Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? (Sahlberg)

In public schools, “there is,” as Sahlberg asserts (via O. O’Neil), “a crisis of suspicion.” And, Sahlberg continues, “[a]lthough the pursuit of transparency and accountability provides parents and politicians with more information, it also builds suspicion, low morale, and professional cynicism” (127). And so that’s where we are. What, therefore, is to be done?

Looking at the situation from the widest possible view, Sahlberg says we cannot disconnect our educational efforts from our other efforts. In order to promote educational change, we must cultivate and act on a unified political and national will. Sahlberg is aware of the common objections. Finland is too small to make its ideas transferrable. To this, he responds, that change does not necessarily have to start on a national level. He is also aware of the claim that Finland’s success rests a great deal on its homogeneity. He owns this, to some extent, but does cite statistics to show that the population is changing and diversifying. There is, in Finland, a concerted effort not to have an immigrant population overwhelm a school in such a way that its very nature would be changed. At the same time, there is careful emphasis on support services and early intervention. Because of these efforts, though, they do support social promotion, a worrisome idea.

Sahlberg contrasts the Finnish Way with what he calls the Global EducationĀ Reform Movement (GERM). Lest you think that acronym is coincidental, Sahlberg does, just one, use the construction “GERM infection.” GERM sounds a lot like what the United States is attempting. Interestingly, Sahlberg points out, much of what Finland has chosen to do comes from research that originates in the United States. In other words, this book screamed at me, WE KNOW WHAT TO DO; WE’RE JUST NOT DOING IT!

There is, in my view, much we can learn from the Finnish Way. If I had the inclination (and wanted to avoid criticism of Sahlberg’s academic [read: repetitive] style), I’d count how many times he discussed the need to show respect for and trust in teachers. This is earned in Finland, in part because of how hard it is to become a teacher. We would certainly do well to take to heart the way they have minimized the use of standardized tests. Sahlberg notes the irony here. One of the reasons Finland is come to international attention is their scores on international tests.

The section on Nokia’s influence on Finland’s education success was challenging for me. On the one hand, its role supports the interconnectedness of Finland’s efforts. A more educated citizenry serves the whole country well. The numbers of adults pursuing educational opportunities in Finland are quite impressive. But are we just to educate them for work? I cannot bring myself to accept the idea that the liberal arts approach to education is dead. There is much to be said for what one representative of Nokia says about how they can help new employees with math (a telling choice for an example), but they can’t help with more abstract skills, such as problem-solving, risk-taking, and cooperation.

Sahlberg, though quite the cheerleader, is aware of the axiom about all that glistens. He sees flaws in the Finnish Way and has concerns and, to his credit, suggestions about its future.

So, to answer the question the subtitle asks, what can we learn? A great deal. What can we do? Harder to say. . .


The Shoemaker’s Wife (Trigiani)

What better way, I thought, of spending my winter vacation than on a trip to Italy? Short of actually getting on a plane, I thought I’d try Adriana Trigiani’s novel. What a disappointment. Everything is too shiny here. Italy is shiny. New York is shiny. Even Hoboken is shiny. In her rush to get through so many years (and show off her historical research), Trigiani glosses over everything. There’s no grit, so subtlety, no ambiguity. Everything is perfect, even the conflicts, and everything is predictable. My standard for including historical research is that –

a) it has to matter to the story

b) it has to be told in a way that makes sense

Trigiani fails on both counts. She seems to include everything. So often, her efforts to justify the presence of the details is based on some version of, “He saw. . . ” or “She admired. . .” The section featuring Caruso falls particularly flat (though, I admit, it did make me want to listen to him sing).

And yes, I got sad at the end. Right on cue.

Why the title then? Is this all Enza is, in Trigiani’s view, just somebody’s wife? She seemed more to me.

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief (Mason with Gruenfeld)

The title pretty much sums it up. Mason comes across as a wee bit annoying. Everyone loves him and his loyal despite the danger he puts them in. At the same time, he does seem to have a kind of roguish charm. And I appreciate the way he points out the discrepancies between what we see of thieves in the movies and on TV and what happens in real life, particularly when it comes to something like picking locks.

I read it because of Mason’s connection with where I live now. I can’t imagine anyone outside of this area being interested. Lee Gruenfeld, as Mason’s co-writer, does him few favors. Mason is trying for a certain kind of voice – the ordinary guy – and Gruenfeld doesn’t help him pull it off. Nor does he help him keep Mason’s legal situation clear, and the efforts to make us feel any sympathy for Mason are feeble. It seems like he gets screwed by the system; it also seems like he deserves it.

Flora & Ulysses (DiCamillo)

It took a while to get a bead on what this story is about. DiCamillo is not shy about offering complicated plots for younger readers. (Nor is she shy about offering those of us who read these books out loud ridiculous names to pronounce and a general overuse of the word ‘stupid.’) I think, in the end, it’s about people trying to create stories that make sense of their lives. Flora invents the superhero squirrel Ulysses (who, in truth, really loves to write poetry) because she wants to put her family back together. William Spiver (don’t call him Billy) becomes, in his version of his story, temporarily blind to deal with the fact that his own mother has sent him away. Even the wise Dr. Meescham has created a city and its traditions in order to cope with what seemed to me like her experience in the Holocaust. I may be reaching on this one, but the syntax of her speech, her talk of the old country, and the way the antagonistic cat named Mr. Klaus stalks her hallways all screamed ‘survivor’ to me.

I get why DiCamillo wanted to illuminate this story with K.G. Campbell’s illustrations. Most immediately, Flora’s father (who has an hysterical habit of introducing himself to everyone, including people he already knows) and Flora read comics together, the kind of superhero comics that Campbell created for this book. As lovely as they are, I don’t they work. They simply don’t add much to the story.

Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago (Jones and Newman with Isay)

This book, the third project (after 2 NPR documentaries), focuses on the Ida B. Wells housing projects in Chicago. David Isay, a white producer (an issue that he, sadly, mentions only parenthetically), hands over recording equipment to two children who live there – LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman. Jones quickly becomes the start interviewer and journalist. With Isay’s help, I presume, they get access to a wide array of people, first investigating the housing projects and then the astonishing murder of Eric Morse.

The three creators wisely let their subjects speak for themselves. The comments on the housing projects, the schools, parents and violence, supplemented effectively by stark photographs by John Brooks (born and raised in Cabrini Green), are straightforward, even as all involved struggle for language to describe their experiences. At times, there seems to be no way of describing what goes on there. What happens when language is insufficient and fails us?

I remember the Morse killing. I was student-teaching then when it made the cover of Time magazine because of the ages of those involved. There is a detail here that I don’t remember, and I’m still having trouble getting my mind around it.

This is an example, in my mind, of political reporting at its best. As the always eloquent Dr. Cornel West says in his Preface, this is a chance to listen to children. And we should listen and learn. From Jones –

It’s hard for me to say how I’m American when I live in a second America – an America that doesn’t wave the red, white, and blue flag with fifty stars for fifty states. I live in a community that waves a white flag because we have almost given up. I live in a community where on the walls are the names of fallen comrades of war. I live in a second America.

The Keeper of Lost Causes: A Department Q Novel (Adler-Olsen)

Thus endeth my search for a replacement for Henning Mankell’s Wallender series, not because I succeeded, not even close; instead, I simply give up. Instead, thisĀ New York Times bestseller (how?!?!?) is astonishingly mediocre. We have yet another cop whose many personal and professional lapses are excused because, in truth, he’s a really good person and a really good cop. The plotting is paint-by-numbers (Cold Case anyone?) and the prose, with no real assistance from translator Lisa Hartford, is just bad (again, especially the dialogue). There is one interesting character, Assad, who Olsen pulls back from the brink of stereotype time and again. I have a feeling that more about him will be revealed in future books, but I won’t be around to find out.


Silver Sparrow (Jones)

It will be difficult to write about this remarkable book without including any spoilers. Part of what is impressive is the way Jones makes the secret of the story evident from the beginning. Dana, the first narrator, says, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist” (3). Dana herself is an ‘outside child.’ The difference between her and James’ more public daughter is that Dana knows about her, while she knows nothing of Dana.

The question of whether the secret will be revealed seems less crucial to the story than how and with what consequences. And the scene that marks the beginning of the end is rendered by Jones with remarkable precision and tension. I think I read the whole part while I was holding my breath. I identified most with Raleigh who is desperately trying to protect everyone including himself – a task that he knows is impossible.

Jones’ prose is stunning in its precision, particularly in her attention to the creation of the two main voices and dialogue. Dana says of her mother, “The truth is a coin she pulls from behind your ear” (5). Though early in the story, I had to pause to drink that one in. Miss Bunny says, “I never had no quarrel with the truth” (132), a sentiment that resonates throughout the novel. Dana again: “It was not the first time I had seen my mother cry, but the experience troubled me in the pit of myself” (149). Who doesn’t know that pit? Responding to a difficult question from Dana, James says, “We didn’t talk so much about Gwen” (126). Imagine that line without the word ‘so.’ James’ character and his internal conflicts reside in that ‘so.’

In the end, Jones brings her story to a remarkable and realistic close. Everyone has been forced to grow up, to compromise. I was so completely in this world that when I turned the page in anticipation of more story but found the Acknowledgments page instead, I was disappointed indeed. Upon reflection, though, her ending is as right as the rest of her book.