Pasi Sahlberg's book is a must-read for all concerned parents, educators, administrators, government officials, union leaders, policy-makers, scholars, and philanthropists who are alarmed that our current market-driven/competitive/punitive model isn't working in the U.S. and that a radical change of course is required. It's amazing that Sahlberg shares the Finnish roadmap with the world in what can only be described as an act of altruism. As a concerned mother of two whose children are now enrolled in public schools after five years of unaffordable private schooling, this book is a godsend. It is a relief to learn about the existence of a more effective, humane, equitable, and cost-effective approach to public school education. Sahlberg's book offers hope to those of us who yearn for a better and more thoughtful system for our children both in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Finland is consistently ranked as one of the top performing countries in the international test known as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) that measures the knowledge and skills of 15-year olds in the subject areas of reading, math, and science. (In 2009, 65 developed countries participated in PISA.) According to Sahlberg, Finland has achieved this distinction since 2000 almost by accident and without intent. The driving force behind the redesign of the Finnish educational system in the 1980's and '90's was not to achieve high international test scores, but to provide an equitable education for all students.
It is astonishing to learn that Finnish teachers spend less hours per day teaching in classrooms than their U.S. counterparts. It seems counterintuitive to Americans and begs the question of how a country can achieve such outstanding results with less teaching? Sahlberg shares with us the national philosophy that permeates almost every aspect of Finnish society, including education: "Less is More." Finland has wisely chosen not to impose a standardized testing regime upon its schools (against the advice of some of its more conservative government officials and business leaders at the time its policies were being formulated). Without the need to devote precious time and resources to test preparation, Finnish teachers instead have freedom to spend school hours on something more useful: actual learning. Sahlberg describes how Finnish teachers are rarely found standing in front of classrooms lecturing students. Instead, they are found milling about - whether inside their classrooms, in the school kitchen for cooking class, or outside in the woods for a lesson that incorporates nature. In other words, hands-on, project-based learning is common in Finland. This approach to pedagogy engages children, while inspiring them to think creatively, become absorbed in thoughtful analysis, problem-solve, and work with others in a collaborative manner. (Preparation for the real world of work anyone??) Elementary school education does not begin until the age of seven. The school day is much shorter for children. Daily recess is mandatory. There is less homework. The Finns are strong believers in not stifling the joys of childhood and allow plenty of time for children to play outside of school where they believe most learning is done.
As a result of this Finnish climate of inspired learning, not only are there better academic results as objectively measured by PISA, students feel less stress and anxiety about school. Engaging students in this manner has resulted in a very low high school drop-out rate (less than 1%). This approach to education also results in a happier society. According to an array of international "happiness surveys" that Sahlberg cites, Finland is also ranked at or near the top. And, if you think that the Finnish Way couldn't get any better, Sahlberg claims that Finland spends less money per pupil than the U.S., while managing to pay its teachers slightly higher salaries.
Salhberg recounts how Finland decided to go its own way in educational reform by not following either the "Asian Model" (wherein test scores & college-graduation rates may be high, but students are reportedly overworked and as stressed-out as their U.S. counterparts) or the market-driven model of the U.S., Britain, and a host of other Western countries. You'll learn about the irony of while having rejected these alternatives (in what Sahlberg playfully describes as the "GERM" countries - Global Education Reform Movement), at the micro level, Finland has adopted many of the best pedagogical practices that are research-based from these same countries (e.g., U.S., Britain, Australia, Germany, etc.). Finally, it is noteworthy that Finland's progress has been achieved with a union that includes over 95% of its teachers.
What is the secret to Finland's success? It starts with the teaching profession. On average, Finland accepts only 10% of applicants into its teaching universities. Applicants must not only have strong academic records, they must also possess interpersonal skills that will enable them to teach well. Next, Finland's teaching students must complete a 5-7 year course of study, earning both undergraudate and master's degrees. Sahlberg explains how course requirements include those in an underlying substantive area (e.g., science, math, etc.), along with pedagogy, research, and student teaching. Once the newly minted teachers are placed into schools, they will be paid well (with no student loan debt since their university education is free), while also having autonomy to adapt a loose national curriculum into one that meets local needs. They are free to choose their own teaching methods as they see fit. In other words, Finland trusts that its teachers will teach well without outside interference or oversight. (Much as doctors are free to operate on patients without hospital administrators or policitians telling them how best to do their jobs.) Finnish teachers are given ample time each day to collaborate with their colleagues. Sahlberg points out that schools have specially designed spaces to make collaboration easier. Finally, Finnish teachers also attend continuing education classes throughout their careers in order to constantly learn and improve their teaching methods.
In the 1970's, Finland's educational system was considered to be mediocre. When it set its mind to change course, it was wise enough not to behave as a petulant child (behavior exhibited by many reformers and politicians in the U.S.) and expect that change would come overnight or in a couple of years. It was only through a societal desire for a new direction, well-thought out strategies, systemic changes to both the teaching profession and organization of schools, and implementation of research-based pedagogy, that Finland brought about dramatic change over the course of a few decades.
Had the U.S. listened to its own warnings as set forth during the Reagan era in the Department of Education's 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk," and implemented some of the common sense recommendations made then, perhaps we wouldn't find ourselves in the dismal spot that we now hold (and may have rendered the ideas behind No Child Left Behind as unnecessary). If you take anything away from reading Finnish Lessons it is this: Pasi Sahlberg argues that it is never too late to make the societal decisions that are necessary to turn around a country's (or a state's) educational system.
As we U.S. citizens sadly know, our country remains split both politically and ideologically, resulting in what seems to be never-ending government paralysis. It has been argued that the bipartisan consensus on education that existed in the past when the U.S. was considered a world leader in education, no longer does. Therefore, let us challenge any one of our 50 states to cut the purse strings from the federal government's education money (approx. 10% of state education budgets as noted by Sahlberg) and implement what's adaptable from the Finnish Way. If successful (which I would expect), over time other states would surely follow and perhaps even the federal government. In my opinion (and this is coming from a resident of Virginia), Vermont would be a perfect candidate to implement this kind of change because of its small size, its dedication to young children as evidenced by the many programs it already has in place for preschoolers to arrive at elementary school ready to learn, its tradition of independence, and its progressive and humanistic values. However, let's all think about this challenge and focus on our respective states (especially those not receiving Race to the Top funding from the Obama Administration). We have nothing to lose but a public education system that isn't working for everyone.