Ice ages, famine and war: the recipe for Pisa success?

7th November 2014 at 00:00
Paper claims that deadly events boosted Finns' average IQ

Educationalists have spent years trying to fathom what has led Finland to perform well in global education rankings. But a new academic paper suggests that the focus on the country's highly qualified teachers and its lack of inspection and league tables may be misguided.

It argues that Finnish superiority in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings can be explained instead by an ice age, evolution, dying peasants, genetics, an 18th-century war with Russia and the relatively late arrival of the Industrial Revolution.

The paper, written by two psychologists and an English anthropologist based in Finland, highlights a strong correlation between a country's performance in Pisa - which tests 15-year-olds' applied knowledge in reading, maths and science - and its average IQ. It argues that reasons for Finland's high average IQ can be traced back to events that took place centuries ago and have little to do with modern schooling.

One of the authors, Edward Dutton from Finland's University of Oulu, told TES that copying Finnish education policy "would not do as much good as some people make out".

"There is a genetic element to this," he added.

The paper is the latest piece of research to cast doubt on the wisdom of trying to emulate the education systems of top Pisa performers. Last month, a study by the University of London's Institute of Education suggested that much of the phenomenal success of East Asian pupils in international rankings could not be explained by the quality of their school systems.

The new paper also argues that schools may not be the key factor. It says studies indicate that Finns evolved differently from other Europeans, giving them higher IQs. An ice age in Europe and North East Asia between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago boosted Finns' average intelligence because more intelligent people were "likely to survive and pass on their genes", the paper suggests.

It also claims that the wealthy were "likely to have had the highest intelligence" and points to "the Finnish famine of 1696-97, in which it is estimated that 30 per cent of the population perished, with the least well-off the most devastated".

The Great Northern War between 1700-1721 is also cited as a factor, as "70,000 Finns, 50,000 of them young men from the poor backgrounds conscripted into the army, were killed". And the comparatively late arrival of the Industrial Revolution could also have had an impact, the paper says, as industrialisation brought "the introduction of inoculations and general improvements in public health", which weakened the link between wealth and chances of survival, thus bringing down average intelligence.

A fall in average IQ in Finland between 1997 and 2009 could partly explain the country's relatively disappointing performance in the last Pisa tests in 2012, the paper adds. But renowned Finnish educationalist and visiting Harvard professor Pasi Sahlberg challenged this claim.

"I think causal explanations - if they are possible at all - are much more complex than that," he said. "We don't even know how much in-school factors explain Pisa test scores compared with out-of-school factors such as values, individual characteristics and culture."

The paper, "Solving the puzzle of why Finns have the highest IQ, but one of the lowest number of Nobel prizes in Europe", by Edward Dutton, Jan te Nijenhuis and Eka Roivainen, was published in the September edition of Intelligence

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