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Lessons from Finland

Anyone impassioned about education and needed reforms today, especially in the public school system, will inevitably be drawn to the small country of Finland, which has become the model for a highly successful educational system. Just consider and marvel at these prevailing circumstances in the country: the teaching profession is the most competitive, so that only the best and the brightest become teachers; Finnish teachers are well paid but are driven by a high sense of motivation, not by bonus incentives or the threat of dismissal; the students have short school hours and little homework, yet have consistently topped international assessment tests.

Having started to read “Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?” by Pasi Sahlberg (Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2015), I have become more and more intrigued about its success story, as I look for lessons to be had for the Philippine experience.

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The truth is, Finland has not always been recognized for high quality education, until it went its way to serious and meaningful reform—a process that took decades.

The publication of this book came at the appropriate time, just when the education “reform” movement was growing stronger in the United States and other developed countries. There was President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” program, which carried the basic tenets of the reform paradigm: testing, accountability and choice. The importance of testing was held supreme so that teachers would be given a “bonus or fired based on the test scores.” This was further strengthened with the 2010 Newsweek cover story declaring that “bad” teachers had to be fired. Then the film “Waiting for Superman” came, which had the message that privately owned charter schools were the answer.

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It was about this time when “Finnish Lessons” was first published, adding a different voice to the ongoing debates.  Finland had the highest test scores in international student assessments and did not have any of the reforms the United States was implementing. It had a strong public school system, had no charter schools, had very high standards for entry into teaching and eschewed a Teach for Finland model which would allow inexperienced college graduates to teach. A mandatory five-year college preparation program was in place. Its students are not subjected to standardized tests until the end of high school.

“The schools are a standardized testing-free zone,” writes Sahlberg—so much so that when Finland emerged at the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment  in 2001, some Finns commented that they must have done something very wrong, because the test measured only literacy, mathematics and science.

The Finnish alternative was a refreshing one even for American educators. Sahlberg refers to the reform movement of the United States, Britain and many other countries as GERM: the Global Educational Reform Movement. It has indeed infected many countries, and he offers his book as a disinfectant.

Sahlberg is highly regarded as a leading voice on Finland’s educational reform strategy, having studied and taught in the Finnish school system, oversaw professional development strategy for the Ministry of Education, worked for the World Bank, and wrote the definitive country report for it.

As he is sought to speak worldwide, he is specific about his intent. He does not try to convince that Finland has the best educational system in the world. Second, he does not claim that using his country’s model would banish all educational challenges; “school reforms are poor travelers,” as he puts it. Thirdly, it must be remembered that much of the innovation in Finnish classrooms was inspired by reforms and policies from other countries.

True that we have many lessons to learn from other systems. What I find encouraging in Sahlberg’s book is his recurring note that no matter how dismal a country’s system may seem, there is hope and room for reform. In his 2014 preface, he shares the Finnish recipe for good education: “Always ask yourself if the policy or reform you plan to initiate is going to be good for children or teachers. If you hesitate with your answer, don’t do it.”

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected] gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: column, education, Finland, opinion, schooling, students, Teachers
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