Introduction: When we hear about improving schools here in America, often times people bring up the educational success experienced by Finland in recent years. Many people think that we should completely reform our school system to mimic that of Finland's. Pasi Sahlberg, a Harvard professor, education researcher, former Finnish educator, and author of Finnish Lessons 2.0, explains the pros and cons to completely reforming schools around the model seen in Finland, not only in America, but around the world. In this book, Sahlberg attributes many reasons to Finland's educational success and discusses some of the problems that need to be addressed by other countries in order to improve their own educational systems. He also talks in depth about the events and reforms that took place prior to the success of education in Finland.
The Affect of World War II on Education in Finland: Prior to the second world war, Finland's education system wasn't anything to be jealous of. They were not ranked on any international education charts and the degree of education varied by region. The country was devastated by WWII, especially after they signed a peace agreement with Russia. The Russians took 12% of their territory, relocated 450,000 Finns, built military bases, judged wartime leaders, released prisoners, prohibited political associations, and established a communist party within Finland. Over the next 20 years, Finland experienced a lot of political, cultural, and economic changes. One of those changes include a huge reform on education.
A Russian ski battalion in Finland during World War II
Education Reform Begins; 1950s and 1960s: What most people don't realize about Finland's educational success is that it started all the way back in the 1950s. Something that Sahlberg really tries to get across in the book is that educational reform doesn't happen over night. During the 1950s, Finland's school teaching styles were very formal, teacher-centered, and focused more on moral development, rather than cognitive development. In order to improve this education issue, they looked at other countries around them and developed a new system that would provide access to all kids, focus more on the individual student and their personality, and that would modernize the education that teachers themselves receive. Leaders from all of Finland's major political parties got together to developed this new system and adopted it in 1963. Enrollment swelled from 34,000 students in 1956, to 324,000 in 1970. This new educational system was soon criticized for increasing the inequality of education to some students by placing them in basic, middle, or advanced courses without their say.
Educational Reform Continues; 1970s and 1980s: Although certain parts of the educational reform that took place in the 1960s were controversial, most agreed that the new system vastly improved education in Finland. Unlike most countries, who try to improve education by setting high standards and evaluating teachers' effectiveness, Finland has been able to contribute some of their success to how they changed their societies view of education. Finns developed a new fundamental belief that "everyone cannot learn everything," and that an individuals intelligence or abilities will rise to the level expected of them in society. With that in mind, Finnish legislators rolled out a new plan for education in 1972, called Peruskoulu, which is still in place today. In 1985, Finland abolished the controversial system that placed students in a basic, middle, or advanced category. Now, the same standards are expected of every student.
An overview of the current educational system in Finland
The 1990s to Today; Finland On Top: The Finnish government continued to improve upon their educational system into the '90s. Children with special needs were identified early and worked with trained specialist at the schools. Additionally, career and guidance counseling has become a very big part of the Finnish curriculum. Career counseling minimizes the chance of students making inappropriate choices about their education. They require that each student spends two weeks in a selected workplace. Unlike other countries, Finland has really advocated for vocational education, rather than forcing all students to learn college preparatory material. Nearly half of students in Finland are in a vocational school. Students also get the choice to choose what they study, whereas many educational systems already have classes mapped out for students. All of these procedures have led to extremely low drop out rates and high student success. A large difference between the U.S. and Finland is Finland's lack of standardized testing. Students are only required to take one exam, which determines if they will be accepted into any school after their Upper-Secondary school. The exam consist of 4-5 tests and students must complete them within a year. This has actually caused students to perform better in math and science classes because it takes away a lot of added stress. By the early 2000s, Finland had come out on top of educational success and has been there ever since.
Differences Between Finland and Other Countries: Throughout the book, Sahlberg discusses how some countries try and run their school systems like a business. And just as when things aren't being done right in a business and the business fails, schools will fail as well. By paying their teachers well and instilling a national interest in education, teaching has become the number one profession in Finland, which has made it difficult to even become a teacher. Sahlberg also discussed that what works for Finland may not work for other countries. Finland's population is around 5.5 million people, roughly the amount of people in Minnesota, so not having near as many students makes it easier to implement new educational ideas. Additionally, Finland has a very low minority population, so not having to adapt to different cultures and diverse populations makes it easier to provide a quality education for everyone.
Sahlberg, P., Ravitch, D., Hargreaves, A., & Robinson, K. (2015). Finnish lessons 2.0 what can the world learn from educational change in Finland? (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.