Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Finnish Way

One of my secret missions in coming to Finland was to find out if the education is really as great as its reputation. My daughter Kerala keeps threatening to move to Finland so our little Zadie can get an attentive, loving and high-quality schooling without the cost of a second mortgage. So when I mentioned to several teachers here that Finland had become the model of inspired education, I noticed a slight raising of the eyebrow and pursing of the lips that said, “Really?”

Now some of this is related to the humility of the Finnish. I’ve told my students here that my goal is to upgrade their adjectives. After making incredible music, I ask them, “How was that?!” and get a mild “Okay.” I told them I don’t want them to zoom all the way up to the American “Awesome!” just for picking up the mallets correctly, but they could give themselves a little bit more credit when well-earned. There was a moment in today’s class where I got a “Great!” and felt that I had left my mark. It was great.

But back to Finnish schools. Compared to the circus of U.S. educational policy, things seem pretty healthy here. For starters, all public schools (which are mostly the only kind here) seem to have at least an hour of music per week. And in the old days, a prospective candidate had to pass a singing test to be accepted as a teacher! Not so now, but there still is an understanding that music and art are essential to creating a cultured future citizen. And judging from the quality of musicianship, imagination and good social feeling I’ve found in the 70 course participants, the bar is set high.

Some of the publicity about Finland’s successes comes from a book entitled: Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? According to the author, Pasi Sahlberg, quite a lot. To give just a taste, I quote from a chart comparing The Global Reform Movement (of which the U.S. seems to be the blind leader leading other blind leaders) and The Finnish Way:

Global Reform: Setting clear, high, and centrally prescribed performance expectations for all schools, teachers and students to improve the quality and equity of outcomes.

The Finnish Way: Setting a clear but flexible national framework for school-based curriculum planning. Encouraging local and individual solutions to national goals.

Global Reform: Basic knowledge and skills in reading, writing, math and science as prime targets of educational reform, including increased time for each.

The Finnish Way: Giving equal value to all aspects of the growth of an individual’s personality, moral character, creativity, knowledge and skills.

Global Reform: Outcomes of teaching are predictable, prescribed in a uniform way, and measured by standardized and externally administrated tests.

The Finnish Way: School-based and teacher-owned curricula facilitate finding novel approaches to and encourage risk-taking in teaching and learning.

Global Reform: Educational change brought to school from corporate world models and operational logic.

The Finnish Way: Main sources of school improvement are proven good educational practices from the past.

Global Reform: Success on test scores linked to teacher salary and school funds. Struggling schools and individuals are punished.

The Finnish Way: Building a culture of responsibility and trust that values teacher professionalism in judging what is best for students. Offering resources and support for schools and individuals at risk.

Need I comment further? Of course, talk with teachers here and they can name a hundred things that could be better about schools and are rightfully nervous that lawmakers may join the GERM Club (Global Educational Reform Movement). But though there’s always work to be done, it certainly feels like we should finish our short-sighted ways and join the Finnish Way. At the very least, it would save my little Zadie from having to learn to speak Finnish. (A beautiful language, but she’ll be busy enough trying to keep her math scores up so her American school can stay open.)

P.S. Another great plus about Finland.While American teachers might gather in a brightly lit teacher’s room with bad coffee to discuss the testing schedule, I joined the course teachers for a sauna in the forest, plunged in the cold lake at an 11pm sunset and sat by candlelight enjoying a lovely snack of yogurt and fresh berries and other delights while they sang stories from the Finnish epic Kalevala.

P.S.S. I further learned that many government political meetings have been held in saunas. Love it! Gives a different tone to the usual game of power and hierarchy when everyone’s sitting around naked and sweating. Go Finland!!


  1. Great! :)

    And Thank you for a wonderful course!

  2. On behalf of many 1st graders thank you for a mind blowing course! It´s true we finns don´t know how to take credit from success but it´s bubbling inside screaming: Hurray! Awesomenes! Go Doug! :)


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