Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review: Finnish Lessons

Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? by Pasi Sahlberg

For years, educators have been hearing about the exemplary reading teachers in Finland. Their highly regarded literacy program has been in place for more than 30 years; in fact, many reading specialists from the United States (and other countries) have observed their schools and studied the Finnish reading curriculum. Since 1988, as evidenced by their high PISA scores (an international student assessment test), Finnish students have been top performers in math and science, as well as reading. Now the world is asking what can be learned from this educational change in Finland.

Finland is a small country with 5.5 million people. It is about the size of the state of Minnesota. Finland completely reorganized its schools in the early 70’s. The central idea of “peruskoulu” was to merge existing grammar schools, civic schools, and primary schools into a comprehensive nine-year municipal school. That means that students of different socioeconomic levels would all attend the same schools. Early childhood care and voluntary free preschool are provided by the government. Primary school begins at age 7, followed by a lower secondary level (grade 9, age 16). Then comes general upper secondary school which usually leads to university or vocational upper secondary school which leads to either work or vocational college.

Schools are small with an average size of 200 students. (With less government money now available schools are becoming larger and that is a concern for many.) Free lunches are provided to all and children with special needs are identified early. Each building has enough counselors and special education teachers for all students. There is no standardized testing until the end of general upper secondary school.

Education policies in Finland encourage “collaboration and friendly rivalry, not competition and race to the top”. Finnish educators look at accountability as threatening and say that it damages trust and critical thinking among teachers and students. Nokia is the biggest manufacturer in Finland and they contend that “if people work or learn in an environment where avoidance of mistakes and fear of failure are dominant, workers typically don’t think for themselves.”

So where does the United States fit into this picture? The author says that because this system works in Finland doesn’t guarantee that it will work in other countries. This book is not a blueprint but it does give powerful ideas and suggestions for all countries:
  1. Equal opportunities are important for all children. Invest in early childhood education and primary school with a big focus on literacy.
  2. Teachers are treated as professionals. A master’s degree is required for a beginning teacher. Finland pays for this higher education. Finland values its teachers; good teaching trumps all other factors.
  3. Finland’s policy on accountability is to focus on learning. Primary school is considered a “standardized – testing free zone.”
  4. The public trusts its schools. That began in the late 1980’s and continues today.
  5. Political stability and “sustainable leadership” help the economy and the schools.
Educators in Finland are aware of their success and aim to continue that education to all their children. They call it the “Big Dream” and this is what they strive to attain: “Create a community of learners that provides the conditions that allow young people to discover their talents.”

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