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.

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

Into the Stratosphere

stratosphere

I just finished reading Michael Fullan’s, Stratosphere.  In this book,  he outlines how: “the ideas embedded in the new technology, the new pedagogy, and the new change knowledge are converging to transform education for all” (p. 3).  Fullan’s book resonates with a driving question I have grappled with in my own work.  How do we create meaningful change throughout our system to truly innovate teaching and learning?

Fullan’s argument is something to consider as we work to make our schools and systems more responsive to the students we serve. In some ways, Fullan’s book treads familiar ground. In his earlier writing, Fullan has correctly warned that technology as the solution can be the “wrong driver” for school reform if it is not paired with “smart pedagogy.”

In Stratsophere, Fullan issues a similar warning.  I agree with him. We should not mistake the tools for actual student learning. Using upgraded technology will not automatically transform pedagogy. Continue reading

The delicate balance…

medium_3251916229 This week I had the opportunity to attend a professional conference with other educational leaders across our state. One of the sessions I attended focused on implementing the Common Core State Standards within the context of 21st Century education. Ken Kay (@kenkay21) from EdLeader21 facilitated a thought provoking discussion.

The discussion featured a panel of superintendents engaged in initiatives to implement 21st Century Learning within their districts. The panelists shared their experiences working with staff as they began to develop a vision for student success. The conversation invariably turned toward how do we keep a focus on the essentials and not get bogged down in piling on yet another initiative.  Continue reading

On the need for clarity of vision…

medium_109805050

photo credit: snarl via photopin cc

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

— Lewis Carroll

There is a tendency when beginning a new journey to simply want to get on with it. Pack up, head on out. I have certainly been guilty of this myself. In the frenetic pace of activity and competing demands, jumping into action is second nature for me. Yet, without a clear vision of where we are heading, we run the risk of following any road and ending up nowhere.  Continue reading

The journey begins…

“In times of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves beautifully equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”– Eric Hoffer

There is no doubt that we live in times of drastic change. Yet the models of education we work within seem more suited to a world that no longer exists. The challenge before us, then, is to create deep, meaningful change in our schools that will prepare our students to inherit their futures.

So how do we, as educational leaders, meet this challenge? Where do we begin to embark on the journey forward? In short, how we do we get there from here?

Continue reading

A Personal Challenge for the New Year

small_4401158952photo credit: Jhong Dizon | Photography via photopin cc

The approaching new year brings with it an opportunity to reflect upon the past year and focus on new challenges ahead. This year I have been fortunate to connect with and learn from truly courageous educators who are taking on the challenge of creating the kinds of schools and learning spaces our students need for future success.

The power of social networks has enriched my own professional learning in so many ways. While I have been an active consumer of the insights shared by others, I have struggled with how to start contributing to the grand conversation by sharing my own thinking. Then, I encountered a challenge.  Continue reading