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 Education 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. . .

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