Book: Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons

This book provides an excellent background on the reforms that have brought Finland from the middle ranks to near the top of the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) ranks (See the Wikipedia Page for PISA). At the time of writing Finland was at or near the top of the charts, but now appears to have slipped back a few places with the top spots being held by Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macau, & Japan.

You can check out the book notes by Jane Sigford which give a good outline of the book. For me, the interesting points made by Finnish Lessons concern things like the low anxiety rates among students and teachers, high levels of respect for teachers and other educational professionals and the focus on literacy early on in the educational adventure of students.

Many of Finland’s policies work in conjunction to create a teaching profession and an educational system that is used as a way of reinforcing the Finnish culture and maintaining their identity.

The book outlines three paradoxes.  On the surface the first paradox – Teach Less, Learn More – does not make sense.  However, because of the high level of competition to enter teaching and the fact it is a respected profession, the question should be how would a dedicated educational professional spend their time? I see it thus, enhancing their skills to create the most up to date curriculum possible, creating stronger links with and between communities, and helping those students who need the extra support.

There is also a side-effect of this: a lower level of anxiety and stress among teachers which should lead to higher staff retention rates. It is worth noting that in business terms the cost of high employee turnover can be up to 2 years worth of salary. (See Employee Retention – The Real Cost of Losing an Employee). This would likely translate as a lower quality of educational outcomes as the new teachers develop the skills. If this is systemic across the entire educational system, then the overall outcomes would suffer.

With the second paradox –Test Less, Learn More – I remember a quote from somewhere “you don’t fatten pigs by weighing them”. In this context, I’m talking about standardised tests used to benchmark students and schools against one another, and not assessment of student understanding. The former tends to be low level (See Blooms), while the latter can be high level. As an activity testing will draw the students attention away from enjoyable things like learning to sitting in a room recalling facts. This is likely to cause levels of anxiety and stress for students, which will lead to lower results. In Neuro-biological terms, stress stimulates cortisol production, and long term, an overload of cortisol can have many negative health effects (you can look at these two unverified sources. Stress Effects from the American Institute of Stress or Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes from help guide. Or you can look that up yourself)

The third paradox – More equity through growing diversity – points more towards the policies used to maintain the equity across the system as the country’s population becomes more culturally diverse.

Finnish teachers require a research-based masters degree, which means that they are highly trained in educational theory, pedagogical content,and subject specifics. Once in a school they are given a teaching load to allow more time for professional development, community engagement, and pedagogical reflection. Schools are  given autonomy to implement educational objectives as they see fit. The school hierarchy is governed by those with an education degree to ensure that the focus remains on providing the best outcomes for the students.

Teachers at all levels of schooling expect that they are given the full range of professional autonomy to practice what they have been educated to do: to plan, teach, diagnose, execute, and evaluate. [Pg 76]

Contrast this with the educational reform movements of the world where the teaching & learning are becoming standardized, the curriculum is more prescriptive with a heavy focus on literacy and numeracy, which is enforced with test-based accountability. All of which scream that there is only one way of thinking and achieving, which is the death-knell of creativity and innovation for teachers, students and the education system.

Schools are being more scrutinised with organisational and motivational ideas borrowed from business practises (see RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, and the corresponding TED talk – Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation for why this is wrong.)

Looking beyond the book

Since Pasi keep looking at the PISA data, I thought it was worth including the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) comments for 2012 (taken from, for a complete overview see the report [pdf].

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) focuses on young people’s ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. This orientation reflects a change in the goals and objectives of curricula themselves, which are increasingly concerned with what students can do with what they learn at school and not merely with whether they have mastered specific curricular content. Since the year 2000, every three years, fifteen-year-old students from randomly selected schools worldwide take tests in the key subjects: reading, mathematics and science, with a focus on one subject in each year of assessment.
The latest set of results from the 2012 data collection (PISA 2012) focuses on mathematics and compares the competencies of students in 65 countries and economies.
Around 510 000 students between the ages of 15 years 3 months and 16 years 2 months participated in PISA 2012 representing about 28 million 15-year-olds globally.

  • In 2012, Asian countries as Shanghai-China, Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei, Japan and Korea have the highest scores in mathematics, reading and science. The only exception is Finland, which also is among the top five performers in science.
  • Some countries, such as Mexico, Turkey and Germany, improved both their mathematics performance and their levels of equity in education between PISA 2003 and PISA 2012.
  • PISA reveals that in most countries and economies, far too many students do not make the most of the learning opportunities available to them because they are not engaged with school and learning.
  • Stratification in school systems, which is the result of policies like grade repetition and selecting students at a young age for different “tracks” or types of schools, is negatively related to equity; and students in highly stratified systems tend to be less motivated than those in less-stratified systems.
  • PISA also shows that the impact of socio-economic status on problem-solving performance is weaker than it is on performance in mathematics, reading or science.

This latest set of PISA testing shows that various Asian countries have taken the lead in their responses to the tests. However, Asian is looking at western countries to see how we foster creativity and we are looking back to see how they foster dedication.

Where to get it

Fishpond => Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?

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