Beacon for Education Reform

Vivian McCaffrey

Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?

For the last decade, Finland’s success on inter­national tests has caught the attention of educa­tion policymakers around the world. What is it about this small Nordic nation that has led to its students’ high performance in science, math, and reading assessments? Are there lessons for other countries, such as Canada, or for our own province? Pasi Sahlberg, a former teacher and education expert, endeavours to answer these questions in  Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change  in Finland? (2001)

What is most perplexing for international experts is that Finland has produced top per­forming students while eschewing market-based education reforms premised on competition and standardized tests. “Finland is an example of a nation that lacks school inspection, standard­ized curriculum, high-stakes student assessments, test-based accountability, and a race-to-the-top mentality with regard to educational change,” Sahlberg explains.

In Finland, the emphasis is on teacher­ based assessment; teachers have the authority to design their own assessments and use them when they deem appropriate. External testing is limited. About 10 percent of students participate in random-sample tests to assess aspects of the education program. The only universal test is the matriculation exams that high school students must pass to be eligible for post-secondary edu­cation.

The centrepiece of Finnish education is the nation’s teaching force. Teacher education reform dates back to 1979 when a new law on teacher education was introduced, along with a focus on professional development. Teachers are required to have a masters degree and competition for spots in faculties of education is fierce. Only about 10 percent of applicants are accepted.

The term “accountability” is not part of educational policy discourse. Finns place high trust in their teachers and provide them considerable professional autonomy.” The basic assumption in Finnish schools is that teachers, by default, are well-educated professionals and are doing their best in schools. In real professional learning communities, teachers trust each other, communicate frequently a bout teaching and learning, and rely on their principals guidance and leadership,” writes Sahlberg.

Finnish education reform has also focused on equity and social cohesion. Sahlberg describes the commitment to equity as part of Finnish cultural values. It is reflected in the national poverty rate: 3.4 percent, com pared with 21.7 percent in the United States and 13.6 percent in Canada. Granted, Finns do pay higher taxes than Canadians to support their extensive social programs.

In schools, the equity focus led the Finns to abandon streaming in the mid-1980s and to minimize grade retention. Establishing the same learning expectations for all students resulted in a decrease in the achievement gap between high and low achievers.

The equity policy has also resulted in considerable support for special education. There is an emphasis on early identification and


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