Finland fatigue?

Are you tired of hearing about how great Finland’s education system is? Everywhere you look, it’s Finland, Finland, and more Finland. Even CTQ bloggers can’t get enough. Barnett Berry, Kris Kohl, and Dave Orphal all wrote glowing reviews after their recent trips to the holy land of education.

Over the past few months, I too have watched movies, read books, and listened to journalists rave about the Finnish way. And you know what? I’m starting to buy into the hype. If you have stopped paying attention to the coverage, I urge you to take another look. Finland shows us that there is an alternative to the emphasis on competition and test-based accountability that we see and feel in our education system. Instead, Finland focuses on collaboration and professional responsibility based on trust. Sound nice? If so, keep reading.

Last month I had the opportunity to listen to Pasi Sahlberg speak at a conference in Seattle. Sahlberg is the travelling spokesperson for the Finnish education system. He spoke in a room of teachers, union leaders, district staff, college professors, ed reformers, and a variety of other local stakeholders. After two days of breathing in lessons from Finland, I left the conference more optimistic than ever.

There were a few key takeaways for me listening to Sahlberg’s talk. First, he reminded us that transforming an education system must be a long-term process. You can’t keep changing direction every three to five years, as we tend to do in the United States. And we can’t expect all of our problems to disappear in a single initiative. Vivian Stewart, who spoke right before Sahlberg, has long-term vision at the top of her list as well.

Next, Sahlberg stressed that school systems should focus on quality, not quality. In Finland, students start later (age seven) and go to school fewer days per year than in the United States. Salhberg argues that the call for longer schools days and years is not based on evidence. Yet just last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced that forty schools in five states would add 300 hours to their school years in 2013-14. Apparently, we have some top-secret evidence in the USA that disproves the “less is more” theory.

Sahlberg’s third key point centered on teacher professionalism. He mentioned the 10,000 hours rule developed by Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Salhberg explained that just like professional musicians or athletes, teachers also need 10,000 hours to perfect their craft. This equates to about eight years in the United States (or ten years in Finland due to fewer hours teaching per year). Unfortunately, almost half of all teachers in the United States never remain in the classroom long enough to reach the 10,000 hour mark. In Finland, intensive teacher preparation, frequent opportunities for collaboration, and a high level of professional trust help create the conditions for career teachers to thrive.

In his talk, Sahlberg was not shy to point out several sharp differences between the current Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and the Finnish way. He likened the overabundance of standardized testing and other misguided reforms that we currently see in this country to an infectious disease.  And the only way that Finland has managed to protect itself from these “GERMS” is to implement policies that truly focus on maintaining equity and ensuring the wellbeing of children.

So what can the United States really learn from Finland? Sahlberg himself stresses that without seriously addressing current equity issues it will be difficult to create the conditions in which the Finnish model operates. Nevertheless, I think we have a lot to learn from the Finns. And while the paradigm shift that we really need in this country will require a long-term commitment to equity and enormous political will, there are small changes that we can make now. I challenge you to consider what that might look like in your classroom or workspace. I will update you on my own progress in a future blog post.

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