Finnish Lessons: What the world can learn from educational change in Finland. by Pasi Sahlberg
(This review includes many direct quotes from the book)
In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s changes were made to the education system in Finland, often with much opposition. In 2000 the first Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), organized by the OECD, compared the results of the education systems in the principal industrialized countries. PISA tests 15-year olds and is concerned with the goals and objectives of curricula ... which are increasingly concerned with what students can do with what they learn at school and not merely with whether they have mastered specific curricular content. To everyone's surprise, including the Finns, Finland came out on top. Later PISA and other test results confirmed that it was not a fluke. Educators from other countries have since been flooding to Finland to find out why the Finnish education system has become the envy of much of the rest of the world. This book by Sahlberg goes a long way to explain why and how this came about.
In the 1990s the Big Dream was to make the education system serve social cohesion, economic transformation, and innovation that would help Finland to be a full member of the European Union and remain a fully autonomous nation. So what made it so good? One can list a number of features which are almost certainly relevant. A society with social equality, social justice, and little child poverty, and a school system with a basic 9-year program for all students and a 3-course warm lunch for all students.
However, Sahlberg states, One factor trumps all others: the daily contributions of excellent teachers. all of whom have an MA. Teaching is one of the most sought after and respected professions. Finns continue to regard teaching as a noble, prestigious profession - akin to physicians, lawyers or economists - driven mainly by moral purpose, rather than by material interest, careers or rewards. Finland is perhaps the only nation that is able to select its primary-school teacher students from the top quintile of high-school graduates.
Basic to this new culture has been the cultivation of trust between education authorities and schools. Such trust, as we have witnessed, makes reform that is not only sustainable but also owned by the teachers who implement it.
Paying teachers based on their performance is an alien idea in Finland. Authorities and most parents understand that teaching, caring, and educating children is too complex a process to be measured by quantitative metrics alone. There are no formal teacher evaluation measures. The school principals, aided by their own experience as teachers, are able to help teachers recognize strengths and areas of work that need improvement. Teachers trust each other, communicate frequently about teaching and learning, and rely on their principal's guidance and leadership.
There are paradoxes. Teachers teach less and the students learn more, students are tested less and learn more, and the cost per student is less than the OECD average.
However, Sahlberg states, Much of the secret of Finland's educational success remains undiscovered.
In chapter 3 Sahlberg describes GERM, the global education reform movement, a consequence of globalization. It can be characterized by Standardized teaching and learning, Focus on literacy and numeracy, Teaching prescribed curriculum, Borrowing market-oriented reform ideas, and, Test-based accountability and control. These are orthogonal to the Finnish way of Customized teaching and learning, Focus on creative learning, Encouraging risk-taking, Learning from the past and owning innovations, and, Shared responsibility and trust. Those who advocate GERM lack a clear understanding that most of what pupils need to learn in school cannot be formulated as a clear standard. Scotland is now recovering from a serious GERM infection. The Finnish system has not been infected by market-based competition and high-stakes testing policies. It lacks rigorous school inspection and does not employ external standardized student testing.
I am struck by how consistent this is with scientific studies of motivation which show that if you want creativity you give people autonomy, mastery and purpose; carrots and sticks are actually worse than nothing. If you want to understand this watch the TED talk by Daniel Pink on Motivation. ([...])
Sahlberg warns that the Finnish Way will not necessarily work in other cultural or social contexts, and that in future there may be measures that better cover a broad range of learning. He concludes with his vision of the future of education.
The book is easy to read, and includes many charts. Two things are missing: what happens to teachers who have passed their best-by date, and how is serious conflict between the teachers union and the government avoided.
The book should be of much interest in British Columbia. There are many similarities between Finland and British Columbia: the population, number of teachers and schools, diversity of students, but the one difference is the long-standing unhappy relation between the BC teachers union and the BC government.