Tom Stehlik

Is ‘pedagogical love’ the secret to Finland’s educational success?

Teachers and teacher educators in Finland are well aware that Finnish schoolchildren perform well in academic metrics such as PISA, but they seem much more concerned that their children are happy. It was something that impressed me immensely when I visited the country.

The wellbeing of children is central to Finnish society and culture and underpins their approach to education. Relationships between students, teachers, parents and even educational administrators are based on trust, which I believe is their defining motivation.

They even have a term for it: pedagogical love. It is an interesting concept that encapsulates the Finnish approach to the teaching-learning relationship.

There is much that we have already learned, and more we could learn, from the way Finland educates its children. Pedagogical love could be the most important.

What is ‘pedagogical love’ and how did it emerge as a way of teaching-learning?

Uno Cygnaeus, a nineteenth century educator who is considered to be the ‘father’ of the Finnish public school system, first mentioned this kind of love. He described ‘good teacherhood’ as not just being able to deliver content knowledge, but as being able ‘to blaze with the spirit of sacred love’. So pedagogical love is seen as a form of love that is distinct from other, perhaps more familiar forms, for example: romantic love; maternal love; love for fellow humans; or love of one’s country.

More than a century later we know that positive relationships between teachers, students and parents are central to effective teaching and learning. As I see it, the concept of pedagogical love is no different, in that it starts from the premise that human beings are fundamentally emotional creatures, and that intellect and will can often be secondary drivers of interest.

Other contemporary versions of this concept in education settings include the notion of a strengths-based approach to learning, which recognises that learners are individuals with particular strengths that can be directly addressed and enhanced in working with the active power and strength of children. Strengths can include emotional intelligence and creative imagination as well as academic ability or physical prowess. Contemporary responses to this in a curriculum sense include Play-Based learning in Early Childhood Education, and Individual Learning Plans and Personal Development goals as, for example, in senior school Certificates in Education such as SACE.

In the same way, ‘pedagogical love would rather aim at the discovery of pupils’ strengths and interests and act based on these to strengthen students’ self-esteem and self-image as active learners’.

Pedagogical love is more than learning plans or curriculum frameworks

In Finland however, pedagogical love appears to manifest at a far deeper level than just as curriculum frameworks or individual learning plans. In fact, while children and young people are valued as individuals, there appears to be a more collective approach to learning in which all children experience the same curriculum, the same opportunities and the same support from the whole community to achieve collaboratively. The greater good (or the good of the nation, the people) appears to be more highly valued than individual competitiveness and achievement.

The Finns are well known for their modest and self-effacing characteristic and this is also deeply embedded in their cultural history, which is founded in part on their hard-won independence, but also on their mythology, as exemplified by The Kalevala, the 19th Century epic poem compiled from Finnish oral history and folklore, recognised as one of the most significant works of Finnish literature. The stories and characters in The Kalevala promote certain values and morals that are respected and upheld in Finnish culture, and by association in Finnish education today. These include the idea that the way to solve problems is by the intellect rather than brute force; that all children are loved and respected; that all Finns strive to be part of a civilised nation.

It is all about trust

In the schools this can be observed in the level of trust that is apparent at all levels: teachers trusting pupils; parents trusting and respecting teachers; principals trusting teachers to do their job well without formal performance management; municipal directors trusting principals to manage their schools without formal inspectors, and so on. As mentioned in my previous blog, Should we be more like Finland? The Finnish education system explained teachers are relatively independent. They are free to teach in the way they want, but without abrogating their responsibilities for good teacherhood, which relies on establishing reciprocal relationships of trust. As educators Kaarina Määttä and Satu Uusiautti put it:

‘A teacher who is aware of pedagogical love as a way of teaching will aim for a balance between keeping pupils in constant dependency and allowing complete independence: Pedagogical love speaks to interdependence, that is the recognition and acceptance that we need others’.

This two-way relationship between teacher and learner also requires the teacher to recognise that teaching is personal and relational and dependent on their own personality, and the impact of their influence and guidance. It is referred to as the teacher having ‘pathic knowledge’, which means that the teacher maintains ‘a shared sensibility of being in the world as One and the Other’.

…and expectations

Pedagogical love therefore is not a form of sentimentalizing or watering down of standards and expectations. It is an acknowledgement of achieving well and aiming high according to the expectations of self, school and society. Where these are aligned, as in the case of Finland, ‘success for all’ is not an empty piece of rhetoric.

Language is the key

Finally, the unique Finnish language holds another key to understanding Finnish culture, schooling and society. No other country or culture speaks or reads this language or any language quite similar, and it brings the Finns together as a nation in a way that English speaking countries may not fully be able to understand. The fact that teaching the Finnish language is referred to in the school curriculum as ‘the Mother Tongue’ demonstrates how deeply embedded it is in the Finnish national psyche and imbued with a personification of unconditional love and care.

How pedagogical love works in practice

By age 16 many Finnish high school students are living independently while studying, supported by a living allowance from the state. This is not uncommon in Nordic countries, and underpins the approach to senior school in which students are treated and respected as young adults rather than adolescents, and given responsibilities that they must honour.

For example, Taidelukio School in Savonlinna is a specialist art and music high school with fully equipped music and art studios. On enrolment, all students are given a key to the school by the principal, who trusts them to come and go after school and on weekends to be able to access the facilities. No teachers are required to supervise and there has never been a problem in the ten years that this practice has occurred. Students sign a contract and know that if anything happens this entitlement will be taken away. Trust is the key to making this work.

Similarly, trust extends to all visitors to the schools. At no time was I asked to sign in or show that I had criminal history clearance, as happens now in our country under our severe compliance policies that have understandably arisen from a history of unfortunate treatment of children by adults.

In all the schools I visited, behaviour management did not appear to be a major issue. Teachers were addressed by their first name and the relationship between student and teacher appears to be much closer than the more formal approach adopted in many countries.

Significance of the free school lunch in Finland

A significant factor in developing and maintaining this relationship is the daily school lunch, where students and teachers sit and eat together in the school canteen. I observed this in every school, even the kindergartens, as I was always invited to partake in lunch.

I firmly believe that the simple fact of eating and socialising together every day has a number of significant educational benefits: the children learn appropriate social manners and rituals related to eating and putting away their dishes; they have a healthy and nutritious meal every day (and I believe this is linked to improved behaviours); they learn to mix freely and socially with each other as well as teaching staff and other adults; teachers can observe social behaviours and peer groupings and whether particular children are eating alone or not mixing with their peers; and parents do not have to worry about packing school lunches! Of course, providing free meals is a big expense, but the Finnish education budget covers this as well.

Despite the cost of introducing a free meal scheme, if there was one thing I would recommend adopting in Australian schools, it would be this, as I believe the benefits would outweigh the costs in the long term. We know that in South Australia for example many children come to school hungry and do not eat well, and if they do eat are often consuming unhealthy processed foods containing sugar and preservatives. These hype up behaviour and cause problems for teachers and other students, as well as learning difficulties for the child. The increasing use of medication to deal with behavioural problems often blamed on medical diagnoses such as autism and ADHD for example, could be a case of treating the symptom rather than the cause. The Australian Autism ADHD Foundation for example, cites research suggesting that ‘these disorders are associated with genetic predispositions triggered by environmental factors…such as a “Western style” diet, consisting of too many nutrient-poor refined foods, additives, preservatives and colourings, and other chemicals’.

Could we do pedagogical love in our schools?

All of this provides ‘food for thought’ for educators in other countries, such as Australia. To what extent could we apply the principle of pedagogical love in our schools, given our country has vastly different history, climate, culture and language as well as educational, teacher training and school funding systems?

Could we become a nation which is child-centred and in which every family respects the child and considers education the foundation to national prosperity, as well as personal wellbeing?

Many Australian parents have a view of schools that has been coloured by their own experiences, often negative, so this would require a massive cultural shift in mindset.

Could we ask Australian teachers to accept a lower salary and invest the funding balance into subsidised school meals instead? If we want to learn from the Finns, these are some of the questions that would need to be addressed at a macro level.

At a micro level however, I would like to think that we could still encourage and develop good teacherhood in Australia through practising pedagogical love in the classroom.


TOMDr Tom Stehlik is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include adult learning, student engagement, school governance and communities of practice. He has had a long association with Steiner Education as a parent, educator, researcher, consultant and board member of a Waldorf School. In July 2014 Dr Stehlik took up an Endeavour Executive Fellowship to study teacher education and schooling in Finland.

Should we be more like Finland? The Finnish education system explained.

Educators around the world laud the Finnish school system and there is constant discussion in Australia about how we should try to follow Finland’s example. However there is scant depth of knowledge about how the Finnish school system actually works. Recently I spent two months in Finland on an Endeavour Executive Fellowship, undertaking research into schools and university teacher education programs. You might be interested in details of what I discovered.

Freedom and trust

The basic right to education is enshrined in the Finnish constitution. Public authorities must secure equal opportunities for every resident in Finland to receive education and be able to develop themselves, irrespective of their financial standing. Legislation provides for compulsory schooling and the right to free pre-primary and basic education, which includes daily meals for students and subsidised transport. There is a strong culture of trust where teachers are addressed by their first name, have a lot of freedom in their classrooms, do not have to submit their pupils to benchmark testing, and are highly respected within the community.

University is free

Higher education is also the responsibility of the Ministry and all university tuition is free, including for foreign students. Finland has 14 universities; eight of these offer teacher education programs.

Funding and administration

Education in Finland is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and Culture. The Ministry is the third largest in Finland and its share of the state budget is 12% (6.6 million Euro in 2014). The Finnish National Board of Education works with the Ministry to develop educational aims, content and methods for primary, secondary and adult education.

Local administration is the responsibility of the regional municipal authorities, which play a prominent role as education providers. Kindergartens, day-care centres, comprehensive schools, upper secondary schools, vocational and further education centres are all administered by the local municipality. This includes responsibility for teaching staff salaries, employment conditions and professional development.

Teacher Education

Every teacher in Finland (apart from kindergarten teachers) has a Master’s degree as a minimum requirement. Teacher training is organised in a unique way in comparison to the Australian situation: the eight universities offering teacher training all have University Teacher Training Schools which belong to the Faculties of Education. Teachers in these schools are actually employees of the university, while the schools themselves still follow the National Curriculum and enjoy the same independence that other schools do. In Finland they are known as Normaalikoulu (Normal schools); also referred to as Training Schools or Practice Schools.

Teacher training and status

There are eleven Finnish Teacher Training schools that not only provide an education for students at comprehensive and upper secondary levels, but they also offer supervision for teaching students undertaking professional experience, act as ‘demonstration schools’ for teaching experiments and educational research, as well as providing and supporting in-service teacher training. The number of students in the Teacher Training Schools totals around 8,000 and every year about 3,000 teaching students complete their teaching practice there.

Teaching is seen as a high status profession in Finland and was described as a ‘favourite occupation’. Historically teachers were seen as ‘Candles of the people’ lighting the way to Finnish independence, and this is still a very strong cultural and societal view. It is therefore competitive to enter teacher education programs requiring a high standard of entry to university – based on a matriculation score as well as an entrance exam and an interview. Points are awarded for each of these three entry requirements. If an applicant fails the university entrance exam they must wait a whole year before applying again.

3 plus 2 year model of teacher education – Bachelor and Masters degrees

Successful applicants enter the initial three year Bachelor of Education program, equivalent to 180 credit points. The degree structure includes a 5 credit course in Quantitative research methods and a 5 credit course in Qualitative research methods, and 10 credit points for a Bachelor’s thesis.

Entry to the Master of Education degree is automatic on successful completion of the Bachelor degree, if a student is continuing at the same university. Entry at Masters level to another university may require additional entrance requirements, in which case Grade Point Average would be a consideration.

The two year Masters degree is equivalent to 120 credits, and includes courses such as Education for Sustainable Future and Education in Diverse Cultures as well as 10 credits on Research-based teaching; 10 more on research methodology; 10 credits on designing a Masters thesis, and finally a Masters thesis equivalent to 30 credit points.

While the qualifications to become a basic classroom teacher (Grades 1 – 9) or a secondary teacher (Grades 10-12) require a minimum of 5 years (3 plus 2), it is unusual that the minimum qualification to become a kindergarten or pre-school teacher only requires a 3 year bachelor degree in Finland. Kindergarten teacher salaries are therefore less than other teachers’ salaries. However, since children do not start Grade 1 until age 7, the kindergarten/pre-school centres are important providers of education and day care – with some providing 24 hour care.

Teacher researchers

The salient feature of the 3 plus 2 model of teacher education in Finland is the research-based approach in both the Bachelor and Masters degrees, reinforced by the research intensive Teacher Training Schools which are funded and supported by the universities. Teachers are taught to think critically and must produce a research thesis both in the 3rd year of their bachelor degree and the final year of their Masters degree. The research-based approach is modelled in the Teacher Training schools where mentor teachers are also university employees and the interaction between the institutions is integral to the approach, providing PD for teachers and access to the universities’ teaching and research activities.

At Savonlinna campus of the University of Eastern Finland (UEF) where I was located during the Endeavour Fellowship, the teacher training school was on the same site and interaction between university and school was constant and immediate. The principal held a PhD and was involved in a research project on 21st Century skills with researchers from UEF, based on evaluating the introduction of iPads to all students from Grades 1 – 9 in the school. Students on Professional Experience at the school were also involved in the research. The Director of Educational and Cultural Development for the Municipality of Savonlinna who was directly responsible for 24 schools and 900 staff in the region also held a PhD and found time to stay involved in research and write articles with researchers from UEF.

Teacher salaries

Finally, it is interesting to note that despite the high status of teaching in Finland, teacher salaries in general are significantly less in comparison to Australia:

  • Finland teacher salaries on average: 32,400 Euro ($45,600)p.a.
  • South Australia: $61,500 up to $89,000 p.a. (Tiers 1 – 9)
  • In other Australian states and territories classroom teachers earn about the same as in South Australia

So we can see there are more differences than similarities in the Finnish system compared to Australian school systems. How realistic would it be for us to emulate or adopt any of the Finnish approaches to education in Australia? Tell me what you think.


TOMDr Tom Stehlik is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include adult learning, student engagement, school governance and communities of practice. He has had a long association with Steiner Education as a parent, educator, researcher, consultant and board member of a Waldorf School. In July 2014 Dr Stehlik took up an Endeavour Executive Fellowship to study teacher education and schooling in Finland.