where the writers are
Learning Innovations: Crossing the Finnish Line with Pasi Sahlberg

Pasi Salhberg, in Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, doesn’t pretend to have a universally applicable solution to the problems we face in providing effective learning opportunities. But the wonderfully produced snapshot he provides of the Finnish school system and its support of vocational training is something none of us can afford to ignore. If we’re at all interested in seeing how the top-ranked education system worldwide produced its successes, we’re in the right place with Finnish Lessons

This is not a book that is useful only to those in academia. The descriptions of a learning system that eschews a single-minded emphasis on testing and explores, instead, ways to engage all learners and provide them with communities of learning that produce results, touches any trainer-teacher-learner. It’s a fabulous approach to the wicked problem of reinventing learning, and Sahlberg engagingly and concisely helps us understand what he and his colleagues have achieved. 

As writer-speaker-researcher-teacher Andy Hargreaves tells us in his forward to Sahlberg’s book, Finnish Lessons shows how a vision “of educational and social change connected to inclusiveness and creativity” that relies on “high-quality, well-trained teachers” engaged in creating, nurturing, and sustaining communities of learning has propelled the Finnish education system to recognition as a world leader. 

There are many striking elements to what Sahlberg documents—not the least of which is the difference between Finnish perceptions and those held by the rest of us. He describes the transformation as having been relatively quick—extending over a 40-year period, with much of the crucial work done between the 1980s and the turn of the millennium. It’s a staggeringly different view of time than that held by many of us here in the United States, where we seem foolishly stuck in a way of life predicated on the belief that every two- or four-year election cycle marks a time for a “new start.” 

Sahlberg summarizes his work concisely within the first few pages of Finnish Lessons: “The main message of this book is that there is another way to improve education systems. This includes improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to education professionals” (p. 5). He also tells us that “The Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation—not choice and competition—can lead to an education system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charters or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvements” (p. 9). 

It’s not hard to see how we can apply that philosophy to any learning environment—from K- 12 all the way through any workplace learning and performance (staff training) program by focusing on learning rather than on lowest-common-denominator testing–by developing our faculty/trainers rather than, as so often happens in staff training, shoving “accidental (unprepared) trainers” into learning environments in a sink-or-swim endeavor that serves neither learners nor learning facilitators. 

The Finnish system, according to Sahlberg, also works within a framework that “places a stronger emphasis on understanding students’ cognitive development and also invited schools to make the best use of their own and their community’s strengths” (p. 25)—something our best colleagues incorporate into academic settings as well as successful workplace learning and performance programs. 

The results, for Finland, have been spectacular: “What is noteworthy is that Finland has been able to upgrade human capital by transforming its education system from mediocre to one of the best international performers in a relatively short period of time” (p. 42). 

Sahlberg turns to a broad roadmap, in the final pages of his book, to help us explore what he and his colleagues have created. Suggesting that we create “a community of learners that provides the conditions that allow all young people to discover their talent” (p. 140)—and there’s no reason why we have to limit ourselves to “young people” here—he suggests four broad steps: development of a personal road map for learning; less classroom-based teaching; development of interpersonal skills and problem solving; and engagement and creativity as pointers of success. 

If we can adapt any part of these Finnish lessons by applying them in our own settings, perhaps the wicked problem of reforming education and lifelong learning in our country will become a little less wicked.

--Originally posted on Building Creative Bridges on January 31, 2013