therefore had to develop perseverance, determination and stamina.

  3. paulh

    This government (and to some degree the previous one) has long had this simplistic view of the world that that a “better” degree leads to a “better teacher”. As ever there is little evidence of this. In a paper presented at BERA in 2012 (the British Educational Research Association) John Clarke & Tony Pye produced empirical data to show there is little correlation between the degree class and the judgement (under the teachers’ standards).

    As Northantsteacher points out some of this is linked to the idea of empathy and mindset – the Williams report into the teaching of Maths indicated that there was better teaching from those who struggled with their maths those those who found it easy. Of course not all those with high qualifications have “sailed though” their education but this empathy and mindset does seem to be important in the skilled teacher (see Carol Dweck’s work in this area).

    As the article points out it is the “in it for the long haul” that we need to be able to tease out and any scheme (such as teach first) which is predicated on “do it for a bit then do something else” is the wrong approach. Whilst it is difficult, especially under the destruction that this current legislation has wrought on school systems, to get accurate data it seems that about 45% of teachers in England leave before they have been teaching for 5 years – through in the recent workforce survey by Nicky Morgan it seemed to be government interference and Ofsted that were dominant in that particular discourse. 

    As Bell points out this is should not be an “either / or” sort of thing – Shulman in a seminal paper in 1986 talked of “pedagogic knowledge” and “content knowledge” it is in the interface of these that the best teaching takes place. We do need teachers with good content knowledge – but this will be developed over the first years of teaching and, whatever their degree class, the knowledge gained on the degree will not translate into “school knowledge – ask any medial historian who finds themselves teaching the Romans. We need to think about the longer haul in training teachers and not expect them to come “complete” after their degree and ITT course.

    Of course we should also remember that this is a very secondary sort of question – as our primary colleagues will (i) be teacher the whole gamut of subjects and (ii) may well have trained with a BA+QTS – as ever we do tend to forget this sector of education and rather default to teacher = secondary subject teacher.

  4. paulh

    Oh and can we stop using the phrase “the best and the brightest” which implies heavily that these are the same!

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