Finnish Education!

If Finland has gained some unanimous international recognition recently, this has been in the field of education. In the international PISA studies on education, our country has constantly ranked high on the list, with the likes of South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Canada. So successful has our nation’s performance been, indeed, that international delegations working in the field are increasingly paying visits to the Scandinavian country, to see what could be learned from the Finnish system. I had the fortune of having a specialist from Finland come and explain the secrets of the system to us at Harvard, at the Askwith Forum in April 2013 at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of CIMON (Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation) at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture – my apologies for the convoluted title! – gave a most inspired and inspiring talk before a crowd of some hundred people gathered at Harvard. In a nuthshell, he went through five factors to have contributed to Finland’s performance in education, followed by a summary of the educational policies underlying these. The emphasis was on early education, and I’m assuming his points carry somewhat less truth if one were to move through the middle period towards secondary education. The five points stressed include the following, in my paraphrase:

  1. Finland has never aimed to be the best in education unlike, say, the U.S
  2. The Finns pride themselves on public education as one of the country’s great achievements
  3. We trust our public institutions more than perhaps any other country, including the legel system, health care, education, and police
  4. Proportionaly speaking, wealth is distributed more equally than is often the case – and a sense of equity pervades the school system as well
  5. Finland performs highly in various international indices (see the picture below)

In his book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland (2012) as in his Harvard talk, Mr. Sahlberg argued that international thinking on education has been too often plagued by what he nicknamed the GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement). According to such educational philosophy, one strives for standardized tests, increased competition and hence test-based accountability, whereas the Finnish instead stresses collaboration, personalization and trust-based accountability. The former set of characteristics was summarized under the umbrella term MARKETIZATION, while Finland’s way of improving education was summed up as PROFESSIONALISM.

The three educational policies, in turn, underscored by Mr. Sahlberg were, first, better equity reaching from the structures of society to educational organization at schools; second, investment in early education (including special education), proportionately higher than that in the U.S. (investing a relatively high sum of money in the middle rather than the early period); and third, teacher pforessionalism, captured by the fact that every teacher in Finland needs to get a Master’s degree before they can teach. The last point, for one, was seen as guaranteeing trust-based accountability: since the Finnish system of education implements strict quality control at the level of entrance to teacher education, we don’t need to worry so much about test-based accountability. (Indeed, the speaker emarked how accountability often fills the blank vacated by responsibility.)

Throughout the talk, Mr. Sahlberg quipped at how the U.S. might not be the best country in the world after all; just take a look at, say, the international indices measuring varying degrees of happiness such as depicted above…! Here, a bristling sense of humor and spontaneity that the speaker displayed softened the blow of what, perhaps to some, may come across as unwanted news… At any rate, the American setting for the talk seemed to propel Mr. Sahlberg to offering various comparisons between Finland and the U.S., regarding their respective educational systems.

The Q & A session at the end included concerns such as Finland’s established excellence in education leading to stagnation (and hence, lack of novel innovation) as well as challenges posed by the cultural differences between different countries resulting from their discrepant national histories of (in)equality. The former Prime Minister of Finland, Esko Aho – who was also in attendance (currently working at the Kennedy School at Harvard University – pointed out that Finland’s edudcational success story has its flipsides as well, as exemplified, say, by the proportionately high number of boys dropping out (or at least becoming socially outcast) at schools.

I had a chance to chat briefly with Mr. Aho after the talk, expressing related concerns about the absence of athletics in the Finnish school system. The fact that the American schools, in comparison, make sports an elemental part of school activities from the comprehensive level all the way to the universities, offers an important venue of self-expression to such youth as may find themselves uncomfortable sitting at desks six hours a day. Some of Mr. Sahlberg’s points stressed in the talk, moreover (adding here a couple of remaks of my own), come with drawbacks: the Finnish trust on public institutions, for example, occasionally leads to blind faith before authorities, which in turn makes it more difficult to tackle problems at work (e.g. to do with persnal tensions in the working environment) when they arise.

All in all, I was happy as a Finn to have a Finn come to the U.S. to speak about Finland and the U.S., and it wasn’t so bad either to speak to the ex-Prime Minister about sports and the problems boys face.

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