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

By Tom Stehlik

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.

4 thoughts on “Is ‘pedagogical love’ the secret to Finland’s educational success?

  1. Ania Lian says:

    Dear Tom
    A good post but how much detail can we “take home”? What will strength-based approach mean in practice? A fully agree with the term except than when it gets hijacked by regular understandings, we change it from “strength-based”to what we believe students’ strengths are (and so we are comfortably back in the driving seat) .
    As for lunches, this is a regular practice in central and eastern europe, not much to do with Finland and more to do with the way of life over there . They eat 3 course lunches over there , and barely anything for dinner (gives them those slim figures I gather 🙂 ).
    thank you for a nice postings 🙂
    ania lian

  2. Tom Stehlik says:

    Thanks for your comment Ania. Yes I agree, school lunches are very normal in most schools in Europe and the UK, but it is just one part of the bigger picture of education in Finland.

  3. Hanna Kivisto says:

    Thanks for an engaging post, Tom. As a Finnish teacher living in Australia and working in the education policy sector here, it is always interesting to read impressions on the Finnish system.

  4. John Hart says:

    Hi Tom,
    I’m a Brit & I’ve been working as a teacher in Finland for 8 years now. To attempt to answer the earlier question about what to ‘take away’ from this article:

    Equity: ‘The greater good (or the good of the nation, the people) appears to be more highly valued than individual competitiveness and achievement.’

    Accountability vs. Responsibility: ‘…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.’

    It isn’t just down to schools: ‘The wellbeing of children is central to Finnish society and culture’

    These three points are key.

    Also, I think there might be a misconception about a ‘three course lunch’, I don’t know about elsewhere in Europe but that certainly doesn’t happen in the schools I’ve worked in, or at my children’s school and dinner is very much the main meal of the day 🙂

    I’m not so sure how serious you are when suggesting that cutting teacher salaries would be a good answer to funding a school meals programme? This is the first thing I’ve read from you, so maybe it was written in jest?

    One other thing to take away from Finland is how they value and trust the teachers, as you say yourself. If you think about the ‘greater good’ being another commendable aspect of what happens in Finland, then perhaps a tax on the highest earners/businesses would be more appropriate?

    Therein lies the problem. Until a whole society has the mindset to work towards providing an equitable system, they are not going to see the kind of results seen in Finland.

    If you’re interested I’ve written along similar lines:!Finnish-Lessons-Part-1-Culture-Shock/c1sp5/572ce7010cf2094051e6e5dc


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