Lessons from Finland: A Play in Two Acts

Finland has long been regarded as having one of the leading educational systems in the world. Each year, educators from across the globe make the trek to Finland in search of the “secrets” to their success. Recently, I made the trip with as part of a contingent from EdLeader21. I did not find one overarching story of the “Finnish miracle”; I discovered a play in two acts.

The first act of the play opened in 2000 when Finland emerged onto the world stage with the release of the first round of the PISA  results (the Programme for International Student Assessment), an internationally benchmarked test that measures the knowledge and skills of 15-year olds in reading, math, and science. Since then Finland has consistently appeared as one of the top ranked educational systems in the world.

This part of their story is well documented by Pasi Sahlberg in his book, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland (and more recently in the revised edition, Finnish Lessons 2.0). In his book, Sahlberg locates the sources of success, not in market-driven, test-based accountability, but rather in Finland’s relentless focus on providing all students with a solid education, developing and supporting quality teaching, and fostering a culture of trust across the system.

When I arrived in Finland, this was the story I thought I would explore. However, as I listened and learned from educators across the system, a second, more compelling act of the play unfolded. The first act of the play grabbed my attention initially; the second act stayed with me long after I returned home. This part of the story inspires me and provides some important lessons to educators across the globe who are  working to make schools more relevant and meaningful for students.

Articulating a vision for student learning

The second act of the play opened earlier this year, when the Finnish National Board of Education announced that schools will be moving toward a new national curricular framework by 2016. The new framework focuses on broad cross-cutting competencies and a more student-focused, integrated approach learning known as “phenomenon-based learning” (hailed somewhat inaccurately by the international press as “scrapping subjects“).

transversal competencies

Now, you might be wondering, why would Finland undertake such a change when their schools have consistently ranked among the top in international comparisons? As Ms. Irmeli Halinen, Head of Curriculum Development with the Finnish National Board of Education articulated so clearly: because “the world is changing. We need to think and rethink everything connected to school.” (You can hear the full presentation by clicking here).

What is remarkable is that leaders throughout the Finnish system have not been content to rest on their laurels or obsessively focus on raising test scores (in response to more recent slippage of their rankings). Instead, they have taken a close look at their current reality and articulated a clear vision for the skills and competencies as well as the kinds of learning students will need to be prepared for work, life and citizenship in the 21st Century.

A key lesson that we can take away from the Finnish experience is that an exclusive emphasis on test scores alone is not enough. With the transition to new computer-adaptive assessments being implemented across the U.S., some educators are gearing up by preparing students for the “new tests.” As Finland’s example illustrates such an effort is misguided in that it focuses attention on a narrow range of skills. Our students will a need a broader set of competencies that includes not only academic skills but also habits of mind necessary for lifelong learning and future success. We would do well to put our energies into designing powerful learning and assessing on-going growth and mastery so that students are empowered to tackle the challenges ahead.

Building a Consensus for the Vision

Articulating a vision is one thing. Building a broad consensus around the vision is quite another. Enter the Sitra’s New Education Forum, that engaged thirty one representatives across different sectors in Finland (schools, universities, business, and community organizations), outside experts (including a partnership in the U.S.), and an open Facebook group of nearly 2,000 people in an extended dialogue over a six month period. Throughout the process, discussions focused on essential questions about how to transform education to respond to the needs of learners in an ever changing world characterized by growing inequality, globalization, and digitalization.

The culmination of the Forum’s work resulted in the publication of A Land of People who Love to Learn. The report lays out in clear, simple language a vision for the future of education in Finland, starting with the candid acknowledgement that “Finnish education focuses on meeting yesterday’s standards.” The introduction goes on:

The gap between life and education has widened due to the world changing more rapidly than the educational system. The amount and availability of information has exploded; new professions emerge and vanish at an ever-increasing pace; learning happens everywhere.

The report’s aim “…was to stimulate readers’ thoughts and passions and encourage more open and constructive dialogue on the change in learning — not to put the minds of those content with the status quo at ease.” This document is impressive in its effort to provoke an open and honest discussion about how education can be more responsive to the needs of students and their well-being.

A second key lesson that we can take away from Finland’s example is the commitment demonstrated by national and regional leaders as well as school site leaders (principals and teachers) to engage in such a deep, thought-provoking dialogue around what students need and what is at stake. It was inspiring to hear people from across the educational system articulating the same message regarding the need for change and the key elements of the goals and learning principles to realize the vision. If we are to make deeper, more authentic learning a reality for students, we would do well to apply this lesson.

You can check out these resources to find out more about Finland’s approach to educational change in the 21st Century.

New Education Forum, A Land of People Who Love to Learn (Sitra, 2015)

Phenomenal Learning: Rethinking from Finland (website includes materials, resources, tools for systemic development and creation of schools of the future)

Pasi Mattila and Pasi Silander (Eds.), How to Create the School of the Future: Revolutionary Thinking and Design from Finland (European Social Fund, 2015)

Pasi Sahlberg, “Finland’s School Reforms Won’t Scrap Subjects Altogether,” published in The Conversation on March 25, 2015 (accessed Pasi Sahlberg’s blog on June 30, 2015).

Valerie Strauss, “No, Finland isn’t Ditching Traditional School Subjects.Here’s What Really Happening,” The Washington Post, March 26, 2015

As always, please feel free to share your comments.

“If we’re not squirming, we’re not learning.” #edjourney

“If we’re not squirming, we’re not learning.”
— Grant Lichtman, EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education


Recently, Scott McLeod in a post to his Dangerously Irrelevant Blog argued that “We Need Schools to Be Different.” Simply put, the industrial model of education no longer fits our current reality. There is a significant disconnect between the realities “out in the real world” and what our students experience every day in school. 

So what is keeping us from creating different kinds of schools that will prepare our students to tackle the challenges in the world as it is today (and will likely become in the not too distant future)? In his post,”Do We Need a Startup Mindset (In Education)?”, David Culberhouse points out one barrier — our tendency to avoid taking risks:
We live in a time when taking risks is not as much an occupational hazard, as it is an occupational necessity.  As they say, “no risk, no reward.”  And yet, we try to shield ourselves from these risks with plans, policies, and strategies that promise assurances and guarantees.

To make sense of unrelenting changes, we resort to the comfort of the familiar. In doing so, we stand in our own way. There may be a false sense of security, but alas, this approach will not move us forward. 

As we often hear, “change is hard.” Or is it? In his new book, EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education (Jossey-Bass, 2013), Grant Lichtman challenges this claim head-on. He acknowledges that “change brings displacement and even grief; it takes a long time; and all of that is Ok.” But, Lichtman asserts the “displacement” and “grief” that change stirs up are not the same thing as “hard.” He urges us not to confuse the two:

Change at most schools is not hard; it is uncomfortable. Sometimes it might be very uncomfortable for some people. It can be messy, complicated, and tiresome. Uncomfortable means making some tough decisions. But using the excuse that we can’t change schools because ‘it is hard’? — well, we need to get some perspective on the difference between hard and uncomfortable.

It is the messiness and uncertainty that makes change so profoundly unsettling and yes, down right uncomfortable. We usually interpret this discomfort as a sign that we are doing something wrong or that perhaps, we should retreat. Part of this skewed sense of perspective lies in our expectations about the process. Many of us think that success is a straight line from the inception of a “great idea” to its implementation.
What success looks like

Here’s the rub. Growth and discomfort often go hand in hand. One does not happen without the other. Staying in the comfort zone of the familiar, rarely, if ever, yields growth. It is only by looking squarely at our practices, asking deep questions, and challenging our long held beliefs, that we stand a chance of creating the different kinds of schools that Scott McLeod describes.
A while ago, I came across this graphic (Thank you, Tony Borash @tborash via @poida). While it is intended to be used by teachers to guide their work with students, I think it also applies to the work of educational leaders who are grappling with the change process in school sites and systems.

IMG_0157We can easily reframe these questions to apply to adults working within the educational system. Which ‘zones” are you (or your staff) generally in? Where does the most learning occur?
There is little doubt that we are in the midst of monumental change. As we explore, experiment, fail forward (and backward), facing discomfort head on and working through it are essential parts of the process. Walking around it or staying put are no longer options. It is that simple. When we step out of our comfort zones into the unknown, we will squirm. And, we can create possibilities for deeper transformation.

Design Thinking Bootcamp #SCOE21C #DTK12chat

What I Learned at Design Bootcamp

To rethink and redesign learning for students, we as educators need to practice new ways of thinking and approaching challenges. A few weeks ago, I participated in a Design Thinking Bootcamp facilitated by Greg Bamford (@gregbamford), Carla Silver (@carla_r_silver) and Alyssa Gallagher (@am_gallagher) from Leadership and Design. Powerful learning stretches us beyond our boundaries, pushes us out of comfort zone, and leads us to new insights. This is exactly what I experienced. Here are my top five take-aways from the Design Thinking Bootcamp: Continue reading

Going to #EdcampSonoma

EdCamp Sonoma

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the EdCamp Sonoma event organized by Matt O’Donnell, 21st Teaching and Learning Specialist at the Sonoma County Office of Education (@21CMatt). One of the highlights of the day was learning about Google Hangouts and Google Hangouts on Air. During one of the sessions, the EdCamp Sonoma group participated in a live GHOA with the EdCamp Leander group. Continue reading

The Buffet Table #GAFESummit

Buffet table photo credit: shoot-first via photopin

One of the great things about the buffet table is that it offers so many tasty choices. We all have our own approach when wandering through the line. Some folks graze and nibble. Others fill their plates, sampling everything. If you’re like me, you go through the line once, then head back for seconds or even grab dessert.

Recently, I attended my first Google Apps for Education 1:1 Summit in Napa with a team of educators from my district. The event offered a cornucopia of delicious offerings for every palette. We came away with a lot of resources and tools to use in our classrooms. Shout outs to the edu-awesome EdTechTeam (@edtechteam), especially Mark Wagner (@markwagner) and Michael Wacker (@mwacker) as well as North Bay CUE Rockstar Extraordinaire, Sergio Villegas (@awesomecoachv) from Napa Learns for setting such an impressive table. Continue reading

4 Ways to “Get the Right Things Done” #SAVMP

time to focus

Photo credit: IQoncept

As I move into the new year, I want to focus my energies on what’s important. Yet, I often find myself pulled in many directions and sometimes feel like maintaining my focus is a challenge. I recently came across Peter Bregman’s book, 18 Minutes: Finding Your Focus, Mastering Your Distractions and Getting the Right Things Done, that I think may hold some insights for me in my quest.

18 Minutes offers “a comprehensive approach to managing a year, a day, and a moment so that our lives move forward in a way that keeps us focused on, and doing, the things we decide are most important” (Kindle Location: 53). At its essence, this approach to organizing our time and focusing our energies is based on making conscious choices on what’s most important and aligning our daily activities with our priorities.

4 Ways to “Get the Right Things Done”: Continue reading

Looking Back…Finding Bright Spots

looking back

Photo credit: Egidijus Mika

As 2013 winds down, I want to take some time to look back and reflect on my journey over the past year. A year ago, I made a commitment to myself to take time to stop, reflect, and share my learning and thinking with others through my blog. I decided to shift from being primarily a consumer of the insights of other educators to being an active contributor to the conversation. Along the way, I struggled with the usual doubts — What would I have to say? Would anyone really care? Where do I find the time? And, I stuck with it. I wondered how I could apply what I learned in the process to other areas in my personal and professional life.

Anyone who has ever made a New Year’s resolution knows that sticking with it is the hardest the part. Yesterday, a timely e-mail newsletter arrived in my inbox from Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the book Switch. The subject line read simply: “4 Research-Backed Tips for Sticking to Your New Years Resolution.” I could not resist.

The Heath brothers started by pointing out our dismal record for keeping resolutions: “The research on resolutions is damning: A study of 3,000 people led by Richard Wiseman, of the University of Hertfordshire, found that 88% broke their resolutions. (Even people who resolved merely to “enjoy life more” failed 68% of the time.).”

So, how can we improve our odds of actually keeping our resolutions? One of their tips really stood out for me. They suggest shifting our focus from what is not working (“what is the problem and how do I fix it?”) to looking at our “bright spots” — “What’s working and how can I do more of it?” Continue reading