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.

One thought on “Lessons from Finland: A Play in Two Acts

  1. I find this fascinating! Never one to “rest on my laurels”, I have been so inspired by the move in our district toward teaching to student need, rather than for test scores (Thank you Jennie!). I appreciate the idea behind “scrapping”, and have done a lot of it in my work, especially in the last year. While it is difficult to break out of the pattern of teaching “like we’ve always done it”, I have found that students who are given freedom to choose, and support to perform at the highest levels, actually do learn to become life learners. I look forward to reading more about your experience in future posts, as well as in the links you’ve provided. Thanks for sharing!

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