Yet Another Take on the Success Story that Is Finland

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of listening to a talk by Pasi Sahlberg, a renowned Finnish educator, researcher and thinker. The main theme of the discussion, as you might guess, was on what Finland’s education system, widely considered one of the best in the world, can teach us in the United States about how to organize and support our schools. What are the key drivers of success and how might we create and harness these elements to generate the same kind of effective, high-quality education in our school system?

On the one hand, I know—and Sahlberg emphasized—that there is no way really to replicate the Finnish experience in the States. Finland is a country of 6 million people, with 3,000 schools, and a child poverty rate of about 4 percent. To think that what takes place in that Scandinavian nation could take root here—a country more than 50 times larger and with a majority of schoolchildren qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch—is ludicrous on its face.  We can have all the policies we want, but the implementation of policy, the expectations we hold, are so wrapped up in broader cultural and social mores, that you simply cannot neatly transfer the experience of one country to another, especially when those countries are so dissimilar.

Yet, I did come away from the talk with two ideas, in particular, that I think are worth considering in our own efforts to make our education system the best it can be. The first is somewhat paradoxical in nature. Sahlberg made the point that Finland committed itself to reforming its education system in the 1970s because the Finns were not satisfied with the ways in which the schools were meeting student needs. These reforms involved, among other things, making a concerted effort to raise the qualifications and stature of teachers and, a few years later, organizing the entire K – 16 pathway to be sure that all students had a viable route to higher education. Overall, it was an impressive, decades-long coordinated attempt to strengthen the capacity of the system to prepare the next generation to be dynamic citizens and earners. 

The paradox in the story arose when the first round of scores on the international assessment known as PISA showed that Finland ranked first in math, literacy and science. Finns were genuinely shocked by the results. They had not reformed their system to become number one in the world; they had “merely” sought to do right by their children. The primary driving force behind the improvements was not competitive, but qualitative. In raising the aptitude of Finnish students for their own sake, the nation had inadvertently demonstrated that such an objective made their young people uniquely qualified in the world.  Sahlberg noted that other countries (e.g., Canada) have found a similar outcome: improvement for its own sake often yields the best results. 

A second idea that came up during the discussion is one that touches upon the age-old question of cause and effect, and relates to other indicators of success that mark Finnish society today. These indicators include Finland’s status as one of most economically competitive, most equitable, and happiest nations on earth. Which then leads to the question: Is Finland’s overall economic and social success as a nation the result of its school system producing such capable, forward-thinking graduates or are the schools successful because other conditions, like a well-run social system, help to assure that the students achieve at such high levels?  I actually put this question to Dr. Sahlberg and he answered (rightly, in my view) that it was the interplay between these two—schools and the surrounding society—that enable Finland to be such a functional place and one where education has become so effective.

The question, by the way, is another version of the one we ask about the achievement gap in this country: does the strong tendency of those from disadvantaged backgrounds to lag significantly behind their peers from more affluent neighborhoods result from the quality of the schools the poorer students attend or the quality of their life experience? As many scholars have shown, the gaps are best understood as the interplay between these two dynamics.

In the end, it seems to me that these two ideas—the complex web of conditions that account for the effectiveness of schools and seeking improvement in those schools for their own sake—teach us that school reform at the systemic level is very tricky business, in large part because there is so much at the macro level you cannot control. 
Instead, what I always come back to is the lives of those individual students—those who are striving daily to do their best. If we can make a concerted effort to put the conditions in place that make their school experience live up to the ideal learning environment—one that encourages complex thinking, empathy, and creativity—and to do so primarily for the students’ sake—not the sake of national stature—we might just find ourselves with a school system that surprisingly, but happily, rises to the top.