What is really going on in Finland’s school reform?

Finland has been in the spotlight of the education world since it appeared, against all odds, on the top of the rankings of an international test known as PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, in the early 2000s. Tens of thousands visitors have traveled to the country to see how to improve their own schools. Hundreds of articles have been written to explain why Finnish education is so marvelous — or sometimes that it isn’t. Millions of tweets have been shared and read, often leading to debates about the real nature of Finland’s schools and about teaching and learning there.

We have learned a lot about why some education systems — such as Alberta, Ontario, Japan and Finland — perform better year after year than others in terms of quality and equity of student outcomes. We also understand now better why some other education systems — for example, England, Australia, the United States and Sweden — have not been able to improve their school systems regardless of politicians’ promises, large-scale reforms and truckloads of money spent on haphazard efforts to change schools during the past two decades.

Among these important lessons are:

  • Education systems and schools shouldn’t be managed like business corporations where tough competition, measurement-based accountability and performance-determined pay are common principles. Instead, successful education systems rely on collaboration, trust, and collegial responsibility in and between schools.
  • The teaching profession shouldn’t be perceived as a technical, temporary craft that anyone with a little guidance can do. Successful education systems rely on continuous professionalization of teaching and school leadership that requires advanced academic education, solid scientific and practical knowledge, and continuous on-the-job training.
  • The quality of education shouldn’t be judged by the level of literacy and numeracy test scores alone. Successful education systems are designed to emphasize whole-child development, equity of education outcomes, well being, and arts, music, drama and physical education as important elements of curriculum.

Besides these useful lessons about how and why education systems work as they do, there are misunderstandings, incorrect interpretations, myths and even deliberate lies about how to best improve education systems. Because Finland has been such a popular target of searching for the key to the betterment of education, there are also many stories about Finnish schools that are not true.

Part of the reason reporting and research often fail to paint bigger and more accurate picture of the actual situation is that most of the documents and resources that describe and define the Finnish education system are only available in Finnish and Swedish. Most foreign education observers and commentators are therefore unable to follow the conversations and debates taking place in the country.

For example, only very few of those who actively comment on education in Finland have ever read Finnish education law, the national core curriculum or any of thousands of curricula designed by municipalities and schools that explain and describe what schools ought to do and why.

The other reason many efforts to report about Finnish education remain incomplete — and sometimes incorrect — is that education is seen as an isolated island disconnected from other sectors and public policies. It is wrong to believe that what children learn or don’t learn in school could be explained by looking at only schools and what they do alone.

Most efforts to explain why Finland’s schools are better than others or why they do worse today than before fail to see these interdependencies in Finnish society that are essential in understanding education as an ecosystem.

Here are some of those common myths about Finnish schools.

First, in recent years there have been claims that the Finnish secret to educational greatness is that children don’t have homework.

Another commonly held belief is that Finnish authorities have decided to scrap subjects from school curriculum and replace them by interdisciplinary projects or themes.

And a more recent notion is that all schools in Finland are required to follow a national curriculum and implement the same teaching method called “phenomenon-based learning” (that is elsewhere known as “project-based learning”).

All of these are false.

In 2014, Finnish state authorities revised the national core curriculum (NCC) for basic education. The core curriculum provides a common direction and basis for renewing school education and instruction. Only a very few international commentators of Finnish school reform have read this central document. Unfortunately, not many parents in Finland are familiar with it, either. Still, many people seem to have strong opinions about the direction Finnish schools are moving — the wrong way, they say, without really understanding the roles and responsibilities of schools and teachers in their communities.

Before making any judgments about what is great or wrong in Finland, it is important to understand the fundamentals of Finnish school system. Here are some basics.

First, education providers, most districts in 311 municipalities, draw up local curricula and annual work plans on the basis of the NCC. Schools though actually take the lead in curriculum planning under the supervision of municipal authorities.

Second, the NCC is a fairly loose regulatory document in terms of what schools should teach, how they arrange their work and the desired outcomes. Schools have, therefore, a lot of flexibility and autonomy in curriculum design, and there may be significant variation in school curricula from one place to another.

Finally, because of this decentralized nature of authority in Finnish education system, schools in Finland can have different profiles and practical arrangements making the curriculum model unique in the world. It is incorrect to make any general conclusions based on what one or two schools do.

Current school reform in Finland aims at those same overall goals that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — which gives the PISA exams every three years to 15-year-olds in multiple countries — as well as governments and many students say are essential for them: to develop safe and collaborative school culture and to promote holistic approaches in teaching and learning. The NCC states that the specific aim at the school level is that children would:

  • understand the relationship and interdependencies between different learning contents;
  • be able to combine the knowledge and skills learned in different disciplines to form meaningful wholes; and
  • be able to apply knowledge and use it in collaborative learning settings.

All schools in Finland are required to revise their curricula according to this new framework. Some schools have taken only small steps from where they were before, while some others went on with much bolder plans. One of those is the Pontus School in Lappeenranta, a city in the eastern part of Finland.

The Pontus School is a new primary school and kindergarten for some 550 children from ages 1 to 12. It was built three years ago to support the pedagogy and spirit of the 2014 NCC. The Pontus School was in international news recently when the Finnish Broadcasting Company reported that parents have filed complaints over the “failure” of the new school.

But according to Lappeenranta education authorities, there have been only two complaints by parents, both being handled by Regional Authorities. That’s all. It is not enough to call that a failure.

What we can learn from Finland, again, is that it is important to make sure parents, children and media better understand the nature of school reforms underway.

“Some parents are not familiar with what schools are doing,” said Anu Liljestrom, superintendent of the education department in Lappeenranta. “We still have a lot of work to do to explain what, how and why teaching methods are different nowadays,” she said to a local newspaper. The Pontus School is a new school, and it decided to use the opportunity provided by new design to change pedagogy and learning.

Ultimately, it is wrong to think that reading, writing and arithmetic will disappear in Finnish classrooms.

For most of the school year, teaching in Finnish schools will continue to be based on subject-based curricula, including at the Pontus School.

What is new is that now all schools are required to design at least one week-long project for all students that is interdisciplinary and based on students’ interests. Some schools do that better more often than others, and some succeed sooner than others.

Yes, there are challenges in implementing the new ideas. We have seen many schools succeed at creating new opportunities for students to learn knowledge and skills they need in their lives.

It is too early to tell whether Finland’s current direction in education meets all expectations. What we know is that schools in Finland should take even bolder steps to meet the needs of the future as described in national goals and international strategies. Collaboration among schools, trust in teachers and visionary leadership are those building blocks that will make all that possible.

Pasi Sahlberg and Peter Johnson

Originally published in Washington Post on 30 August 2019

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