Today marked my first day working with the LUMA Centre research group at the University of Helsinki. I thought that before I begin writing more specifically about my research here, I would provide a little bit more context on the Finnish education system, for those who are interested in digging a little deeper into some of the existing research. I have compiled a short, annotated list of key researchers and readings in the field of Finnish education reform that includes many of the same readings that inspired me to apply to study Finnish education in the first place. There is a tremendous amount of research that has been done on the Finnish education system, so this will only be a curated list of what I see as some of the most helpful readings to get started:
(1) For a very basic, though thorough, introductory glimpse at both the structure and values/policy goals driving the Finnish education system, the Finnish National Agency for Education and Ministry for Education and Cultures’ informational booklet, “Finnish Education in a Nutshell,” is a good resource. Something interesting I learned from this piece was that the use of school inspections in Finland was abolished in the early 1990s. While there are yearly national evaluations on learning outcomes (even in subjects like arts and crafts!), there seems to be a much stronger focus on self-evaluation within schools than there is within the States–a large difference from the culture of test-based accountability systems that I grew up observing within the US.
(2) There have been a considerable number of op-eds published by American news outlets about the phenomenon of Finnish education reform, such that it is often difficult to escape them on social media. Often, these pieces are where many people, including myself, first learn about the Finnish model of reform. Many of these op-eds are written by American educators who spend some time observing or working within Finnish schools, so they are able to provide a comparative glimpse into some of the differences between the US and Finnish education models that many might find interesting. A simple Google search of “Finnish education system” will elicit many of these articles, but here are just a few of them that I came across during my initial searches:
- Ashley Lamb-Sinclair’s piece in The Atlantic, “What is High School Were More Like Kindergarten”
- Fulbright Finland alum, Williams Doyle’s pieces in The Washington Post, “I have seen the school of tomorrow. It is here today, in Finland”, and the Los Angeles Times, “Why Finland has the best schools”
- Timothy D. Walker’s piece in The Atlantic, “The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland”
- Nicole Stellon O’Donnell’s more critical piece in the Huffington Post, “What We Can’t Learn from Finland’s Success: Apples, Oranges, and Denial”
(3) When it comes to Finnish-based education specialists, Pasi Sahlberg has arguably become the one to achieve the most international acclaim. He has served as a school teacher, teacher educator, researcher, and policy advisor domestically in Finland–affording him a well-rounded perspective on the Finnish model of education.
“The irony of Finnish educational success is that it derives heavily from classroom innovation and school improvement research in the United States.”
— Pasi Sahlberg
Having served as a Visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Arizona State University, he has a particularly pronounced voice within the American academic context. His most famous book, Finnish Lessons 2.0, does not blindly suggest that the US follow Finland’s path, but instead discusses how their systematic change was possible outside of the framework of American educational values (such as competition, school choice, etc.)
(4) As far as US-based academics who have done work on the Finnish education system, Linda Darling-Hammond is one of the leading scholars. Currently working as the Charles E. Docommun Professor of Education at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and President of the Learning Policy Institute, she also served as Barack Obama’s education advisor during his presidential campaign.
“The fact that we have more race, ethnicity and economic heterogeneity, and we have this huge problem of poverty, should not mean we don’t want qualified teachers — [Finland’s] strategies become even more important […] Thirty years ago, Finland’s education system was a mess. It was quite mediocre, very inequitable. It had a lot of features our system has: very top-down testing, extensive tracking, highly variable teachers, and they managed to reboot the whole system.”
— Linda Darling-Hammond
Her research focuses, specifically, on how the Finnish model was successfully able to bridge major inequality within and across Finnish schools. In particular, she credits much of their success to their ability to create “a productive teaching and learning system by expanding access while investing purposefully in ambitious educational goals using strategic approaches to build teaching capacity.” In other words, she argues that much of the power of Finnish education policy change lies in the ways they have grown to value teaching.
For more of her insights on the Finnish model, check out this interview she did with Dan Rather below, and/or any of her many articles online.
(5) For a slightly longer and less strictly academic read, Anu Partanen’s book, The Nordic Theory of Everything, chronicles the similarities and differences she identified between life in Finland and the US, after she moved to the US from Finland as an adult. She focuses in on four primary relationships–parent and child, men and women, employees and employers, and government and citizens–in order to provide a more holistic account of the political/social/cultural orders of the US and Finland. She then uses that framework to better situate policy questions regarding education, parental leave, taxes, etc. I found this book to provide a really helpful glimpse into some of the larger sociopolitical differences between the US and Finland that are necessary to ground any discussions of comparative education policy–i.e. there are broader policy values to consider behind Finland’s success in the context of education that cannot be ignored when suggesting the US simply adopt those same practices.