This morning (Oct. 12, 2011) Diane Ravitch tweeted about an article on the “Bridging Differences” website that describes some of what she learned on her recent visit to Finland (anyone who follows Ravitch’s tweets will have known about this visit). I was pleased to see that Ravitch pointed out a distinct characteristic of Finnish education that is often overlooked, i.e. that not only do Finnish students fare well in international comparisons, but there is almost no variation between schools or regions. It’s been pointed out that although the US scores poorly on the PISA when examined at a national level, at a regional level certain parts of the US would be among the top scorers. But the case is different with the Finns – they score uniformly well.
Finnish students’ admirable achievements have sent many researchers and policymakers to the country looking for that specific ingredient in the secret sauce that, if implemented in their own countries, would produce the same results quickly. But, the fact that Finns are uniformly good suggests that there is no specific ingredient; rather that their educational outcomes are the result of systematic change that has been achieved over an extended period of time.
I first became interested in Finnish education in the early 2000s when I participated in a transnational EU project that included partners in Finland. The project gave me the opportunity to visit Finland and meet with educators, policymakers, and stakeholders to talk about various aspects of the Finnish educational system. It was clear to me then that something special was happening in Finland, although I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Since then, I have continued to monitor educational development in Finland and dig deeper into what has shaped their current system. These are the few of the particularly significant things that I have identified:
Gradual reform: The reforms that have shaped today’s educational system in Finland were launched around the 60s and early 70s (the precise launch is a bit hazy). At that time, the Finns were quite aware that it would take time to revamp their educational system and that it would best be done in stages.
Long-term planning: This relates to the first. Although many of the stages of educational development that can be identified have been shaped by then current contexts, Finns have consistently developed long-term plans for affecting change.
Well-articulated vision of preferred societal model: The Finns have an exeptionally clear idea of what type of society their educational system is intended to foster. This was mostly defined around the 80-90s and is perhaps best described as a fusion of Manuell Castell’s notion of a globalized network society and Lundvall’s notion of an innovation society as a “learning society”.
Research-based education for teachers: Much ado has been made about Finnish teachers’ level of education – they are required to have a Master’s degree to qualify for full certification. But, many countries and US states require their teachers to have a Master’s degree. However, in many cases, the graduate level of teacher training is overly focused on regulatory and policy frameworks. What differentiates Finland from those countries and states is that Finnish teachers are required to have a graduation education that is firmly grounded in practical research. Thus, Finnish teachers are able and willing to make use of available research and to take a scientific approach to developing their own skills and knowledge.
Good use of research: Pasi Sahlberg has repeatedly stated that a significant factor in the success of the Finnish educational system is that they have made effective use of available research (most of which originates in the US BTW). Based on their evaluation of available research, Finns have adopted a collaborative experiential pedagogical approach. Not only is this consistent with research, it also fits very nicely with the preferred societal model mentioned above.
Strategic ambiguity: Because of the high level of professionalism among teachers, Finns have been able to reduce their national curriculum guidelines to a relatively small handbook on expected outcomes, leaving it largely up to teachers’ discretion to determine the appropriate way of getting there. This purposeful ambiguity has made it possible for teachers to tailor their teaching to the needs of diverse populations. (It should be mentioned here that Finland is not as homogenous as is often suggested. Finland has three national languages; Finnish, Swedish and Sami. These linguistic groups are in some ways very distinct cultural groups, especially in the case of the Sami. Finland also has a growing immigrant population resulting in some schools where immigrant children are a majority).
As Pasi Sahlberg has pointed out, it is unlikely that the Finnish educational system could be replicated in other countries by simply transplanting specific policies. He suggests that the real lessons to be learned are not so much in what the Finns do, but how they got to where they are today. I tend to agree and think that having a holistic overview of the Finnish educational system and understanding what has shaped it is an important first step.