Success based more on collaboration than competition

But need to be careful in identifying lessons for other systems


Pasi Sahlberg’s ‘Finnish Lessons’  was  voted by Lord Adonis, the former schools minister and author of ‘ Education, Education, Education’, as his book of the year. It has had a big impact on educators worldwide, seeking to emulate the highly respected Finnish education model. But Sahlberg warns other educators that the Finnish model is not easily replicable and of the dangers of drawing the wrong lessons, given the socio-economic and cultural factors at play.

By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in maths among nearly half a million students worldwide.

Finns only begin school at about age seven, don’t have very much homework, don’t have a particularly long school day or school year, and don’t regularly take high-stakes national tests. They also allow their teachers considerable freedoms, for example in  designing  the curriculum, and teachers  have very few centrally driven controls to cope with. Teaching is also a high status profession . All Finnish teachers are required to hold masters degrees, and only one in four applicants is accepted.

Most of the gains in achievement have occurred within the past decade or two. In the 1950s, Finland began a series of reforms that eventually moved the country away from a “mediocre” system in which most people had only completed the equivalent of middle school. But, as Sahlberg notes, it is the most recent changes that appear to have produced the dramatic rise in Finland’s test scores.

Two main sets of factors seem to be at work.

Educationally, the Finns have a philosophy of “less is more”:  concentrating on doing  things better, rather than just doing more. In practice, they have relatively small schools so teachers generally know all the pupils in the school, and limited national-level bureaucracy, give teachers a lot of respect and autonomy and trust them, and, generally, cooperate and collaborate with each other and there is no polarisation between teaching unions and politicians. Indeed, the unions are regarded as instruments of reform. They offer a wide range of in-school services (free lunch for all students, counselling, and special education -nearly 30 percent of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school.  ), don’t give numerical/ letter grades in elementary school, and, at least at the elementary school level, try to avoid grade repetition by allowing considerable flexibility letting students progress at different rates, in different subjects.

But crucial to Finland and its success is it homogeneity and equity. Finland has a  very small-population of  5.4 m. Societally, the Finns have created a relatively egalitarian country that combines a free-market economy with the elements of a Scandinavian welfare state. Only about 4% of children live in poverty, compared to about 20%, for example, in the United States.  It is almost a classless society and there are no divisions between the independent (private) sector in education and the state sector ie the private sector is negligible in size. Then there is the issue of ‘competition’, or rather lack of it. Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Puronen: “Real winners do not compete”. Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience told the  Smithsonian  “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.” There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. This is why Sahlberg is favoured by the left and not universally embraced by education reformers, for example, in the States. President Obamas Federal ‘ Race to the Top’ initiative ,for example,  invites states to compete for federal dollars using standardised  tests and other methods to measure teachers and to reward them.

The main driver of education policy in Finland is not though  competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation and collaboration (a feature of Ontarios  successful system in Canada, too)


And, unlike many other countries, there is little variation between the quality of schools. So, no post code lottery.(unlike the UK)


All politicians aim, when it comes to education, to ensure that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Finland is one of the few places that is pretty close to delivering this.


But Finland also demonstrates that you cannot simply import an education system or even bits of it (ie cherrypick) to ensure your system works better and you have to be careful about what lessons can be learnt and applied  . Context is everything. But one can say, with some confidence,  that the Finnish model reiterates the importance of high quality teachers and teaching,  the importance  of  a teaching profession that is high status, trusted and respected ,  and to  ensure you have a working environment in which key stakeholders can work closely  together and collaborate  to achieve shared goals to improve outcomes for students.


 Note-Pasi Sahlberg writes both as a teacher and as a professor of education.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s