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Finnish Lessons: Learning From Educational Change in Finland

Dr. Sahlberg demonstrates the Finnish education systemAccording to Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, a longtime observer of the Finnish educational system from both inside and out, when discussing education we shouldn’t get lost talking about statistics, or achievement numbers, or enrollment figures.  In the end, he noted in a recent lecture at IUB, we’re talking about children – about people.  A highly regarded international expert on educational reform and achievement, Dr. Sahlberg has worked extensively with the World Bank, OSCE, and many other international organizations.  Currently adjunct professor at the Universities of Helsinki and Oulu, as well as the Director General of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation (CIMO) at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, he visited Indiana University’s Bloomington campus in January and presented a talk on his most recent book, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?

As it turns out, the world could learn a lot.  While making sure to emphasize the cultural and historical grounding of Finland’s educational successes, Dr. Sahlberg structured his talk around a series of lessons that countries such as the US could derive from Finland’s own experiences.  In fact, he said, he had “four Finnish lessons” for the audience to consider.

First, Dr. Sahlberg explained, Finland has “achieved both equality and excellence in achievement in one system,” thereby bucking the generally accepted wisdom that educational systems are forced to choose between driving up academic results or leveling the playing field.  Second and third, he went on, are that Finland has rejected standardized testing, providing for only one exam throughout the whole of a Finnish student’s nine years of education, and that teaching “is a dream job for many young Finns.”  Finally, Dr. Sahlberg noted, Finland’s education system has demonstrated that “less is more”: by spending less money per student, as well as having students undergo less hours of instruction (and teachers teach less), Finland has actually reaped higher academic results than those educational systems that have tried to buy their way into higher test scores.

This is not to say, Dr. Sahlberg was quick to add, that Finland is the only example of this sort of alternative educational system that has rejected the ideas of “standardized testing” and “accountability.”  Canada, Japan, and Korea, he said, have also found a model similar to Finland’s to be very successful–and have also in the past decades shifted further and further towards a system that emphasizes teacher training, respect for the profession, and individual children’s experience of learning.

Finnish Lesson FlierDr. Sahlberg made no effort to hide what he felt were clear distinctions between the current Finnish and American approaches to education –he remarked, for example, on the disturbing “deprofessionalization” of teaching in the United States– but all the same underlined the shared history of the two countries. “The Finnish success in education,” he went as far to argue, “is deeply rooted in the American tradition.”  His grandfather, for example, was one of many Finns who received an education in the United States in the early part of the 20th century, only to return to Finland and add to that country’s development.   Yet this story, one of likely thousands of similar and representative histories, serves to underline the similarities between two countries that we might otherwise assume to be very different.  Although people’s first thought about Finland might be limited to “reindeer” or “cold,” Dr. Sahlberg seemed to be suggesting, things are far less exotic, and quite a bit more similar, than they would initially seem.  The US education system may even be quite appropriately –if surprisingly– suited to learn from its Finnish counterpart.

Dr. Pasi Sahlberg’s talk, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, was sponsored by Indiana University’s Department of Central Eurasian Studies and the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, and given as part of a broader book tour on January 20, 2012.