Whenever I tell people I research teaching and learning, they inevitably ask me about Finland.
In the 1980’s, Finland transformed their education system. Student achievement scores increased. Teaching became a prestigious career choice among young people. Teacher preparation programs became one of the most competitive systems in the world. As a result of these changes (and more), the country comes up often as a promising model for educational reform.
When people talk to me about Finland, the conversation usually turns one of two ways. In the first, they tell me that Finland is too different from the United States for us to learn anything from them. They argue that the country is much smaller and not as culturally diverse and that it would be impossible to scale up what is being done in Finland in the U.S. While there are certainly limitations about what we can learn from them, I’m not sure it’s in our best interest to, as the saying goes, throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The second group of people often ask me why we don’t just copy whatever they are using in schools Finland and use it in the current system here. They argue we should use their curriculum materials or we should hire teachers that are trained there.
It’s an interesting suggestion, but what would happen if we did that? Pasi Sahlberg, a researcher and writer on school reform, wrote about exactly that in this piece for the Washington Post.
He argued that if Finland’s teachers were placed in schools in the U.S., they wouldn’t be able to produce any significant gains in student achievement. The policies and systems in the U.S. would limit the Finish teachers’ abilities to produce the gains they were able to produce in Finland for a variety of reasons, including the pressures of standardized tests, inflexible curricula, lack of strong leadership from principals and lack of support from homes.
Now, this doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to learn from Finland, just that we need to be careful about asking the right questions and how we apply what we learn. I think that’s where research comes in.
I’ll discuss more about the research in future posts. But if you want to learn more right now, check out Pasi Sahlberg’s book Finnish Lessons. It’s talks about the research in an engaging way and provokes some interesting questions about education reform.