What Can Be Learned from Finland & Pasi Sahlberg?

Photo: Pasi Sahlberg

Pasi Sahlberg, director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (Helsinki, Finland), presenting Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? at University of Rhode Island, December 10, 2013.

Distinguished International Scholar Pasi Sahlberg recently made the final presentation at University of Rhode Island’s Fall 2013 Honors Colloquium. It is a fascinating glimpse into his book Finnish Lessons, as well as a remarkably thought-provoking lecture on educational change and what he has dubbed the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). It is well worth the hour or so that it takes to view it.

Sahlberg is an exceptional speaker, measured and thoughtful, exuding a quiet authority. Above all, he is a teacher and warm storyteller that shares deep insights and understanding about education, highlighting the path Finland has chosen in contrast to those infected by one of the most virulent forces of decay, GERM.

Remarkably, Sahlberg wisely insists that his native land has lessons worth sharing about education, but that it would flawed to simply imitate them. That is not how to build a great educational system. That result can only come from within a nation looking at finding ways to realize their philosophical ideals and aims. Moreover, there is a hint of paradox in that Finland has never had a goal of being a top educational system.

The lesson is one about focusing on meaningful targets and being the top rated nation according to PISA may not actually be one.

In fact, one of the themes that comes out of Sahlberg’s presentation is the impact of indirect, seemingly peripheral issues as benefitting education. Issues like equity and wealth distribution correlate with student achievement. This, of course, is something that many educators have been challenging edreformers not to simply dismiss or ignore.

Still, a more holistic set of issues also seem correlated with Finnish success. Issues like technological advancement, low corruption, economic competitiveness, and innovation. However, child well-being, happiness, maternal benefits, and political empowerment of women are all aspects that fuel the success of Finnish education. In fact, 50% of the Finnish Parliament are women and 30% are actually teachers!

The lesson is one about empowering a plurality of voices and perhaps focusing on the health and well-being of children, maybe even their happiness.

In the second part of the presentation, Sahlberg reveals the makeup of just what comprises GERM and then shows how Finland continues to avoid infection.

Symptoms of GERM Finnish Resistance
Competitiveness Collaboration
Standardization Personalization
Test-Based Accountability Trust-Based Responsibility
School Choice Equity
Education as Industry Education as a Human Right

Maybe most interesting is the distinction that Sahlberg makes about how standardization hampers and limits creativity. I suspect that we will see this for ourselves in the United States as the Common Core is implemented.

However, the strongest recurrent theme is equity in education, as a he simply explains, equals quality or excellence of the system. He returns to that point repeatedly, even declaring that his analysis of current data shows that the United States has made strides in equity, in the past three years, and the public school system is arguably doing better than it has ever done.

The lesson is one about creating equity in the system, giving all children fair opportunity and shared access to the promise and success that education offers.

Sahlberg ends with a few takeaway conclusions he has learned in his experience. First is the reiteration, “Equity equals excellence.” Second is “School is team play.” Third and finally is “Children must play.”

Interestingly and unfortunately, all three of these ideas seem to violate American individual’s sense of entitlement and exceptionalism. There is a subset of American’s that will always dismiss ideas such as these too European and socialist, even. Yet the nations that Sahlberg highlights in his Excellence Improves/Equity Increases chart (slide 11) are neither.

There are many lessons worth learning  from both Finland and Sahlberg. If only more American policymakers and politicians would heed them.

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