Finnish Lessons

Dec 29, 2011 by

Kenneth J. Bernstein –

or more precisely, Finnish Lessons:  What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?, is simply put the one must read to begin to understand how Finland has built perhaps the world’s most successful educational system over the past few decades.

The author,Pasi Sahlberg, is currently Director General of CIMO (in the Ministry of Education) in Helsinki, Finland.  He has been a teacher, a teacher educator, lived in the US while working at the World Bank.  He is also on the Board of Directors of the Association for Supervision and  Curriculum Development, one of the premier professional organizations in education (disclosure, I am a member).

This will be an extensive examination of the book, in conjunction with additional commentary about Finland and what we can and cannot learn from their experience in education.

I disclose up front that I have met Sahlberg and am in contact with him electronically.   I also disclose that as a professional teacher I start with a bias –  that Finland takes teaching far more seriously than does the nation in which I live and teach.

I hope to persuade you that this is a very important book, that if you care about education, you should read it.

Please keep reading.

For a long time no one paid any attention to what was happening in education in Finland.  Then the 2000 results for PISA –  Programme for International Student Assessment – an assessment of 15-year olds produced every 3 years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD.  Finland ranked as the #1 country in the world, a position it maintained in the results for 2003, and 2006.  In 2009 the city of Shanghai held the number 1 spot, closely followed by Korea and then Finland.

The 2000 results probably should not have shocked, as Finland had also performed very well on the IEA Reading Literacy Study for 1988-1994.

In recent years there has been a lot of interest in what Finland has achieved, with some touting the results while others dismiss them.  let’s examine a few of these, while offering some of the relevant material from the book in response.

Some argue that Finland is a small, very non-diverse country as compared to the US.   The size argument bears some validity, given that current population

today is 5.5 million.  It is about the population of Minnesota in the United States or Victoria in Australia, and just slightly more than the size of Alberta Canada or Nod-Pas de Calais in France.  Indeed, about 30 states of the United States have a population close to or less than Finland.  (p. 8).

Yet the argument on diversity is less accurate.  Earlier on the same page we read that Finland is a trilingual nation (Finnish, Swedish and Sami are all official languages), and that its 3 largest ethnic-language minorities are Russian, Estonian and Somali!   Further, one requirement for graduation from high school.  The population has been becoming increasingly more diverse:  foreign born citizens and residents numbered only 12, 853 in 1980 but 248,135 in 2010, with the number of residents being issued citizenship increasing from 621 to 4334 over the same period (p. 68).  Further, in what we would consider middle school, students either take an average track with one foreign language or an advanced track with two foreign languages, and all students are expected to complete school with competency in two of the three national languages.  It is worth noting that students in heavily Swedish-speaking areas are instructed in that language:  compare that to how we treat our students for whom Spanish is their first language.

Others will argue that the overall performance of Finland is due to its relatively low level of childhood poverty.  This is true, but an incomplete representation.

According to the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 3.4% of children in Finland live in poverty.  This is the smallest child poverty rate after Denmark (2.4%).  In the United States 21.7% and in Canada 13.6% of children live in poverty  (p. 69)

Some will point out that when scores are adjusted for percentage of poverty the US scores about as well as Finland.  But we need to remember that in Finland it is not just the low degree of poverty.  It is also the range of income inequality.  Finland ranks relatively low on measures like the GINI coefficient while the US, which is showing increasing signs of inequality over the past decade, has a coefficient more in common with third world countries, not other industrialized nations.

In part the difference in Finland is cultural, which is one reason one cannot hope to immediately clone what the Finns have done in the United States.  After all, we have strong resistance against any national educational policy.  Yet in theory, absent federal mandates, individual states COULD use Finland as a model, especially given how many are roughly the same size or smaller than Finland.

But first we would have to significantly change how we recruit, train and support teachers.  Only then might the teaching profession in the US begin to have the stature that it does in Finland.   Consider:

Finnish males viewed a as the most desirable spouse, rated just ahead of a nurse, medical doctor, or architect.  Women, in turn, identified only a medical doctor and a veterinarian ahead of a teacher as a desirable profession for their ideal husband.  (p. 73)

For positions of teaching above Kindergarten teachers are REQUIRED to have an MA before getting their own classroom (p. 81)

Teachers, at about 41,000/year,  earn slightly more than the national average salary  (although in Korea teachers make substantially more, with the average being 55,000 compared to 44,000 in the US).  All pay is based on qualifications and experience, and there is no “merit pay.”  (p. 76).

But the true Finnish difference is that teachers in Finland may exercise their professional knowledge and judgment both widely and freely in their schools.  They control curriculum, student assessment, school improvement, and community involvement (p. 7).

Principals have to be qualified to teach in the schools they lead, to have successfully completed academic studies in educational administration and leadership from a Finnish university, and many also teach a small number of classes each week (p. 92).   Here I note this truly fulfills the full title, which was derived from Principal Teacher.

Admission to teacher education programs is highly competitive:

Annually, only about 1 of every ten applicants will be accepted to prepare to become a teacher in Finnish primary schools.

In some universities, for example Helsinki, the rate of acceptance is as low as 5%, one in 20  (pp. 75-76)

All education in Finland, including through doctoral degrees for those who seek them, is tuition free to the student.

I cannot cover all of the material Sahlberg offers in the book.   One of its strengths is that it is so thorough on so many topics.  Two key points that he offers are critical to understanding why Finland is successful.  First, it does not follow the common pattern that he calls the Global Educational Reform Movement, or GERM, whose characteristics are clearly evident in the thrust of educational policy in the United States.  The second is that most of what Finland is doing they did not invent, but took from other nations, most specifically our own.  Let me at least briefly explore each of these ideas.

GERM is “not a formal global policy program but rather an unofficial policy agenda that relies on a certain set of policy assumptions to improve educational system” (p. 99).  It is “promoted through the strategies and interests of international development agencies, bilateral donors, and private consultants through their interventions in national educational reforms and policy making processes” (ibid.).  Sahlberg identifies five key features of the GERM approach:

1.  standardization in education
2.  increased focus on cores subjects such as literacy and numeracy
3.  teaching with prescribed curriculum:  “searching for safe and low-risk ways to reach predetermined learning goals” (p.101)
4. transfer of models from the corporate world “often supported by private corporations, consultant firms, and private venture philosophy” (ibid.)
5. adoption of high-stakes accountability policies for schools

Those who are critical of these kinds of approaches – and I am definitely in that camp – will find that Sahlberg is precise on the implications and impact they have.  For example, for the fourth point he notes

Faith in educational change that depends upon innovations brought from outside the educational system undermines two important elements of successful educational improvement.  First, it often limits the role of national policy development and the enhancement of an educational system’s own capability to maintain renewal. . . . Perhaps more important, it paralyzes teachers’ and schools’ attempts to learn from the past and to learn from each other.   Or, it prevents lateral professional development in the system that is the main source of energy needed for sustained educational improvements (ibid.).

Sahlberg notes that the Canadian scholar Michael Fullan, who has extensively studied educational reform in the U. S. and Australia, describe choices of drivers of chance such as  being wrong, noting of such wrong drivers that they

include accountability (vs. professionalism). individual teacher quality (vs. collegiality), technology (vs. pedagogy), and fragmented strategies (vs. systems thinking). (p. 102)

He quotes Fullan as writing that “No successful system has ever led with these drivers” (ibid.).   Sahlberg then provides a concise summary of the differences between the GERM approach and the Finnish approach in a chart appearing on p. 103.  Let me summarize the contrast by first listing the GERM characteristic in Italics followed by the corresponding Finnish approach in bold:

Standardized teaching and learning vs Customizing teaching and learning

Focus on literacy and numeracy vs Focus on creative learning

Teaching proscribed curriculum vs Encouraging risk-taking

Borrowing market-oriented reform ideas vs Learning from the past and owning innovations

Test-based accountability and control vs Shared responsibility and trust

GERM depends upon focusing on basics and explicit learning target with emphasis on key skills of reading, writing and mathematical and scientific literacy (for the latter two think of our recent emphasis on STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and assumes competition is “the most productive way to raise the quality of education.”  By contrast, Finland places a strong emphasis in trust of principals and teachers “regarding the curriculum, assessment, organization of teaching, and inspection of the work of the school.”  It encourages “making school a creative and inspiring place to teach and learn.” (p. 105)

Sahlberg has labeled this alternative to the GERM approach The Finnish Way, that “grows from the bottom, steers from the top, and provides support and pressure from the sides.” (ibid..

It is worth noting that besides the much lesser level of economic inequity in Finland versus the U.S. two additional factors.  First, Finnish children do not begin formal instruction until age 7.  Second, it is presumed that children will begin that formal instruction already knowing how to read.  That clearly provides a different culture in which to operate, one that does not face all of the problems we do in the U. S.

There are many other key differences.  High School students take only four courses at a time.  Finnish teachers instruct for only about 600 hours a year (versus well over 1,000 for American teachers), and have time during the day to consult regularly with their peers.  As might not be surprising for anyone who has paid attention to other aspects of Finnish culture, where minimalism is a predominant theme, in education the Finns believe strongly that less is more.  Contrast that to those in the United States who argue that if we are to be competitive as a nation we need to lengthen instruction – a longer school day, and/or year-round schooling are two common suggestions for improving our competitiveness.  That is why it is perhaps noteworthy to consider this, as Sahlberg points out:

In 1998, the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked Finland as 15th in its global competitiveness index.  By 2001 Finland had climbed to the pole position in this influential ranking that covers more than 130 economies in the world” (p. 107).

Finland devotes a far larger percentage of its workforce to research and development as a part of its push towards a knowledge economy than do most countries, with 22 per thousand devoted to such tasks, more than 3 times the OECD average.

Finland based its approach to reforms, especially in teaching, on the work of influential scholars from other nations, especially those in the United States.  As Sahlberg writes on p. 35,

Work by David Berliner in educational psychology, Lind Darling-Hammond in teacher education, and Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan in educational change have been closely studied and implemented in developing Finnish education since the 1970s.  The secret of the successful influence of these educational ideas from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada is that there was fruitful ground in Finnish schools for such pragmatic models of change.

For all of their success in education, the Finns recognize that there are changes they will have to make.  In a country which already offers the equivalent of special education services to a majority of its students when they are in elementary school because it believes that “early recognition of learning difficulties and social and behavioral problems” should be provided as early as possible in order “to help and support students by giving them equal opportunities to complete school in accordance with their abilities and alongside their peers” (pp. 46-47), it is interesting that the first of the four changes Sahlberg believes need to be implemented as part of changing finish schools to keep them superb the the development of a personal road map for learning.  He adds to this less classroom-based teaching; development of interpersonal skills and problem-solving, and engagement and creativity as pointers of success (pp. 140-142).

In the forward to the book, Andy Hargreaves notes that

There are unresolved questions ion Anglo-American educational reform that pumped-up steroidal reform strategies and the “lemming” Race to the Top will never be able to answer but that Sahlberg;s work profoundly can. (p. xx)


Even before the focus on Finland because of its performance on international comparisons, there were those who recognized what was going on.  American expert Seymour Sarason visited Finland in 1995, studying the schools, the curriculum and more,  At the end of the visit, as Sahlberg notes, when he asked Sarason to summarize his finding, the American asked

“Why did you bring me here?  Your school system to me looks very close to what John  Dewey had in mind and what I have been writing about for the last three decades.” (p/ 144)

Sahlberg follows this with a paragraph in which he notes that the Finnish approach  is shaped by ideas of Dewey “flavored with the Finnish principles of  practicality, creativity and common sense.” (p. 144)

There are two and half paragraphs after that in the book.  I will close this overview of the book with those words of Sahlberg, because they explain both the purpose and the use of this book.

There has been much written in recent years about Finland.  This book is written by a Finn who is well versed in educational approaches around the world, both as a scholar and from his time at the World Bank.  He understands America and the American approach.  The book is well documented, and organized in a way that helps the reader grasp the material in a useful way.   For anyone concerned about what is happening to U. S. educational policy, I can think of few works more useful to prepare one to engage in the process, to point out the evidence that there is a different way, one which has already been shown to work, and in a time of limited resources, that costs less per student than does our own approach.

But let me allow Sahlberg the honor of the final words, from pages 144-145:

what the world can learn from educational change in Finland is that accomplishing the dream of a good and equitable education system for all children is possible.  But it takes the right mix of ingenuity, time, patience, and determination.
The Finnish Way of educational change should be encouraging to those who have found the path of competition, choice, test-based accountability, and performance-based pay to be a dead end.  The future of Finnish education described above can moreover offer an alternative means to customized learning.  For the Finns, personalization is not about having students work independently at computer terminals.  The Finnish Way is to tailor the needs of each child with flexible arrangements and different learning paths.  Technology is not a substitute but merely a tool to complement interaction with teachers and fellow students.
As a countervailing force against the global educational reform movement driving school systems around the world, the Finnish Way reveals that creative curricula, autonomous teachers, courageous leadership and high performance go together.  The Finnish Way furthermore makes plain that collaboration, not conflict, with teachers unions leads to to better results.  The evidence is clear and so should be the road ahead.

Daily Kos: Finnish Lessons.

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