Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Return to Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?

On December 1, 2011, I discussed the education system we have in Finland, and pointed out a recent book about this written by Pasi Sahlberg. Now I have finally finished reading the book, and it was a good one, both provocative and analytic.

I published a book review of this at my Valopolku blog. Below is the English part of the review for you to ponder. I highly recommend getting this book if you are interested in schools and education.


How to educate young people the best possible way? A world-class answer to this, ”the Finnish way”, is described in detail by Pasi Sahlberg in the book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? (Teachers College Press, 2011; ISBN 978-0807752579). This is an inspiring book to teachers, parents, policy-makers, and anyone interested in the future of our world.

What is the book about? ”This book is about Finland and how the Finns transformed their educational system from mediocre in the 1980s to one of the models of excellence today. International indicators show that Finland has one of the most educated citizenries in the world, provides educational opportunities in an egalitarian manner, and makes efficient use of resources.”

The Finnish dream is, in short, equal educational opporturnities: ”[T]he principle that good education should be accessible to all Finnish children, from early childhood all the way to the highest academic degrees, has been a long-term ideal in Finnish society.” This ideal is especially important in the knowledge-based society we now live in.

For me the story in the book is important, as I started my school at exactly the right moment, when the new school system was set up in Finland in early 1970s. In fact, in our village in the Kainuu region, my first grade class was the first year which started with the new curriculum of Finnish ”peruskoulu”. And we were one of the first in Finland, as the reform was implemented gradually starting from the north of Finland, where our family lived.

Here is how Sahlberg tells it: ”The central idea of peruskoulu […] was to merge existing grammar schools, civic schools, and primary schools into a comprehensive 9-year municipal school. […] All students, regardless of their domicile, socioeconomic background, or interests, would enroll in the same 9-year basic shools governed by local education authorities.”

The first wave of implementation began in the northern parts of Finland in 1972, the year I started school. Lucky me! Although to be fair, I think a lot of the change in how teachers thought about their job changed only gradually during the years, in the beginning it was still following the old traditions. At least that is how I feel about it in retrospect.

But this change was fundamental: ”From an international perspective, this first phase of educational change in Finland was exceptional. At the same time as Finnish teachers were exploring the theoretical foundations of knowledge and learning and designing their school curricula to be congruent with them, their peers in England, Germany, France, and the United States struggled with increased school inspection, controversial externally imposed learning standards, and competition that disturbed some teachers to the point that they decided to leave their jobs.”

In other words, the change in Finland was peer-driven, not externally imposed, and the philosophical aspects of educational change ”remained immune to the winds of market-driven educational policy changes”.

What is maybe most strange in the Finnish school system is the paradox ”less is more”. Here also Finland is quite different from most countries, even those performing almost as well in education.

What is exeptional about the Finnish school system is the low variance within and between schools in learning performance. In other words, almost all children learn well, which is certainly not the case in all countries.

And despite the impressive results and low variance, the Finnish school system is not expensive to maintain. In 2007, according to OECD statistics, the cumulative expense per student was in Finland about 65,000 USD, whereas it was over 95,000 USD in the United States.

One interesting aspect of the Finnish system is the there is less instruction hours for students than in peer countries. So, quantity is no guarantee of learning results. In fact, the opposite may be true.

There are less hours and less homework in Finland, but still the learning results are exceptional. Quantity vs. quality paradox!

Also, there is much less standardized testing in Finnish schools than in most other countries. ”Test less, learn more.” In fact, Sahlberg notices, in international comparison, that when more testing has been implemented, the learning results have gone downhill.

Instead of testing, Finland has emphasized ”teacher professionalism, school-based curriculum, trust-based educational leadership, and shool collaboration through networking”. So, instead of insisting on externally imposed competition Finland has focused on internal development, and they key role of peer support for teachers.

Also, there is room for local initiative and variation, which makes teachers and students committed. There is a nice quote ”If everybody thinks the same way, nobody thinks very much”, attributed by Sahlberg to his grandmother.

Sahlberg has all kinds of stories of Finnish mentality, many of which may have little to do with schools but at least they illustrate the somewhat reserved and goal-oriented personality of Finns. Less talking, more doing.

One of the interesting statistics mentioned by Sahlberg is a study on ”mating markets”. Namely, Finnish males viewed a teacher as the most desirable spouse, and women put only a medical doctor and a veterinarian ahead of a rated teacher as a desirable profession for their ideal husband. Quite a demonstration of the social status of teachers in Finland!

In conclusion, here is a short comparison of what has happened in the so-called Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) internationally, and what has been done in Finland instead:

  • Standardize teaching and learning vs. Customizing teaching and learning

  • Focus on literacy and numeracy vs. Focus on creative learning

  • Teaching prescribed 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

Quite a difference!

However, as a last item, not everything in Finland is rosy either, as social inequality seems to be increasing: ”[T]he challenge for Finland is not to try to maintain the high student performance but to strive to keep the country an equal society and maintain its leading position as having the most equitable education system in the world.”

But despite this, Finland is a great place where to learn, and most probably will be so in the foreseeable future.

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