This week, I was able to hear Finnish education researcher Pasi Sahlberg speak as part of Boston College’s “Secrets and Lies of International Performance in K-12 Education” series.
FYI: This video is of a different talk than the one he gave at my school, but a good overview in Sahlberg’s own words.
As you’ve probably heard, Finland has one of the top-ranked education systems in the world. Sahlberg, author of “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” let us in on some a few “secrets” behind this success, some of which I’ve highlighted below (and the last one’s a doozie).
Secret #1: Equity Enhances Excellence
Perhaps unsurprisingly, countries with more income, gender, and racial equality tend to perform better on international education measures than comparably wealthy countries with wider social disparities (ahem, the US). This fact isn’t a shocker in itself, but remember that educational policy conversations usually talk around this subject – acknowledging that rampant inequality exists, then passing the buck on to schools to remedy the (obvious) outcomes of an unequal system.
To Sahlberg, solutions to educational inequality aren’t found by looking solely inside of schools (ahem, US again). Rather, successful education systems benefit from conscious efforts to remedy social inequalities outside of schools as well. In demonstrating that countries that work to close their income gaps see a narrowing achievement gap as well, Sahlberg reminded us that “an investment in equity is an investment in excellence.”
Secret #2: “The Global Wrong Way”
Sahlberg doesn’t believe the increasingly prevalent emphasis on standardization – regulating what all students are expected to learn and by what age they should learn it – benefits students. In fact, he refers to standardization as, “The virus that is infecting our school systems and killing our schools.”
Sahlberg noted that while the American system develops IEP’s (Individual Education Plans) for students with special needs, Finnish philosophy embraces that degree of individualization for all students. This contrasts starkly with, for example, America’s particular concern with whether or not students are reading “at grade level,” a concept that implies that there is such a universal standard applicable to all students at each particular age. In Finland, students are nurtured to read to the best of their own abilities, advancing at a more individualized pace.
Secret #3: The Aforementioned Doozie.
Ah, Finland – rising in international rankings, flexing intellectual muscle, and leaving the rest of us in the dust. Their biggest secret? The best part of all of this? THEY LEARNED IT FROM US.
That’s right. According to Sahlberg, Finland may not be where it is without American educational innovations.
In fact, he wrote an entire article with the telling title of “Five U.S. innovations that helped Finland’s schools improve but that American reformers now ignore.” Ideas like cooperative learning, alternative assessment, and John Dewey’s entire education philosophy were largely developed and practiced an America, AND THEN WE ABANDONED THEM. Finland, in turn, snatched them up, modified them for their context, and wielded them to beat the entire world into PISA pulp.
I’m not sure if this part of his talk should fill us with pride or with abject depression, but there you have it….
Now, we do have to acknowledge that Finland is NOT the US. It’s difficult to compare a nation of around 6 million people – who have relatively similar ethnic, linguistic, and economic backgrounds – to the demographic landscape of the US. But considering how many of our own innovations seem to be working quite well for them, there are definite gains to be made by looking into their (alas, our?) system.
This is especially true in regards to the esteem with which the Finnish hold teaching as a profession: Near the end of his talk, Sahlberg quipped that any individual – upon entering a Finnish nightclub and declaring him/herself a teacher – will suddenly become one of the most sought-after individuals on the premises. Of course, this must be empirically tested, and of course, I will humbly volunteer for this intensive research should anyone be willing to fund the trip….
So what does all this mean? Could aspects of the Finnish system work in the US or are our contexts just too different?
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