Pasi Sahlberg Blog

Finnish education reform

Global Educational Reform Movement is here!

In FINNISH LESSONS: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? I conclude that rather than introducing sequential educational revolutions, Finnish education policy has been built upon periodic change and systemic leadership led by commonly accepted values and shared social vision that resonate closely with contemporary ideas of sustainable educational change. Importantly, the main features for developing a equitable, high-performing education system are similar to those underlying the social and economic transformation of Finland into a welfare state and a competitive knowledge society. It is, therefore, difficult to identify particular reforms or innovations per se that served as driving forces in raising the level and quality of Finnish education.

It is necessary to identify broader policies – and especially how different public sector policies are interconnected with the education system. It is also essential to emphasize that although Finland has been called ‘a model pupil’ in listening to the policy advice from the international organizations, especially the OECD and the European Union, the Finnish education system has remained quite uninfected to viruses of what is often called the global education reform movement or GERM. And the reason for that is clear: professional strength and moral health of Finnish schools.

GERM has emerged since the 1980s and has increasingly become adopted as a educational reform orthodoxy within many education systems throughout the world, including in the U.S., England, Australia and some transition countries. Tellingly, GERM is often promoted through the interests of international development agencies and private enterprises through their interventions in national education reforms and policy formulation.

Since the 1980s, at least five globally common features of education policies and reform principles have been employed to try to improve the quality of education and fix the apparent problems in public education systems.

First is standardization of education. Outcomes-based education reform became popular in the 1980s, followed by standards-based education policies in the 1990s, initially within Anglo-Saxon countries. These reforms, quite correctly, shifted the focus of attention to educational outcomes, i.e. student learning and school performance. Consequently, a widely accepted – and generally unquestioned – belief among policy-makers and education reformers is that setting clear and sufficiently high performance standards for schools, teachers, and students will necessarily improve the quality of expected outcomes. Enforcement of external testing and evaluation systems to assess how well these standards have been attained emerged originally from standards-oriented education policies. Since the late 1980s centrally prescribed curricula, with detailed and often ambitious performance targets, frequent testing of students and teachers, and test-based accountability have characterized a homogenization of education policies worldwide, promising standardized solutions at increasingly lower cost for those desiring to improve school quality and effectiveness.

A second common feature of GERM is focus on core subjects in school, in other words, on literacy and numeracy, and in same case science. Basic student knowledge and skills in reading, writing and mathematics are elevated as prime targets and indices of education reforms. As a consequence of accepting international student assessment surveys, such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, as criteria of good educational performance, reading, mathematical and scientific literacy have now become the main determinants of perceived success or failure of pupils, teachers, schools, and entire education systems. This is happening on the expense of social studies, arts, music and physical education that re diminishing in many school curricula.

The third characteristic that is easily identifiable in global education reforms is the search for low-risk ways to reach learning goals. This minimizes experimentation, reduces use of alternative pedagogical approaches, and limits risk-taking in schools and classrooms. Research on education systems that have adopted policies emphasizing achievement of predetermined standards and prioritized core subjects, suggests that teaching and learning are narrower and teachers focus on ‘guaranteed content’ to best prepare their students for tests. The higher the test-result stakes, the lower the degree of freedom in experimentation and risk-taking in classroom learning.

The fourth globally observable trend in educational reform is use of corporate management models as a main driver of improvement. This process where educational policies and ideas are lent and borrowed from business world is often motivated by national hegemony and economic profit, rather than by moral goals of human development. Faith in educational change through innovations brought and sold from outside the system undermines two important elements of successful educational change: First, it often limits the role of national policy development and enhancement of an education system’s own capabilities to maintain renewal, and perhaps more important. Second, it paralyzes teachers’ and schools’ attempts to learn from the past and also to learn from each other.

The fifth global trend is adoption of test-based accountability policies for schools. In doing so school performance – especially raising student achievement – is closely tied to processes of accrediting, promoting, inspecting, and, ultimately, rewarding or punishing schools and teachers. Success or failure of schools and teachers is often determined by standardized tests and external teacher evaluations that devote attention to limited aspects of schooling, such as student achievement in mathematical and reading literacy, exit examination results, or intended teacher classroom behavior.

None of these elements of GERM have been adopted in Finland in the ways that they have within education policies of many other nations, for instance, in the United States and England. This, of course, does not imply that education standards, focus on basic knowledge and skills, or accountability should be avoided in seeking better educational performance. Nor does it suggest that these ideas were completely absent in education development in Finland. But, perhaps, it does imply that a good education system can be created using alternative approaches and policies orthogonal to those commonly found and promoted in global education policy markets. This is why I wrote Finnish Lessons.

By contrast, typical features of teaching and learning in Finland are:

  • high confidence in teachers and principals as high professionals;
  • encouraging teachers and students to try new ideas and approaches, in other words, to put curiosity, imagination and creativity at the heart of learning; and
  • purpose of teaching and learning is to pursue happiness of learning and cultivating development of whole child.

The best way avoid infections of GERM is to prepare teachers and leaders well. In Finland all teachers must have masters degree in education or in the field of their subject. This ensures that they are good in what they do in classrooms and also understand how teaching and learning in their schools can be improved. School principals are also experts of educational change and can therefore protect their schools and school system from harmful germs.

Lessons from Finland help you to kill 99.9% of GERMs.