Tuesday, December 1, 2015

FINNISH LESSONS by Pasi Sahlberg

“…John Dewey dreamed of the teacher as a guide helping students formulate questions and devise solutions. Dewey saw the pupil’s own experience, not information imparted by the teacher, as the critical path to understanding. Dewey also contended that democracy must be the main value in each school just as it is in any free society. The education system in Finland is…shaped by these ideas of Dewey and flavored with the Finnish principles of practicality, creativity, and common sense. 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”
                        Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Lessons

Two professional books in a row have raised my blood pressure…two books that showed us what we should be doing in education, and aren’t. Two books highlight the fact our American educational research has been systematically ignored by reformers in our country. Instead, this research has been instrumental in creating the Finnish Way, a school system that aims to educate each child, and has resulted in extremely high test scores. Funny thing about Finland's reform: those test scores were never the goal. 

Lawrence Baines’ The Teachers We Need vs. The Teachers We Have ignited my frustration with its focus on alternative certification in our country…the only nation that has loosened the rigor of teacher preparation, as it imposes more and more controls and mandates.

Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons blew a crack in the top of my head. Finland built their education system, not to get high scores on international tests, but to create equity of access and opportunity for all students. And high test scores followed. Their commitment was, and continues to be the students in their charge. They built this system with highly-trained, independent teachers leading the way.

Finland started with solid educational research. They didn’t generate that research; instead, they searched out the best thinkers and incorporated their ideas. Who were these educational thinkers, you ask? Americans! John Dewey. David Berliner, Linda Darling Hammond, and a new name for me, Andy Hargreaves. Our own thinkers and researchers. The ones ignored, ridiculed, passed over for the job of Secretary of Education. Ours. The research that should be informing the work in American schools.

Sahlberg is very honest about several issues that make their success hard to emulate – yes, Finland is not as ethnically diverse as other countries (read ‘the US), but diversity is growing. Yes, poverty rates are extremely low, but they’re growing too. Yes, Finland is a smallish country where consensus would be easier to build around truly improving education.  Those Finnish students who have such high graduation rates? Because of the Finnish system of upper secondary school, they’re only 16 years old.  I wonder how that would compare (or contrast) with US students. And the elephant in the room we’re all tip-toeing around? Finland’s strong welfare state, where every child comes to school healthy, well-fed and well-housed. A state where families are supported in their child-rearing efforts.   

So, what is it that makes Finnish schools great? “…improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to education professionals.”

“That’s all”…she said in a voice dripping with sarcasm. “That’s all.”

I was lucky enough hear Salhberg speak to a room full of educators. He’s approachable and confident in his message; passionate about the fact there is another way to create great schools…and not just schools that score well on tests. His energy lit up the room. This book sets out to explain the Finnish education system, not to convince us to follow slavishly, but to show…there is another way.

In this book, he gives us a history lesson, grounding the book in the realities of Finland after WWII, and the schools that needed reforming. In the 1970’s, they launched the great experiment, to provide equal access to a quality education for all youngsters, and to help develop every student’s potential.  “This philosophy included the beliefs that all pupils can learn if they are given proper opportunities and support, that understanding and learning through human diversity is an important educational goal, and that schools should function as small-scale democracies, just as John Dewey (OUR John Dewey) had insisted…” Finland didn’t decide it wanted to ‘compete’ with the world, and raise scores on international tests. Finland wanted to create a system where each child could learn and grow, and each secondary student had options for post-secondary learning. They wanted to teach each child, and teach the whole child. Their initial goals were lofty and sincere.

That meant changing the curriculum and structure of the schools, revamping teacher preparation, making it one of the most competitive (one of the only times I read that word in relation to anything about education in Finland) systems in the world.  It meant putting the power of decision-making in schools into the hands of these highly-trained professional educators, and doing all this with minimal standardized testing, and only one high-stakes test.

He is honest about the push back, from politicians and from the business community, to the new reforms: rigorous teacher education, special education for whoever needs a temporary boost, complete reworking of the secondary school landscape, municipal (yes, schools are run by cities) schools, a climate of collaboration and trust, and a philosophy that less is more…less homework, less time in class, but more responsibility. There was push back…until the first PISA test results showed Finland at the top of the world in test scores…test scores they had not chased in their reforms.

I am intrigued…and intimidated…by Finland’s teacher preparation programs. From The Smartest Kids in the World, I learned that only about 1 in 10 applicants out of high school are accepted into teacher education programs. But, applicants can work on identified weaknesses and reapply. One of the teachers interviewed in that book worked as a substitute teacher for several years, and was finally accepted into college. Sahlberg told us that his own niece had not been accepted the first time she applied. He talked with her about where in the process she derailed, and they decided it was in the interview portion of the interview.  She prepared more specifically for the interview, and was successful the second time she applied.

So, it’s not ‘one and done,’ as I feared. It’s extremely hard to get into school, but you have more than one opportunity if that is your goal. To be accepted in teacher preparation, a graduate must have high grades, high Matriculation Test scores, “…positive personalities, interpersonal skills, and a commitment to work as a teacher.” Previous experience in teaching working with young people is a requirement. After an applicant fulfills those requirements, there is a tough interview. Only then is an applicant accepted into a teacher preparation program.

Teacher preparation culminates in a master’s degree, with a rigorous course load, original research, and concentrations in at least two multidisciplinary fields. There are field experiences where students are given more and more responsibility for student work. Where did they find the research and development to create their teacher preparation system? American universities. While the US is trying to churn out as many alternatively-certified teachers as possible, Finland went in the opposite direction, using American research to craft their programs. “There are no alternative ways to earn a teacher’s diploma in Finland; only the university degree constitutes a license to teach.”

Oh, and did I mention, higher education is free? Teachers graduate, ready for the classroom, well-prepared and well-challenged, and debt-free.

And what kind of world do these new teachers join once they’re employed? One where teachers have the respect and trust of parents, the community, and the nation. One where teachers have autonomy in their schools and classrooms. One where they are expected to collaborate. One for which they are paid a professional salary. “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….Finnish teachers…have…latitude and power…”

Teachers are chosen carefully, trained rigorously, because they will be entering a prestigious profession that has the trust of the nation. Sahlberg asked Finnish teachers ‘what would prompt you to leave teaching?’ That question is especially pertinent right now in Oklahoma and the US. Why would Finnish teachers choose to turn their backs on their profession? “If they were to lose autonomy... [if] an outside inspector were to judge the quality of their work, or a merit-based compensation policy influenced by external measures were imposed…Many Finnish teachers have told me that if they encountered similar external pressure regarding standardized testing and high-stakes accountability as do their peers in…the US, they would seek other jobs.” Once again, the US is on the wrong side of a policy to truly improve schools.

But our wrong-headed reforms hardly end with teacher preparation and the perception of the profession.

Sahlberg has coined the term GERM to describe education systems that contrast with the Finnish Way: Global Educational Reform Movement. He describes GERM’s symptoms: standardization, setting goals, increased focus on core subjects (reading and math), prescribed curriculum, transfer to the corporate model of education, and adoption of high stakes. Ugh…we’ve been infected.  The US gave up constructivism, conceptual understanding, multiple intelligence, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills in schools, according to Sahlberg, when we were infected. Again…the US in on the wrong side of this issue. We have been forced by corporate reformers to turn our backs on our own research and chase test scores. Can you see the steam rising from my ears? We generated the research and our reformers systematically ignore it in their quest to wring public education dry.

For those of us keeping score at home, we in the US, desperately chasing Finland’s international test scores are ignoring our own research, ignoring our own teachers, ignoring our own students. How wrong-headed can we be?

Well, the answer is EVEN more wrong-headed. Finland has accomplished this education reform with no charter schools, nonexistent private schools, no vouchers, no ESAs, and nearly all public funding. No phony competition (remember, the only time Sahlberg speaks of competition it's in relation to getting into teacher college), no phony choice. PUBLIC SCHOOLS. Funded with PUBLIC MONEY. As #oklaed gears up to fight ESAs and vouchers again, it would be good to note the country we're chasing sees equitable education of all children as its mission.

Instead of "trust the parent" when the parent wants to leave the public school and take the public tax funds raised to educate the child in the public schools and use it in a private school, Finland takes another view of what's important in their schools: " identity...shared responsibility...personalization...collaborative efforts...sharing ideas...solving problems together. Equal education opportunities." How ironic that Finland is living out the dream of equal opportunity that our country gives lip service to. 

Can we, even if we could convince reformers to emulate the Finnish Way? It would take completely changing teacher preparation…making the profession highly respected, so there would be competition for spots in teacher prep programs. How do we stop the toxic spiral we’re in, with the demonizing of educators, with veterans leaving the classroom, with youngsters choosing other professions? This is not a rhetorical question for me. It’s the core of this book, and Baines’ book. Raising the standards without attending to the profession will accomplish nothing but more alternatively certified teachers, with quality being a huge issue.

What’s the Finnish Way? Research-based teacher prep, comprehensive schools for all, special education for all who need an extra boost, small schools, teacher leaders, assessment in the hands of those teacher leaders…it’s also the Finnish “…welfare system [which] guarantees all children the safety, health, nutrition, and moral support they need to learn well in school.”

Salhberg is clear:

 “We should reconsider those education policies that advocate choice, competition, and privatization as the key drivers of sustained educational improvement. None of the best-performing education systems currently rely primarily on them…Finnish experience shows that a consistent focus of equity and shared responsibility – not choice and competition – can lead to an education system in which all children learn better than they did before.”

He also sees challenges ahead for Finland, challenges that resemble our own – more second-language students, more students in poverty. More immigrant. One of the hallmarks of Finnish education is there is the fact there’s only a little achievement gap between their highest and lowest students. That is changing. “The challenge for Finland is not to try to maintain 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.” His big dream? “…create a community of learners that provides the conditions that allow all young people to discover their talents.” Test scores be damned. Attend to the student, teach the student. Create a system of personalized learning for each child. Build a teaching force that is trusted to make decisions about students’ learning.

Two calls to action. Two dire warnings about everything education in the US seems to revere and value. Two courses that could make a difference.

My profession has been hijacked by non-educators who want to make a quick buck. By non-educators who have no patience for the kind of sustained change it will take to right our course. By non-educators who will abandon us all, and then blame us for their failures.

How can we wrestle control back to educators and students and parents? And is it too late for us?

On to Finnish Lessons 2.0, as soon as my blood pressure goes down a bit.


  1. I loved every word, Claudia! Your final paragraph articulates our challenge very well:

    "My profession has been hijacked by non-educators who want to make a quick buck. By non-educators who have no patience for the kind of sustained change it will take to right our course. By non-educators who will abandon us all, and then blame us for their failures."

    I know we said it last year, but I honestly believe this year will be crucial for parent and educator involvement. We have some big names in their last year in office, and they will certainly want to leave a legacy to return the investment of their out-of-state financiers.

    1. Thank you....I am mystified as to how we've ended up on the wrong side of teacher certification, teacher preparation, classroom teaching and learning, assessment...even tho we lead the world in the research. Just shows those out-of-state financiers trump everything.