I first heard about Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? by Pasi Sahlberg from the review “Schools We Can Envy” by Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books (3/8/12), but I didn’t pick it until December 2014. Reading Finnish Lessons was an enlightening experience, and a frustrating one. Enlightening, because Sahlberg shows how Finland developed a shared philosophy, set a goal, and achieved that goal by using evidence-based research; frustrating because the U.S. and many other countries are taking an opposite approach, despite evidence that this approach – competition between schools instead of cooperation, an increase in standardized testing – has been shown not to work.
Underpinning Finland’s steady educational improvement since the 1970s is a set of shared philosophies:
- All pupils can learn if they are given proper opportunities and support.
- Understanding of and learning through human diversity is an important educational goal.
- Schools should function as small-scale democracies.
- The role of public education must to be educate critical and independent-thinking citizens.
The basis of Finland’s education policy is that instruction is the key element that makes a difference in what students learn in school – not standards, assessment, or alternative instructional programs. To that end, teacher education was overhauled, so that now all teachers in Finland have master’s degrees, and all principals are or have been teachers. Teachers are trusted in society, and have autonomy within their classrooms. This approach has been successful; Sahlberg writes, “What PISA surveys, in general, have revealed is that education policies that are based on the idea of equal educational opportunities and that have brought teachers to the core of educational change have positively impacted the quality of learning outcomes.”
The Finns value equity in education, “a principle that aims at guaranteeing high quality education for all in different places and circumstances.” In practice, this means that Finnish students, no matter where in the country they live, receive an equally high level of instruction and support. And within schools, “ability grouping” (also called tracking or streaming) was stopped in 1985. Instead, teachers pay attention to students who have special educational needs; Sahlberg writes, “The basic idea is that with early recognition of learning difficulties and social and behavioral problems, appropriate professional support can be provided to individuals as early as possible.” So many students receive help at one point or another during their time in school that special education is not stigmatized the way it sometimes is in the U.S. And, as in medicine, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
As I was writing this post, the Library Link of the Day featured the Washington Post article “Requiring kindergarteners to read – as Common Core does – may harm some” by Valerie Strauss (1/13/15). Strauss quotes from the report “Reading in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose” by Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, and Joan Wolfsheimer Almon: “Many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten. In addition, the pressure of implementing the standards leads many kindergarten teachers to resort to inappropriate didactic methods combined with frequent testing. Teacher-led instruction in kindergartens has almost entirely replaced the active, play-based, experiential learning that we know children need from decades of research in cognitive and developmental psychology and neuroscience” (emphasis mine). Why on earth are we developing new standards in the U.S. that aren’t research-based? Why are we, in fact, doing the opposite of what the research indicates we should do? Incidentally, in Finland, school doesn’t start till age 7 – but of course, there are free, high-quality preschools that most children attend before then. (Universal preschool, let alone daycare, being another thing we don’t have here.)
It’s true that Finland is a very different country from the U.S.: it has a smaller, more homogenous population, a better social safety net for its citizens (only 4% of children in Finland live below the poverty line, compared to 20% in the U.S.). Sahlberg addresses those differences in his book, but it doesn’t change the main message, which he states in the introduction: “There is another way to improve education systems. This includes 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.” In this country, we’re moving in the exact opposite direction, in spite of the fact that these strategies – teaching a prescribed curriculum, increasing standardized testing, relying on tests to measure accountability – haven’t worked in the past.
Thinking back to my own education, I know Sahlberg is right when he says “instruction is the key element.” What I remember best are my teachers: their enthusiasm, creativity, and dedication. The projects they came up with, the inventive paper topics they assigned, all of the resources they included beyond textbooks: novels and paintings and primary source documents. I remember their handwritten feedback on papers and tests, and the learning that occurred because of those comments. When you take a standardized test, no one goes over it with you afterward; you don’t know what you got right or where you made a mistake, so you can’t learn from it, you can only be anxious, or forget the experience. Students must be able to learn from their mistakes and failures; if failure only brings punishment instead of a learning opportunity, the fear of failure will become so great that students will stop trying anything creative or challenging, and their learning will become a smaller, more circumscribed thing. Are those the kind of citizens we want to produce? I don’t think so. I hope not.