Imagine a world where teachers teach less, and students spend less time studying. Where standardized tests are not the primary benchmark for excellence. Where the aim of education is to provide excellent education for students rather than bolstering schools’ rankings. A world where students excel under a model of cooperation rather than competition.
This is not some Deweyan utopian civilization. This is the educational system in Finland.
Finnish Lessons 2.0 is authored by Finnish educationalist Dr. Pasi Sahlberg. Dr. Sahlberg brings a wealth of expertise to his writing as a former teacher in Helsinki, and educational expert for a number of notable organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), World Bank, and European Commission. Finnish Lessons 2.0 combines historical and statistical analysis to describe how over the course of a couple of decades the Finnish people transformed a mediocre educational system into an international model of educational excellence and equity. Sahlberg argues that excellence in education is not about competition, standardization, or high-stakes testing. Rather, it should ascribe to a more Deweyan model whereby equitable educational conditions are created for students to “become engaged learners, fulfilled individuals, and compassionate, productive citizens” (p. 205). Finland, Sahlberg argues, is an example of such an educational system.
Sahlberg (2015) describes how the process of education reform in Finland emerged following World War II. The war took an enormous toll on the Finnish population; 90,000 of 4 million people were dead, and another 60,000 sustained permanent injuries. 25,000 of the surviving population were widows, and another 50,000 were orphaned children. Social, political, and economic changes had to occur. Education quickly became a means of transformation within this young, small nation. To advance, the country had to adopt the position that anyone could advance to higher education if they had the right supports and opportunity; they needed to invest in education.
“The future dream of Finland was built on knowledge and skills; thus, education was seen as a foundation for establishing the future” (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 21).
The vision for a publicly-funded comprehensive basic schooling system – or peruskoulu – was realized in 1970. Pre-existing schools were merged into comprehensive municipal schools. Through peruskoulu, all Finnish students would receive equitable education regardless of their socioeconomic background. The schools adopted the philosophy 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” (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 30). Since the conception of peruskoulu, the aim of the Finnish educational system has been to provide good schooling for all children rather than focusing on international education rankings.
The implementation of peruskoulu brought about changes that may seem unconventional or even counterintuitive to other countries given the global trends towards competition between schools, school choice (e.g. private schools), focus on core subjects, and test-based accountability. In Finland, school days are shorter, and students are encouraged to join after school activities and recreational clubs. Homework is seen as being often repetitive and intellectually unchallenging, so most students rarely get assigned more than a half hour of homework per day. Special needs education – which is integrated into mainstream education – is available to all students who may encounter learning difficulties at any point of their education. The Finnish education system is also highly integrated with the child welfare system. For example, early childhood education and daycare prior to starting primary school is a right. All students are provided with free school meals, health services, career guidance and counselling regardless of their socioeconomic status.
The teaching profession also looks very different. Teaching is a highly prestigious job in Finland with a very competitive admission process for teacher education programs, attracting talented and motivated individuals to the teaching profession. Teachers must possess a masters degree in education for entry-to-practice, as the Finnish teaching profession bases itself on scholarly research. Teachers spend less time teaching, which allows them to engage in curriculum planning, professional development, and collaboration with other teachers and schools.
Although some of these innovations may seem counterintuitive to some, they have contributed to Finland become an international leader in education as evidenced by academic excellence and equitability. Through the Finnish way, “Finland has been able to upgrade human capital by transforming its education from mediocre to one of the best international performers in a relatively short period of time” (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 55). In this regard, one may argue that Finland has been able to realize its post-WWII dream.
Despite this success, Finland is facing some new educational challenges. The most pressing change is that little innovation has been generated since the landmark PISA results in 2001. Sahlberg fears that such a high international ranking has created complacency amongst politicians, policymakers, and the public at large. Such complacency could cause Finland to fall behind while other nations continue to learn from Finland’s previous innovations and reform. Further potential challenges include tightened national control over education, reduced resources, a decline in social equality, and decreased participation in professional development amongst teachers. Sahlberg concludes by proposing four radical changes that he would like to see in new Finnish schooling, including decreasing classroom-based teaching, personalizing learning for students, focusing more on leadership and social skills, and reorienting the purpose of school to being about students finding their unique talent.
Sahlberg points out that some people may be doubtful that Finland can be used as a model for educational reform due to its relative homogeneity, small population, and small geographic size. However, Sahlberg reminds us that while Finland is not as culturally or ethnically diverse as countries like the United States, this is rapidly changing. For example, within the first decade of the 21st century, the number of foreign-born citizens tripled in Finland. Although Finland is a relatively small nation, population and geographically speaking, most countries do not have federally centralized education management. This is often left up to the provinces or states. In Canada, the only province that has a larger population than Finland is Ontario. Otherwise, the provinces are similar to Finland in size, so Finnish innovations could be more easily transferred to the provinces than one may initially anticipate. Some may also argue that such an educational system would be too costly. However, in Finland the total public expenditure on educational institutions was 6.5% of the GDP compared to 6.8% in Canada and 6.9% in the USA (OECD, 2014).
One contention I had with Finnish Lessons 2.0 pertained to tensions between quantitative and qualitative approaches. At times it felt like Sahlberg was suggesting there were causal relationships between different statistical analyses he shares when they would be at most correlational. To make cause-effect statements is misleading. Furthermore, I found his position on qualitative data to be inconsistent with the values of the Finnish education system and education more broadly, which he describes as a “process too complex to be measured by quantitative metrics alone” (p. 126). Yet Sahlberg’s analysis relies heavily on statistical data, and in his discussion on improvement on international exams since the 1980s he snubs qualitative research: “There has been some research on this question, but it has produced more speculation and qualitative analysis than reliable answers” (p. 71). Furthermore, I would argue that qualitative research could shed further light onto why some of the troubling phenomena that Sahlberg presents are occurring, such as recent declines in PISA scores.
In Finnish Lessons 2.0, Sahlberg provides an overview of Finland’s Dewey-inspired democratic approach to equitable education for all. Although facing new challenges, Finland offers an example of a country that has chosen – and succeeded – in following an alternative path to educational reform. Finnish Lessons 2.0 is an insightful contemporary example of implementing Dewey’s 1916 Democracy and Education.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: an introduction to the philosophy of education. New York, NY: MacMillan.
OECD. (2014). Education at a glance: education indicators. Paris, France: OECD.
Sahlberg, P. (2015). Finnish lessons 2.0 (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.