TEXT AKSELI HUHTANEN
It has been more than ten years of keen interest in Finnish educational thought and practice. Since the 2006 sensational PISA success of Finland’s schools hundreds or thousands of educational experts, teachers, public administers and politicians have traveled to Finland to seek for replicable concepts or educational products for sale. With the benchmarking boom came high demand for Finnish-made products in education. What surprised the buyers was that there was and still are only a handful of Finnish educational products available. Is this due to lack of innovation? Perhaps the success is only a coincidence?
It has been more than ten years of keen interest in Finnish educational thought and practice. Since the 2006 sensational PISA success of Finland’s schools hundreds or thousands of educational experts, teachers, public administers and politicians have traveled to Finland to seek for replicable concepts or educational products for sale. With the benchmarking boom came high demand for Finnish-made products in education. What surprised the buyers was that there was and still are only a handful of Finnish educational products available.
Is this due to lack of innovation? Perhaps the success is only a coincidence? Could be, but as the success has proven to be lasting, that is not very probable. Many say, that if there is one secret behind the success of Finnish system it is the professional freedom of teachers, empowering them to develop their practices constantly - to innovate.
There are more than 46 000 full-time teachers in Finnish elementary and upper secondary schools. All of them brilliant teachers who develop their teaching every single day. Not to mention the thousands of researchers, postgraduates and students studying education at universities. In addition, there are tens of thousands of trainers, part-time teachers and other educational professionals teaching at different companies, institutes and colleges. All in all, at least over 100 000 education professionals making the world-renowned education happen. So there are 100 000 educational innovators in Finland, but the innovations are missing.
Educational exports are only a tiny fraction
Only a handful of Finnish educational products have made it to international markets. Sanoma Learning publishes books in a few European countries. Mightifier’s emotional skills teaching app has been in use especially in Asia. ThingLink’s 360 images with embedded content have spread widely to schools in the Americas. In addition to these examples, there are only few dozen other Finnish companies that significantly sell products or services outside Finland in the field of education.
The sales volume of these companies has been estimated to be around 260 million euros annually. If this is true, education exports form only a tiny 1.3% fraction of Finnish services exports and 0.3 % of total exports. Still, if there is one country that comes to minds when education is mentioned, it is Finland.
Why ideas are not spreading?
Of course, we should ask whether educational ideas should be turned into profitable products at all. Some argue that learning is too valuable to be turned into business. And I agree, learning is perhaps one of the most valuable things of all. But being so valuable, it should be made available everywhere, and this is done by spreading best practices. So if an idea is making learning happen in one country, everyone should get to make use of it. And this usually requires the idea to be formulated into a usable product or a replicable procedure.
Some ideas spread fast on a conceptual level. Somebody writes down a recipe, other people read it, and do things accordingly - and ta-dah, the idea has travelled! These ideas can be spread by almost no cost at all through internet. But others require constant support, physical tools or a software environment. It takes resources to create these, and somebody has to pay for them. With these ideas, it is usually the best way to help them spread by productizing them. That way the expenses are spread and the single innovator doesn’t have to pay big amount but everyone can pay a little amount and this way make the idea available.
So what does it take to turn an idea into a replicable concept or product? First of all, you need the skills to design it into a user-friendly format. This could be a website, a book, a video or a lecture - anything that makes it understandable and usable for others. Designing takes some time, too, but usually not that much when you have the skills. For example, Google uses the method of a one-week “sprint” to design new products.
The second requirement apply if you are turning the idea into a product. You need to have the time and resources to productize: prototype it, to build sales channels, to market it and to create a stock. This all takes time and money. As I stated above, there is already a demand for Finnish educational products, but to reach the market there is a long way of productizing to go.
To sum up, the two elements needed to make ideas spread widely are:
How to fix it
As the educational ideas from Finland are not spreading, there must be problems with the above two elements. The first one is obvious: Teachers are usually passionate about teaching but nobody teaches them service design or productizing, because where would you need those within a school. The problem here is of course that schools are considered to live in isolation and perhaps communicate with parents and administration. Engineers study design these days, but not teachers. How to fix it: Change the administrative paradigm into a more networked school and start teaching design skills in teacher training. Good way to start could be with Design Thinking for Educators toolkit. Not simple but achievable.
The second problem seems to be that there are not enough investors who would invest in developing educational products. Perhaps this is because the market has been dominated by a few publishing companies, and is only now opening up. These corporations have invested in product development quite cautiously, and mostly within their own company. The market is also complicated: products have to be cheap for the school or teacher (or even student) to buy them, but still it is not really a traditional b-to-c market where a stockist could help with spreading the products. It is often unclear who and when will pay for a product. This has probably troubled investors. Still, there is plenty of examples of successful educational products.
To fix the issue with investments, we needed safe havens for educational product development providing some time and money. XEdu accelerator is a great example of this, but cannot by itself fix the whole issue. Perhaps we would need a government or corporation-backed investment program? The other way to help it is to provide ready channels for sales of the products and this way reduce the venture capitalists’ anxieties related to the profit formula of the products. Dare to Learn can be one these international sales channels but of course others are needed, for example operating directly at the target markets.
Finland has a lot to give when it comes to learning and education. Now we needed to remove these obstacles preventing the flow of ideas.