For years following the release of the 2001 and subsequent PISA results, edutourists visited Finland hoping to uncover their secrets. In the most recent survey, Finland’s position had slipped from 2nd to 5th in reading, from 6th to 12th in mathematics and from 3rd to 5th in science. I recently talked with Pasi Sahlberg to better understand what could have contributed to this fall in the rankings. As former Director General of CIMO (Center for International Mobility and Cooperation) at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland he is in a good place to know. Pasi recently joined Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education as a visiting professor, teaching a course on international lessons from successful education systems, and is working on the sequel to his popular book, Finnish Lessons.
Marc Tucker: How has Finland reacted to the news of the latest PISA results?
Pasi Sahlberg: The results did not surprise the Finns, because our own data monitoring student achievement and a recent study by the University of Helsinki published a month before the PISA results came out anticipated the PISA results. Their study compared skills in 82 randomly selected schools in Finland between 2001 and 2012 and the results showed the decline in mathematics and reading performance that was then confirmed by PISA.
MT: What did the Finns think caused this?
PS: Finland had done very little to improve students’ mathematics performance since the first PISA results had come in 12 years ago. Many of us had pointed out that other countries with high PISA scores had continued to improve their systems, but Finland did not do that. The situation in education in Finland appears to be similar to the situation at Nokia, Finland’s international champion in the telecommunications industry. When Apple came out with the iPhone, Nokia had the dominant position in the cell phone industry and, blinded by its success, failed to recognize the challenge. Nokia had invented the touch screen, but failed to take the next step, which Apple did, leapfrogging Nokia. This is similar to the situation in education. The huge flow of foreigners from all over the world to visit the remarkably successful Finnish schools made the authorities fearful of changing anything. The drive of the 1990s activists in education has been extinguished. There is another factor that should be considered. Non-Finnish speaking immigrants are coming to Finland in larger numbers than ever before. This time they have a big enough number in the PISA sample to see how they performed compared to their peers.
MT: I gather that Finland has a new education minister. How did she react to Finland’s scores on the latest PISA survey?
PS: Our new Minister of Education promised to conduct a national campaign to examine the results and make recommendations that could lead to a renewal of the whole compulsory education system. She does not want to look at just math and science. In fact, no one has responded to the data by saying Finland needs to focus just on math and reading, or on any other silver bullet. Instead, the discussion is about how Finland can improve the system as a whole and increase enjoyment in learning. It is not just about how to improve our performance on PISA.
MT: I recall that, before 2000, when Finland participated in the first PISA survey, there was a lot of pressure from some people in Finland for the use of market-oriented reforms, test-based accountability systems and so on. What happened to those agendas? Is there renewed pressure to adopt reform measures of that sort now?
PS: Prior to the release of the first PISA reports in 2001, many in the traditional academic community and in the business community pressed hard for measures designed to enable students to begin focusing on STEM skills as early as middle school, scheduling more examinations earlier in a student’s career in school and introducing choice and competition among schools. That all came to a sudden end when the first PISA results came out. We had managed to be highly successful at accomplishing the goals of these reformers without adopting their proposed reforms. Many in Finland believe that PISA saved Finland from reforms that would not have been good, either for teachers or the country. But these events, while staving off unhelpful reforms, created another problem, as I said earlier in this interview: All change in Finland, both good and bad, came to an end, and we lost our capacity to renew and adapt to a changing environment.
MT: One path to change would be to look at the strategies used by the countries that lead the global league tables and pick a set that seems appropriate for Finland. Does that appeal to you?
PS: At one level there is some appeal to this approach. In the US, there are advanced schools that are doing things that Finnish schools should be doing. Finnish high school students who spend a year in some U.S. high schools say that these schools are better than their opposite numbers in Finland at helping students communicate, present ideas and debate meaningful issues. And there are pockets of excellent practice and innovation in some American schools in the area of integrating technology and new learning devices into the schools. Shanghai has built a system for low-performing schools to get help from others that Finland can learn from. The lesson study idea and way it is used in Japan and Singapore is very attractive. There is not one country’s system that the Finns should simply imitate. Finns need to realize that they have a lot to learn from all of their international partners in both the East and the West, but at the same time, further advance equity-oriented policies and reforms.
MT: What do you think the next generation of change in Finland should look like?
PS: Finland should not be gauging its success only by measuring student achievement in the academic subjects. Schools need to help many more people find out what their strengths are, what they are curious and passionate about. The school system should be designed to inspire students and to enable them to lead happy, fulfilled lives both at work and outside of the workplace. We may have to invent a way of thinking about curriculum that is not so focused on the traditional academic subjects and time allocation. That is, I think, a worthy goal for the next stage of Finnish education reform.
Published in Education Week on 14 February 2014