Monday, November 7, 2011

What has Finland *not* done?

In his book Finnish Lesson, Pasi Sahlberg writes:
The dominance of cognitive psychology, along with the emergence of constructivist theories of learning and the advances in neurosciences on the horizon, attracted Finland educational researchers to analyze existing conceptions of knowledge and learning in schools. Several influential and teacher-friendly readers were published and sent to schools. They included "Conception of Knowledge" (1989), Conception of Learning (1989), and "About Possibilities of School Changes" (1990). Questions like "What is knowledge?", "How do pupils learn?", and "How do schools change?" were common themes for teacher in-service training and school improvement until the end of the 1990s. 
From an international perspective, this first phase of educational change in Finland was exceptional. At the same time as Finnish teachers were exploring the theoretical foundations of knowledge and learning and redesigning their school curricula to be congruent with them, their peers in England, Germany, France and the United States struggled with increased school inspection, controversial externally imposed learning standards, and competition that disturbed some teachers to the point that they decided to leave their jobs. In England and the United States, for example, deeper analysis of school knowledge and implications of new research on learning remained mainly issues among academics or reached only the most advanced teachers and leaders. Perhaps it is due to these philosophical aspects of educational change that Finland remained immune to the winds of market-driven education policy changes that arose in many OECD countries in the 1990s.
You don't make change by simply making those who have less power than you do what ever it is you demand. To believe otherwise is to ignore what research has been telling us for a very long time.

A prominent researcher in the field of motivation and psychology Edward Deci explains in his book Why We Do What We Do:
The proper question is not, "how can people motivate others?" but rather, "how can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?"
On what planet would the cartoon above be considered an environment where people could nurture a desire to motivate themselves to learn?

In the forward for Sahlberg's book, Andy Hargreaves writes:
One of the ways that teachers improve is by learning from other teachers. Schools improve when they learn from other schools. Isolation is the enemy of all improvement. We have spent decades breaking down the isolation of teachers within and between our schools. It is now time to break down the ideology of exceptionalism in the United States and other Anglo-American nations if we are to develop reforms that will truly inspire our teachers to improve learning for all our students -- especially those who struggle the most. In that essential quest, Pasi Sahlberg is undoubtedly one of the very best teachers of all.
I hear a lot of people ask "What has Finland done to improve their education system", but it might be equally as important to ask, "What has Finland not done to their education system". While most Anglo-American cultures have spent their limited time, effort and resources on content-bloated, standardized, prefabricated, top-down mandated curriculums with test-based accountability and market-based competition, Finland has focused on broad & creative learning, personalization, professional responsibility, collaboration and trust.

If you look at that comic above and think to yourself, "there has to be a better way", there is... and it starts with examining the Finnish Way and reading Sahlberg's book Finnish Lessons.

While you do this, keep in mind that we should not be interested in cloning Finland, rather we are simply looking to them so that we can begin to imagine how we can be different.


  1. Hey Joe,

    TImely post as I just got introduced to Pasi Sahlberg's ideas yesterday at a international conference for teachers. Totally agree that we need to take what we can from the Finnish experience as it relates to learning for our kids. But I wonder, do we have enough common language around what learning is and looks like to begin to build reforms that support what's best for kids? I love Andy Hargreaves, but I wonder what even he means by "improve learning for all students."

    Somehow, we need to reframe that term, learning. I think it's been bastardized by politicians and reformers who see the easiest way to change things is to tie learning to test scores, which, in my book, ain't much learning at all.

  2. Will,

    I often find myself talking to others about education where we use the same words that have drastically different definitions. This can often lead us to initially agreeing until we scratch the surface which at that point, little common ground can be sought out.

    I do believe that we all need to do a better job of showing parents and the public what real learning looks like. As schools drug of chioce, Testsandgrades are proving to be a tough addiction to rid ourselves of.

    thanks for the comment


  3. Joe, in a 2009 paper Andy Hargreaves reports on the unintended increase in "presentism" as a result of Britain's neoliberal assessment-driven approach to reform. I think you would find this paper an interesting extension to your thinking in this blog. I suggest that you see if you can access Hargreaves, A. & Shirley, D. (2009). The persistence of presentism. Teachers’ College Record. 111(11) 2505-2534.

  4. Hi Joe,

    I love the post. I recently read Finnish lessons, and I am amazed that most industrialized nations are increasing high-stakes testing and Finland is abandoning them; yet, it's Finnish scores that are improving. A link maybe?

    Where did you find the comic strip? I want to use it on my blog (



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