What Can the U.S. Learn from Educational Change in Finland? (Pasi Sahlberg)

For the past few years, U.S. policymakers and pundits have conducted a love affair with the Finnish education system. This not the first time that policy elites have looked abroad for ways of transforming U.S. schools into jet-powered engines promoting economic growth. Remember how Japanese schools (and later Singapore and Korea) were praised for their performance in creating “Asian Tigers” in the 1980s. This passion for seeing the future in other nation’s schools–once it was even Soviet schools–now has fixed upon Finnish schools.

Pasi Sahlberg is director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? He posted this sensible way of borrowing from another nation on his blog November 5, 2011.

“I think the first lesson that Finland offers to other educational reformers is that whole-system reform can be successful only if it is inspiring to all involved and thereby energizes people to work together for intended improvement. I often use the thinking of Martin Luther King as an example of an inspiring dream that moves people. Dr. King’s dream was not that his country would have a 5-percent annual economic growth rate. That wouldn’t have inspired many people. Similarly, making a country number one in PISA rankings doesn’t excite too many educators. The Finnish Dream since the 1970s has been to provide a good public school for every child in the country. This goal inspired many and was a source of energy that was needed to push through necessary political and educational changes. It was powerful enough to bring different people and political groups to join forces for fulfillment of this dream. The Finnish Dream looks like the dream of John F. Kennedy in 1961: to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. It was challenging, required hard work and political consensus, but in the end rewarded the entire nation through its outcomes.

Second, some observers have concluded that the secret of Finnish educational success is its well-trained teachers. Yes, it is true that teachers and leaders have higher academic education in Finland than in many other countries. But that alone is not the way to whole-system change. What is significant in the Finnish approach is that it has focused on improving the professional knowledge and skills of teachers and leaders as a collective group, not only as individuals, which is the common practice in many current reform programs elsewhere. Finnish teachers learn to work together with other teachers. Finnish education system development has systematically focused on improving schools as social organizations. This includes leadership development that is, according to external reviewers, aimed at enhancing shared and distributed models of leadership. In brief, Finnish educational change is driven by building social capital within the system in concert with individual professional growth.

Third, I think the Finnish example – together with lessons from Canada, Singapore, Japan and Korea – of successful transformation of an education system shows other countries what could be the wrong drivers in educational change…. In my book Finnish Lessons: what can the world learn from educational change in Finland? I talk about the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) that has been much less successful than what Finland and the other successful reformers mentioned above have been able to accomplish with almost the opposite solutions. The best-performing educational systems all have built their change strategies on systemic approaches that rely on collective professional and institutional (or social capital) development, enhanced conditions for teaching and learning for all and more equal educational opportunities within their education systems. Countries that have been infected by GERM drive their education reforms by piecemeal changes, stronger accountability for teachers, faith in individual capacity building, and the power of technology over humans as keys to turning around unsatisfactory school systems. Michael Fullan has argued that “there is no way that … nationwide goals will be met with the strategies being used” in the ongoing education reform in the U.S or Australia. “Finnish Lessons” suggests that these are not the right drivers for whole-system reforms. They have never been used in Finland or in any other successful education system as the main strategy of change.

We should not ask whether Finnish educational model would work in the United States or anywhere else. The question should be: What can we learn from the Finnish experience as high performer and successful reformer? The main lesson from Finland is that there is another way to transform current education systems than that based on standardization, testing, accountability and competition. Finland also shows that we don’t need to rely on corporate school reform models to achieve our goals. Finnish lesson is that good policies and overall well-being of people, including poverty reduction, are the corner stones of sustainable educational success.


Filed under Reforming schools

13 responses to “What Can the U.S. Learn from Educational Change in Finland? (Pasi Sahlberg)

  1. This is indeed an excellent book. Perhaps your readers would enjoy my summary at http://bit.ly/taRzvF. I also published an article on what we can do now in the US based on what we can learn from this book. Here is the link ow.ly/8y9AR. Keep up the good work.

  2. “What is significant in the Finnish approach is that it has focused on improving the professional knowledge and skills of teachers and leaders as a collective group, not only as individuals, which is the common practice in many current reform programs elsewhere.”

    Hmmm… I’m wondering how Finnish teacher training focuses on teachers and leaders as a collective group rather than individuals. I’m guessing that I would have to get Pasi Sahlberg’s book to figure that out :-P.

    I’m asking because I do see some cooperation between teachers at the school that I’m student teaching at. For example, every Friday, the 3rd class that I’m in goes to a kindergarten class for 30 minutes. Each of the 3rd graders read books out loud to each of the kindergartners.

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  4. Larry, I agree completely with Sahlberg’s rejection of, “faith in …the power of technology over humans as keys to turning around unsatisfactory school systems.”

    I was in Finland only a few months ago and learned a great deal, although not quite what I expected to learn. For what it’s worth, this is something I wrote on my own blog at the time.

    Here, in Finland, they have made teaching into a confident, skilled profession. All the teachers I have met, chatted with and questioned have impressed me as excellent professionals who know what they are doing. And because of that, they drive everything from the top down. It doesn’t really surprise me that they can build superb schools buildings and facilities because they are consistent in their views, they understand what effective teaching and learning truly is and how to make it happen. Something for UK policy makers and others to seriously try and understand, when they lavish praise on the Finnish education system.

  5. Thank you for sharing this.
    It reminded me of a piece I read in The Toronto Star a while back (both because of the current fondness of all things Finnish, and also for the reflection on how we might improve). The piece seems to focus more on what is going on in Finnish schools outside of the classroom–but in the school–as a starting point for improvement.
    The series is here: http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/article/960546–saving-public-education-why-teachers-matter

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  8. Finnisch miracle: fata morgana?
    Finnish students’ achievement (15 y) declined significantly: study of University Helsinki
    University of Helsinki – Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Department of Teacher of Education Research Report No 347Authors: Jarkko Hautamäki, Sirkku Kupiainen, Jukka Marjanen, Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen and Risto Hotulainen
    Learning to learn at the end of basic education: Results in 2012 and changes from 2001
    S.: The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably: under the mean of the scale used in the questions. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. The mean level of students’ learning-supporting attitudes still falls above the mean of the scale used in the questions but also that mean has declined from 2001.
    Since 1996, educational effectiveness has been understood in Finland to include not only subject specific knowledge and skills but also the more general competences which are not the exclusive domain of any single subject but develop through good teaching along a student’s educational career. Many of these, including the object of the present assessment, learning to learn, have been named in the education policy documents of the European Union as key competences which each member state should provide their citizens as part of general education (EU 2006).
    In spring 2012, the Helsinki University Centre for Educational Assessment implemented a nationally representative assessment of ninth grade students’ learning to learn competence. The assessment was inspired by signs of declining results in the past few years’ assessments. This decline had been observed both in the subject specific assessments of the Finnish National Board of Education, in the OECD PISA 2009 study, and in the learning to learn assessment implemented by the Centre for Educational Assessment in all comprehensive schools in Vantaa in 2010.
    The results of the Vantaa study could be compared against the results of a similar assessment implemented in 2004. As the decline in students’ cognitive competence and in their learning related attitudes was especially strong in the two Vantaa studies, with only 6 years apart, a decision was made to direct the national assessment of spring 2012 to the same schools which had participated in a respective study in 2001.
    The goal of the assessment was to find out whether the decline in results, observed in the Helsinki region, were the same for the whole country. The assessment also offered a possibility to look at the readiness of schools to implement a computer-based assessment, and how this has changed during the 11 years between the two assessments. After all, the 2001 assessment was the first in Finland where large scale student assessment data was collected in schools using the Internet.
    The main focus of the assessment was on students’ competence and their learning-related attitudes at the end of the comprehensive school education, but the assessment also relates to educational equity: to regional, between-school, and between- class differences and to the relation of students’ gender and home background to their competence and attitudes.
    The assessment reached about 7 800 ninth grade students in 82 schools in 65 municipalities. Of the students, 49% were girls and 51% boys. The share of students in Swedish speaking schools was 3.4%. As in 2001, the assessment was implemented in about half of the schools using a printed test booklet and in the other half via the Internet. The results of the 2001 and 2012 assessments were uniformed through IRT modelling to secure the comparability of the results. Hence, the results can be interpreted to represent the full Finnish ninth grade population.
    Girls performed better than boys in all three fields of competence measured in the assessment: reasoning, mathematical thinking, and reading comprehension. The difference was especially noticeable in reading comprehension even if in this task girls’ attainment had declined more than boys’ attainment. Differences between the AVI-districts were small. The impact of students’ home-background was, instead, obvious: the higher the education of the parents, the better the student performed in the assessment tasks. There was no difference in the impact of mother’s education on boys’ and girls’ attainment. The between-school-differences were very small (explaining under 2% of the variance) while the between-class differences were relatively large (9 % – 20 %).
    The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. The mean level of students’ learning-supporting attitudes still falls above the mean of the scale used in the questions but also that mean has declined from 2001.
    The mean level of attitudes detrimental to learning has risen but the rise is more modest. Girls’ attainment has declined more than boys’ in three of the five tasks. There was no gender difference in the change of students’ attitudes, however. Between-school differences were un-changed but differences between classes and between individual students had grown. The change in attitudes—unlike the change in attainment—was related to students’ home background: The decline in learning-supporting attitudes and the growth in attitudes detrimental to school work were weaker the better educated the mother. Home background was not related to the change in students’ attainment, however. A decline could be discerned both among the best and the weakest students.
    The results of the assessment point to a deeper, on-going cultural change which seems to affect the young generation especially hard. Formal education seems to be losing its former power and the accepting of the societal expectations which the school represents seems to be related more strongly than before to students’ home background. The school has to compete with students’ self-elected pastime activities, the social media, and the boundless world of information and entertainment open to all through the Internet. The school is to a growing number of youngpeople just one, often critically reviewed, developmental environment among many.
    The change is not a surprise, however. A similar decline in student attainment has been registered in the other Nordic countries already earlier. It is time to concede that the signals of change have been discernible already for a while and to open up a national discussion regarding the state and future of the Finnish comprehensive school that rose to international acclaim due to our students’success in the PISA studies.

  9. View of Finnish teachers versus view of Pasi Sahlberg
    Oxford- Prof. Jennifer Chung ( AN INVESTIGATION OF REASONS FOR FINLAND’S SUCCESS IN PISA (University of Oxford 2008).
    “Many of the teachers mentioned the converse of the great strength of Finnish education (= de grote aandacht voor kinderen met leerproblemen) as the great weakness. Jukka S. (BM) believes that school does not provide enough challenges for intelligent students: “I think my only concern is that we give lots of support to those pupils who are underachievers, and we don’t give that much to the brightest pupils. I find it a problem, since I think, for the future of a whole nation, those pupils who are really the stars should be supported, given some more challenges, given some more difficulty in their exercises and so on. To not just spend their time here but to make some effort and have the idea to become something, no matter what field you are choosing, you must not only be talented like they are, but work hard. That is needed. “
    Pia (EL) feels that the schools do not motivate very intelligent students to work. She thinks the schools should provide more challenges for the academically talented students. In fact, she thinks the current school system in Finland does not provide well for its students. Mixed-ability classrooms, she feels, are worse than the previous selective system: “ I think this school is for nobody. That is my private opinion. Actually I think so, because when you have all these people at mixed levels in your class, then you have to concentrate on the ones who need the most help, of course. Those who are really good, they get lazy. “
    Pia believes these students become bored and lazy, and float through school with no study skills. Jonny (EM) describes how comprehensive education places the academically gifted at a disadvantage: “We have lost a great possibility when we don’t have the segregated levels of math and natural sciences… That should be once again taken back and started with. The good talents are now torturing themselves with not very interesting education and teaching in classes that aren’t for their best.
    Pia (EL) finds the PISA frenzy about Finland amusing, since she believes the schools have declined in recent years: “I think [the attention] is quite funny because school isn’t as good as it used to be … I used to be proud of being a teacher and proud of this school, but I can’t say I ’m proud any more.”
    Aino (BS) states that the evenness and equality of the education system has a “dark side.” Teaching to the “middle student” in a class of heterogeneous ability bores the gifted students, who commonly do not perform well in school. Maarit (DMS) finds teaching heterogeneous classrooms very difficult. She admits that dividing the students into ability levels would make the teaching easier, but worries that it may affect the self-esteem of the weaker worse than a more egalitarian system Similarly, Terttu (FMS) thinks that the class size is a detriment to the students’ learning. Even though Finnish schools have relatively small class sizes, she thinks that a group of twenty is too large, since she does not have time for all of the students: “You don’t have enough time for everyone … All children have to be in the same class. That is not so nice. You have the better pupils. I can’t give them as much as I want. You have to go so slowly in the classroom.” Curiously, Jukka E. (DL) thinks that the special education students need more support and the education system needs to improve in that area.
    Miikka (FL) describes how he will give extra work to students who want to have more academic challenges, but admits that “they can get quite good grades, excellent grades, by doing nothing actually, or very little.” Miikka (FL) describes discussion in educational circles about creating schools and universities for academically talented students: 3 Everyone has the same chances…One problem is that it can be too easy for talented students. There has been now discussion in Finland if there should be schools and universities for talented students… I think it will happen, but I don’t know if it is good, but it will happen, I think so. I am also afraid there will be private schools again in Finland in the future … [There] will be more rich people and more poor people, and then will come so [many] problems in comprehensive schools that some day quite soon … parents will demand that we should have private schools again, and that is quite sad.

    Linda (AL), however, feels the love of reading has declined in the younger generation, as they tend to gravitate more to video games and television. Miikka (FL), also a teacher of mother tongue, also cites a decline in reading interest and an increase of video game and computer play. Saij a (BL) agrees. As a teacher of Finnish, she feels that she has difficulty motivating her students to learn: “I think my subject is not the … easiest one to teach. They don’t read so much, newspapers or novels.” Her students, especially the boys, do not like their assignments in Finnish language. She also thinks the respect for teachers has declined in this past generation. Miikka (FL) also thinks his students do not respect their teachers: “They don’t respect the teachers. They respect them very little … I think it has changed a lot in recent years. In Helsinki, it was actually earlier. When I came here six years ago, I thought this was heaven. I thought it was incredible, how the children were like that after Helsinki, but now I think it is the same.
    Linda (AL) notes deficiency in the amount of time available for subjects. With more time, she would implement more creative activities, such as speech and drama, into her lessons. Saij a (BL) also thinks that her students need more arts subjects like drama and art. She worries that they consider mathematics as the only important subject. Shefeels countries such as Sweden, Norway, and England have better arts programs than in Finnish schools. Arts subjects, according to Saij a, help the students get to know themselves. Maarit (DMS), a Finnish-speaker, thinks that schools need to spend more time cultivating social skills.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you,Raf Feys, for the extensive comments from those in Finland who challenge the prevalent “happy talk” about Finnish schooling.

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