Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Finland's Paradoxes

Pasi Sahlberg speaks and writes about educational change, development and cooperation by sharing his experiences with the Finnish model of education. Here are a few paradoxes that Sahlberg talks about.

Paradox #1: Teach Less, Learn More

According to PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), Finland consistantly out performs most of the world in literacy, math and science. And yet, if you look at the number of teaching hours per year in lower secondary education, you will see that in 2007, Finland's teachers taught just under 600 hours while the United States taught over 1000 hours.

At the same time, the total number of intended instruction hours in public institutions between the ages of 7 and 14 shows that Finland's 7 to 14 year old children receive anywhere between 500 to 2000 less hours of instruction compared to other countries. There are no mandatory tests or exams in Finland, except for the nationwide National Matriculation Examination at the end of high school. Teachers are encouraged to make their own tests, and rely on formative assessment much more than on summative grading. This helped both teachers and students to focus more on learning and less on fearing external test and punish accountability.

Paradox # 2: Test Less, Learn Better

When looking at the OECD data below, you can see that only Finland has actually shown improvement in mathematics from 2000-2006. The point here isn't necessarily to ask what Finland did to achieve this improvement; rather, it may be more important to ask what Finland didn't do that the other countries did. Sahlberg explains that Finland did not subscribe to the test-based accountability policies that so many other countries like the United States and Canada. In fact, the Finnish do not even have a word for accountability - so they use the term responsibility instead.

Paradox #3: "The better a high school graduate is, the more likely she will become a teacher"

In Finland, the teaching profession is revered as an admirable and trusted profession. Teachers are treated as autonomous professionals who have a shared responsibility in teaching Finland's youth. This atmosphere was created by rethinking educational policies and reform. The chart below shows how Finland and Germany have differed in their approach to reform.

Here is Pasi Sahlberg slide show from his presentation and his website.

Each of these paradoxes are quite counter-intuitive, but people in the know - that is people who are involved in education - can see how true each of these paradoxes are. This is exactly why education reform will never be successful as long as it is being driven by those furthest from the classroom. We have to trust teachers to drive reform. The Alberta Teachers' Association in Alberta is a great example of how teachers can advocate for teachers and students to grow a progressive education system.


  1. That was the main idea of my blog post "The Impact Paradox" and the book I wrote as a result (Teaching Unmasked). The same "more is less" concept is true with differentiation (empower rather than differentiate), assessment (grade less, assess more), discipline (the less I focus on discipline, the better students behave), procedures, even clarity (fewer steps means more knowledge construction). It's a whole upside-down concept that is so counter-intuitive to the traditional model.

    I know I didn't "come up with it," but it's cool to see a real researcher pointing out the same trends I've noticed from my experiences.

  2. John, I'm starting to think that you and I are cut from the same cloth. We are freakishly like-minded!!

    Thanks for sharing this with me. How can I get my hands on your book and research?

  3. That seems very interesting and nice Paradox. But, just out of curiosity, are the University in Finland adapted to that new trend? Where is the data showing the University and Colleges accepting students from those school?

    High School Math in Alberta tried a different approach and all post secondary refuse to accept any students from that Math Applied venue. So, was it worth it to change the delivery? Lets ask the students who had to go back and get some upgrade classes!

    From experience it all sounds and looks cools until you see the effect in reality.

    My question, of all this no assessment, accountability, less teaching hours, are Canadian University ready for that? Being on two round table for Western Math Curriculum, Good Luck with that one!!! The point is, until University and Colleges accept those new Paradox, lets not play Russian Roulette with students future.

  4. This echoes what I saw in Finland myself, Joe. It is a relaxed place, a million miles from the high stakes climate in the UK-brought on by testing and prescription from the centre. A enjoyed visiting Finland and felt education there was viewed as the responsibility of society as a whole not just the schools. I can't say this is my experience as a headteacher in the UK. Maybe the new coalition government here will change that!!

  5. i have an extra copy of John's book Joe.. it's that good. you two are freakishly alike. or maybe just a combo of you is what is gravely needed in ed.

    we need to quit asking if people are ready for things and start doing the things we know are right. there are enough of us. the alternative is too crippling. and ridiculously illogical.

  6. I am always intrigued when the US looks at the educational models of other nations. I wonder if education reformers really think it's possible to implement that reform across all 50 states. I mean realistically, can it be done? What Finland can do, Japan, Norway...I think it's nearly impossible to gain that level of consensus across America in the way they can in nations that don't have the size and population of some of our states.

    The video raised the point that Finland has no "achievement gap." But does Finland have groups in society that were educationally marginalized for centuries? If they don't....then I wouldn't expect them to have an achievement gap. That's kind of disingenuous. I don't think Finland has the issues that Germany has with immigrant populations migrating in from Eastern Europe and Turkey and the challenges of integrating the needs of second language learners into the educational system.

    I think that some of the ideas that Finland uses are great. But I don't think it's fair to put a model in our face that is to be an example when they don't face some of the issues that America or other nations have to deal with.

    I am 100% down with an end to high stakes testing, but I am not naive. Let's be real....testing is an INDUSTRY. Too many people are making TOO MUCH MONEY...and they are intertwined with the people we elect.

    I think that the best thing that can be done IMMEDIATELY that Finland does is to work with our politicians to help change the culture of how teachers are respected in society. To get politicians to agree that education is not a place to score political points....it's too valuable. I mean...good luck with that, but I think that is the most realistic place to start.

    Just my thoughts.


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