Is there a Nordic Model in education?

By on 22.02.2017 in Public dissemination

“We have struggled with the so-called Nordic Model in education over the past years, and we have no conclusive answer to whether such a model exists,” said Professor Gunilla Holm, Director of JustEd, in her keynote talk at the joint conference Nordic Education in Focus: Is there a Common Ground? in Stockholm 6–7 February.

Top-notch Nordic researchers in the field of education, among them many JustEd members, disseminated their newest research findings to 130 researchers and policy makers at the conference. The event was a joint conference of the Nordic and national educational research programmes, NordForsk’s ‘Education for Tomorrow’ being one of them.

Gunilla Holm highlighted two examples of why researchers in JustEd have no conclusive answer on whether there is a so-called Nordic Model in education, and how such a model would be described, in her keynote. She begun by briefly discussing the latest PISA results and continued with discussing national curricula in light commonalities and differences. She aimed at focusing on some similarities and some differences among the Nordic countries, specifically with regard to equity in education.

Gunilla Holm

Gunilla Holm

“PISA 2015 focused on science, and all Nordic countries except for Iceland are at or above the OECD average with regard to performance in science. For all the Nordic countries the students’ economic, social and cultural background explain comparatively little of the results in science,” said Gunilla.

However, Gunilla pointed out some interesting patterns. “The sense of belonging among the students is fairly similar for all countries, but while the Finnish students perform the best in science they do not enjoy science, and they don’t think they are very good at science.”

Additionally, the Finnish students do not suffer from test anxiety. On the other hand, Icelandic students enjoy science and think they are good at it, while their performance is the weakest among the Nordic countries.”

Nordic students' beliefs PISA 2015.

Green = enjoy science. Blue = Science self-efficacy. Red = Test anxiety. Yellow = Sense of belonging to school.

Immigrant students are falling behind

“The PISA 2015 data shows that the Nordic countries are relatively close to the OECD average, but the relatively similar performance patterns for immigrant students raises the question of a Nordic pattern in a negative sense,” pinpoints Gunilla.

The countries having a longer experience with immigrant students, e.g. Sweden, fair no better than countries like Finland and Iceland, for which immigrant students is a newer experience. The common experience seems to be that immigrant students are not doing as well as the non-immigrant students.

Immigrant students graphic

Green = non immigrant. Orange = immigrant.

In another example, Gunilla showed compiled data from PISA 2015 which revealed that Iceland and Denmark are doing quite well compared to the OECD average, while Finland seems to have a serious problem with student truancy, students lacking respect for teachers and bullying. According to the principals the problems are focused on the students.

In Norway on the other hand, the problems seem to be focused on teachers – teachers not meeting individual students’ needs, teacher absenteeism and staff resisting change.

“The unclear picture that emerged, not only based on PISA but in many other ways as well, makes it difficult to know in what direction we are actually going, with regard to justice in education,” said Gunilla.

The foundation of justice in education

National curricula and policy can build a foundation for taking steps towards justice, or function as speed bumps by not addressing issues of equity and equality. The national curricula takes, of course, different forms in different countries. “My question is: are they going in the same direction if we look at the value foundation,” asked Gunilla.

When looking at the value foundation in the Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish curricula (the value foundation is less detailed in Denmark), the curricula emphasize the importance of a democratic society, and that students need to learn how to be active and responsible participants in a democratic society. The common good is emphasized throughout, and the respect for human rights and all people’s equal value is stressed.

Norway and Sweden also emphasize solidarity with others, but an understanding of others, and being able to take the perspectives of others, is important for all, and in Finland and Iceland this is discussed as part of multicultural education.

Gender-sensitive but not social-class sensitive

All the countries emphasize gender equality in their national curricula, and that traditional gender patterns should not be allowed to stand in the way for girls’ and boys’ education. Finland in its new curriculum is going the farthest by stating that the curriculum should be gender sensitive, and that gender equality should be integrated throughout the entire curriculum. All the curricula have explicit statements against any kind of discrimination.

“In some of the curricula it is stated that economic, social and cultural equality should be promoted, but other than that social class is pretty much absent”, stated Gunilla .

“This raises the question about why it is not considered important to have a social-class sensitive approach to the Curriculum, if we can have a gender-sensitive approach? After all, social class is very important in education.”

Cultural heritage and it’s place in the curricula

In her talk Gunilla also focused on the issue of cultural heritage and how it is formulated in the the curricula.

“Denmark states that students should know Danish culture and history. Norway emphasizes the traditional Norwegian and Christian heritage, while Sweden emphasizes the ethical values based on Christian tradition and western humanism,” pinpointed Gunilla.

“The Icelandic so-called pillars rely more on international conventions and Icelandic laws. The brand new Finnish curriculum is taking a turn towards global citizenship and away from a static view on culture. Instead culture is described as something evolving and constantly developing.”

Gunilla highlighted that the Nordic countries state the importance of social justice in education, but emphasized the importance of remembering that when looking at the curricula in detail, the discourses are quite different.

Nordic countries support democracy, human rights and social justice

“If the national curricula can be put into practice, we are definitely going in the direction of a social justice Curriculum, which creates a bond between the Nordic countries,” stated Gunilla.

“The Nordic countries are, at least on paper, great supporters of democracy, human rights and social justice, and the national curricula thus serve as a way to further justice in education.”

The value foundations in the national curricula, but also to some extent information gathered through, for example, PISA, shows the direction for looking at education in the Nordic countries.

“For us in JustEd, we keep the emphasis on human rights, everybody’s equal value, prevention of discrimination, multilingualism, diversity, gender, social class, and so on, as our guide for our research that at times is nationally based and at times cross-cultural,” concluded Gunilla.


This text is based on Gunilla Holm’s keynote talk at the Nordic Education in Focus: Is there a Common Ground? 6 February, 2017.

Read more about research done within JustEd.

Photo: Stefan Tell





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