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Pasi Sahlberg: What Can We Learn From Finland About Education Reform?

By Sarah Kingstone

This week, members of the EPPE program attended a talk by Finnish educator, author, and policy advisor, Pasi Sahlberg, on international and national assessment, professionalization, and equity in educational reform — themes that he made relevant to the Scottish education system and aspiring teacher candidates.

Main message

After waking everyone up with a video clip of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Sahlberg opened his talk by contextualizing Finland’s (admittedly) surprising global fame following the introduction of PISA in 2001. In the spirit of comparative education exercises, Sahlberg aims to create a space to learn from other countries, perspectives, and approaches to education, not encourage replication of the Finnish system. He, only somewhat facetiously, joked that his work should be prefaced with a “do not try this at home” warning sticker.

Myth Busting

Following his introduction and warning, Sahlberg explicitly addressed the myths about Finnish education and Finnish educational success that have been crafted, peddled out of context, and distributed, by the media in particular. Mythologizing these inaccurate interpretations of the Finnish system can have harmful, though unintended, consequences for students, teachers, and education systems. It is important that we unpack those inaccuracies interpretations here.

Pasi Sahlberg presenting at the University of Glasgow. Source: EPPE Network.

1. Finland is NOT ditching traditional subjects for topics/themes/projects

Sahlberg tackles this myth in his Washington Post article: Schools in Finland are continuing to teach traditional subjects, but educational reforms will provide students with learning periods that look at broader, cross-curricular, multi-disciplinary topics like climate change and more local micro-histories. These opportunities will look different from one school or region to another — with a decentralized education system, school municipalities have considerable freedom and autonomy to make decisions that align with the national guiding framework.

2. Finland has NOT done away with homework

Sahlberg clarified that as radically and appealing as this idea might be for many young people, homework has not been banned in Finnish schools. That being said, the ‘2 hours of homework’ standard that had been common in Finland was removed so that teachers no longer feel obligated to give students homework every night, regardless of relevance. Students now have considerably fewer hours of homework, in order to open up more time to engage in creative play.

3. Finland does NOT only employ the academically ‘best and brightest’ in the teaching profession.

Although many countries, including England, and the OECD* have moved to targeting the academically strongest applicants for the teaching profession, Finnish teacher education programs select a breadth of applicants based on consideration of academic performance, skills, and education-related experiences, which results in a cohort of aspiring teachers with Matriculation Examination scores spanning the full academic spectrum. Sahlberg reiterated that academic success in school does not predict teacher quality, but did accept the validity of Schleicher’s comments on the importance of quality initial teacher preparation programmes. In light of this fact, Finnish teacher education programs only accept 1 in 10 applicants and demand at least five years of study. This policy recognizes that “it is better to design initial teacher education in a way that will get the best from young people who have natural passion to teach for life.”

Research Questions

It was evident through the early portion of the presentation, that Sahlberg has spent a considerable amount of time and effort clarifying the misconceptions that have flourished through poorly researched media attention and the desire for governments to find a simple ‘secret’ to solve education’s ‘wicked’ problems.

Spoiler alert, there are no easy solutions. But understanding why some education systems are succeeding while others are continuing to struggle is an appropriate and effective place to start.

Using data collected by the OECD, Sahlberg laid out the stark contrasts between successful and struggling education systems. This gave us all an opportunity to think about how our own national or state/provincial education systems compare. The research suggests that systems that have experienced limited growth or even failure place considerable emphasis on the standardization of excellence. They rank and measure student, teacher, and school success through test-based accountability and competition, and teacher professionalization and capacity-building is dismissed as irrelevant. Successful systems, on the other hand, approach education creatively — there is space in and around the classroom for collaboration; teachers are not overly evaluated or held accountable through bureaucratic mechanisms, but provided with trust-based responsibility; professionalism is ensured through high-quality teacher training and continuous professional development and upgrading programs and opportunities; and the system itself ultimately values equity above excellence.

Keys to Better Education

Sahlberg argues that aspiring to an equitable system — that which can provide young people with what they individually need to achieve success — is necessary to effectively achieve high quality education. He closed by reviewing the 4 ‘keys’ to better education in any nation.

First, governments must invest fairly in all institutions for all students. For nations already divided by high levels of inequality and inequity, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, initial investment should target the most vulnerable, marginalized, and disenfranchised parts of the population.

Second, special education in the broadest sense — for vulnerable or at-risk populations, students with learning differences, etc — must be strengthened, ultimately focusing on preventing the need for responsive or reparatory programs.

Third, teacher professionalism should be built through high quality teacher training and education programs and continuous professional development and upgrading programs that increase, enhance, and develop teacher knowledge, skills, and capacity.

Fourth, teacher and student well-being should be targeted in a way that takes a holistic approach to education, acknowledging the impact that external stressors have on the quality and effectiveness of the experience in the classroom. The final message that Sahlberg provided reiterated this point. Let the children play! Schools and teachers should be committed to providing children with the time and space to explore, reflect, and have fun the service of positive youth development. Especially relevant to us in the audience, Sahlberg announced that he is using Scotland as a positive case study in his latest book, Let The Children Play.

In his concluding remarks, Sahlberg reiterated the significance of context when discussing the reform of our education systems. Additionally, we should not get ahead of ourselves with idealistic thoughts of educational reform without remembering the powerful role political regimes play in strengthening or undermining equity.


*Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director of Education and Skills: “We need to attract the best and brightest to join the profession. Teachers are the key in today’s knowledge economy, where a good education is an essential foundation for every child’s future success. A quality initial teacher preparation programme, which prepares prospective teachers for the challenges of today’s classrooms, is essential to ensuring teacher quality”

Thanks to Sarah for her contribution this week. If you have any questions or comments in response to this presentation and post, please leave a message below or get in touch via our Twitter account.

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