George Lucas Educational Foundation

Education in Finland

Education in Finland

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-- Recently read the following book about education in Finland; thought it might be of interest. “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” by Pasi Sahlberg (Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2011) In recent years, Finnish students have consistently earned among the top scores in the world on international tests in reading, math, and science. And – educator Pasi Sahlberg reports -- this has happened even though the Finns only begin school at about age seven, don’t have very much homework, don’t have a particularly long school day or school year, and don’t regularly take high-stakes national tests. Most of the gains in achievement have occurred within the past decade or two. In the 1950s, Finland began a series of reforms that eventually moved the country away from a “mediocre” system in which most people had only completed the equivalent of middle school. But, as Sahlberg notes, it is the most recent changes that appear to have produced the dramatic rise in Finland’s test scores. Two sets of factors seem to be at work. Educationally, the Finns have a philosophy of “less is more”: trying to do things better, rather than just do more of the same things. In practice, they have relatively small schools and limited national-level bureaucracy, give teachers a lot of respect and autonomy, and, generally, cooperate with each other (they haven’t privatized public education – no charter-school movement -- and have a strong national teachers’ union, which has actively helped to implement reforms.) They offer a wide range of in-school services (free lunch for all students, counseling, and special education), don’t give numerical/ letter grades in elementary school, and, at least at the elementary school level, try to avoid grade repetition by letting students progress at different rates in different subjects. And, college is free. Societally, the Finns have created a relatively egalitarian country that combines a free-market economy with the elements of a Scandinavian welfare state. Only about 4% of children live in poverty, compared to 20-something (?) % in the United States. (When I saw scenes of Finnish classrooms in a television segment on education there, the difference was quite visible: the Finns have apparently created a largely middle-class society, which seems to make it easier to offer most of the country what we would describe as “middle” or “upper-middle-class/ income” schooling. When he was interviewed, Sahlberg indicated that he was dismayed by the poverty he had observed in his visits to American schools.) Pasi Sahlberg writes both as a teacher and as a professor of education. (He is also the child and grandchild of teachers: he actually grew up in a rural school building in northern Finland, where his parents taught.) I wish that Sahlberg had provided a more detailed description of the “nuts and bolts” of daily educational practice in Finland, but the information he does provide is fascinating. He notes that, in general, Finland has simply borrowed educational ideas that originated in the United States and elsewhere, but has implemented those ideas in a persistent, pragmatic way. And, in most respects, according to Sahlberg, the Finns have been following a course that is almost exactly the opposite of the current reform agenda in the U.S. and a number of other countries. Any thoughts, or other information – pro or con -- about education in Finland? Or elsewhere? Michael Castro

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