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.

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

Growing a culture of innovation #SAVMP

culture of innovationphoto credit: Tanja FÖHR via photopin

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a round table discussion with George Couros, the Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning for Parkland School Division, at the Marin County Office of Education (@MCOEPD). George has been inspirational to me. He’s challenged me to take risks in my own professional learning and provided gentle nudges to stick with the process. I was delighted to be able to meet him in person and talk about his ideas about how to grow a culture of innovation.

With his personable style and passion, George focused our attention on a key question for educational leaders: How do we move from pockets of innovation to a culture of innovation?  He provide much food for thought that is summarized very well by Eric Saibel, Assistant Principal at Sir Francis Drake High School, in his post, Stepping Beyond the Cage of the Unknown. George has also outlined these ideas in the Leading Innovative Change series on his blog, The Principal of Change.

While I came away from the discussion and presentation with my head spinning — lots to think about — I’d like to focus on a few of the key ideas that resonate with my work. Continue reading

A gentle nudge…slowing down #SAVMP

slow downphoto credit: Loozrboy via photopin cc

Sometimes inspiration comes at just the right moment. Lately, I have been moving at warp speed.  At times, I get so caught up in the “doing” that it is difficult to slow down and reflect.

Earlier this school year, I signed up to participate in an innovative program launched by George Couros (@gcouros), the School Administrator Virtual Mentor Program (#SAVMP). I have been fortunate to connect and learn with committed educators who are sorting through how to lead the way forward to innovative learning in our schools and communities. And, I have had a tough time juggling the competing demands of doing the work and reflecting on the work. I tend to lean more in the direction of the “doing” part (the slowing down part, not so much).

So, this week when George provided a “gentle nudge” to program participants to take time to stop and reflect and share our learning through blogging and tweeting, I was inspired to take stock. In his blog post, You can Close the Door (Sometimes), George offers a timely reminder that it is “high priority work” for educational leaders to stop and reflect and share as a key component of creating an open culture of learning among educators.

At first his post struck me as an interesting counterpoint to my recent post on the power of connections by “opening our doors” by sharing our professional practices.  The juxtaposition of open and closed doors made me think — both are necessary to our continued growth and learning.

It is only by closing our door (sometimes) that we are able to truly reflect on not only what we’re doing, but why it is important to our larger purpose. Running on empty does not really promote deep thinking or learning. Without our best thinking, it is virtually impossible to focus our energy on taking the next right steps to move forward. Taking the time to reflect enhances our ability to engage more meaningfully with others. It seems to me that both are essential to building a collaborative culture that promotes deeper learning and purposeful action toward our common goal.

What are your thoughts on how to slow down and take time for deeper reflection?

Getting Started: Connected Educator Month #CE13

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photo credit: pobre.ch via photopin cc

Meaningful change ain’t gonna happen for our kids if we’re not willing to invest in it for ourselves first. At the heart, it’s not about schools…it’s about us.” — Will Richardson

Many educators see Twitter, in particular, and social media, in general, as frivolous wastes of time. I mean, who really cares what Honey Boo Boo is up to? Who cares what J.T. had for breakfast? Or any other celebrity gossip, really? But, being connected isn’t about Justin, or Kim, or any of the residents of the Jersey Shore. It is about investing in our own learning to make meaningful change for our students.

This week I had the opportunity to talk with educational leaders in Sonoma County about how we can use Twitter to connect and learn and lead in the 21st Century (#scoe21c). During the session, we explored why being connected is important and how it can help us invest in our learning and growth. I shared my own journey from my initial trepidation, to piqued curiosity, to active seeking, to a deeper understanding of the significance of sharing with other educators. It was my hope to provide a little nudge and inspiration for other educators to “get connected” and pursue their own passions and learning.

With Connected Educator Month right around the corner, it seems like the perfect time to stop and reflect on the “why” — “why connect”? and how to get started. Continue reading