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Thoughts of Finland

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August 28, 2012 07:05 pm


I’ve spent five days in Finland searching for its education “secret sauce.” During a time when the United States stirs a stew of assessment-based accountability and comprehensive teacher evaluation, Finland persistently tops the international rankings with a soup dominated by school and teacher autonomy.

Want to be able to compare schools by student outcome? No one keeps that data in Finland,nor is there annual standardized testing for students. Think that students need more time in school? Compulsory schooling in Finland starts at age 7, the school day is relatively short, and homework almost nonexistent. Excited about value-added systems? “We trust our teachers,” is a constant response in Finland, and the teacher in the classroom operates with amazing autonomy.

No one should start the Finnish pilgrimage without reading Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons, a very readable recounting of Finnish education reform with some history thrown in. Well known internationally, Sahlberg is Director-General of the Centre for International Mobility (CIMO) of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. With countless delegations trekking each year to Finland to visit schools, CIMO is the center for coordinating the explosive growth in educational tourism and Sahlberg is the head tour guide.

Sahlberg is also a constant presence in the United States. He’s seemingly meeting and advising every week with educators, policymakers, researchers, and nonprofit organizations. While he doesn’t agree with the direction of U.S. education policy, what is important is his deep understanding of the American system’s many elements. His ability to explain difficult concepts to outside observers is invaluable.

This basic interpretation becomes critical because Finns and Americans often seem ensnared in their own version of Lost in Translation. For instance, Finland boasts about autonomy for each local municipality (think of an American school district minus the independently elected school board) and teacher, but the national government has developed a “National Core Curriculum.” However, any teacher here will tell you about developing their own curriculum. Is there a national “curriculum,” and all that this would entails in the US, or isn’t there?

It turns out that the National Curriculum is a fairly short document which seems to be closer to our Common Core State Standards. Each school and teacher develops an extensive curriculum to meet the broad goals in the national document. So there is at least a broad overarching statement of what a student should know. One major difference is that the Finnish version does not spell out requirements by grades.

To understand the Finnish system, I had to learn to stop viewing every situation from my US perspective. If the starting point is simply comparing the US system with the Finnish, there will always be this disquieting disconnection because the positive outcomes of what I am observing do not fit neatly into US policy comparisons. Only when I surrendered preconceptions and began to think from a Finnish point of view (and thanks, Pasi, for providing a useful guide in your book), could I begin to relate. Just as the Finnish language is unique (it’s neither Scandinavian, Latin or Russian in origin) so too is its education system.

More to come …

International Comparisons

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