International Education

Finland’s Big Secrets

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?

Feel free to comment below or on the blog’s Facebook page. 

5 thoughts on “Finland’s Big Secrets”

  1. This just makes so much sense. I wish “the Powers That Be” would take this to heart. When getting my degrees, I studied the history of American education and began to wonder where it all went so wrong. What we’re doing now makes so little sense in light of our history and current research. The equality issue is a tough one for us to handle, but until we do, I believe we’ll keep on keeping on with the flawed models in practice now.

  2. Sahlberg appeared to get heartburn when he mentioned “fast-track teacher training programs.” Did he say more about that when he spoke in person? Or are we just to understand that a culture committed to teaching professionalism has moved beyond the need for such options?

  3. That was about all he said in his talk as well, but didn’t mention, as you pointed out, that it’s more about removing the need for options like that (by having a culture that values teaching and an equitable system in the first place) than just getting heartburn about the programs themselves.

  4. One trend that was becoming common when I was in high school was heterogenous grouping. The idea was that instead of having a “regular” and “honors” version of a course, you’d only have one version that everyone was to take (although they did still have A.P. versions). The reasoning behind it was that by having the smarter/more motivated students in the same class as the students who were not, that the smarter ones would help to motivate and mentor the others. In reality, it just meant that the teacher had to either slow things down so much that some students were really bored, or move so fast that some were completely lost and left behind. Thankfully they only did this for some of the subjects, and since then I think they’ve gone back to having honors courses again. I always just took the AP classes, so thankfully it didn’t affect me too much.

    We always had tracks through school, and which track you were in was a reflection on how quickly you learned. I think this made sense because it put kids in classes that in general matched their abilities. I’m not sure how easy it was to change tracks though, which I think is an important thing, especially being able to move up to a higher track. You wouldn’t want a student to be stuck in one track, but then be held back because of it.

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