Surprisingly, educational change in Finland has been studied more by foreigners than by the Finns themselves. Analysis by Andy Hargreaves, Dennis Shirley, Linda Darling-Hammond, Sam Abrams, Diane Ravitch, Tony Wagner and several international journalists have helped us to understand the nature of whole system reform in Finland. These scholars emphasize the importance of making the entire system work well, not just it’s ‘output part’, e.g. early childhood development, well-being of children in school, and professionalism within education craft. Journalists often point out to the parts of the system that seem to work well. Rather than simply listing the obvious elements of educational success in Finland – good teachers, inspiring curricula, and sustainable leadership – I would look for these major lessons beyond those factors of change. Let me mention three of them here.
I think the first lesson that Finland offers to other educational reformers is that whole-system reform can be successful only if it is inspiring to all involved and thereby energizes people to work together for intended improvement. I often use the thinking of Martin Luther King as an example of an inspiring dream that moves people. Dr. King’s dream was not that his country would have a 5-percent annual economic growth rate. That wouldn’t have inspired many people. Similarly, making a country number one in PISA rankings doesn’t excite too many educators. The Finnish Dream since the 1970s has been to provide a good public school for every child in the country. This goal inspired many and was a source of energy that was needed to push through necessary political and educational changes. It was powerful enough to bring different people and political groups to join forces for fulfillment of this dream. The Finnish Dream looks like the dream of John F. Kennedy in 1961: to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. It was challenging, required hard work and political consensus, but in the end rewarded the entire nation through its outcomes.
Second, some observers have concluded that the secret of Finnish educational success is its well-trained teachers. Yes, it is true that teachers and leaders have higher academic education in Finland than in many other countries. But that alone is not the way to whole-system change. What is significant in the Finnish approach is that it has focused on improving the professional knowledge and skills of teachers and leaders as a collective group, not only as individuals, which is the common practice in many current reform programs elsewhere. Finnish teachers learn to work together with other teachers. Finnish education system development has systematically focused on improving schools as social organizations. This includes leadership development that is, according to external reviewers, aimed at enhancing shared and distributed models of leadership. In brief, Finnish educational change is driven by building social capital within the system in concert with individual professional growth.
Third, I think the Finnish example – together with lessons from Canada, Singapore, Japan and Korea – of successful transformation of an education system shows other countries what could be the wrong drivers in educational change that Michael Fullan has recently written about. In my book Finnish Lessons: what can the world learn from educational change in Finland? I talk about the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) that has been much less successful than what Finland and the other successful reformers mentioned above have been able to accomplish with almost the opposite solutions. The best-performing educational systems all have built their change strategies on systemic approaches that rely on collective professional and institutional (or social capital) development, enhanced conditions for teaching and learning for all, and more equal educational opportunities within their education systems. Countries that have been infected by GERM drive their education reforms by piecemeal changes, stronger accountability for teachers, faith in individual capacity building, and the power of technology over humans as keys to turning around unsatisfactory school systems. Michael Fullan has argued that “there is no way that … nationwide goals will be met with the strategies being used” in the ongoing education reform in the U.S or Australia. “Finnish Lessons” suggests that these are not the right drivers for whole-system reforms. They have never been used in Finland or in any other successful education system as the main strategy of change.
We should not ask whether Finnish educational model would work in the United States or anywhere else. The question should be: What can we learn from the Finnish experience as high performer and successful reformer? The main lesson from Finland is that there is another way to transform current education systems than that based on standardization, testing, accountability and competition. Finland also shows that we don’t need to rely on corporate school reform models to achieve our goals. Finnish lesson is that good policies and overall well-being of people, including poverty reduction, are the corner stones of sustainable educational success.