Further Lessons with Pasi Sahlberg

                  Since its release in 2011, Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons (a version 2.0 was released in 2015) has galvanized researchers and practitioners working in fields of education–some coverage of this interest and reflections on Finland’s education system can be found in IEN’s archives over the past few years. Sahlberg’s book explores the evolution of Finland’s educational system into a world-class system. Many saw Finland’s story as offering a direct rebuke to increasing the standardization and increased testing occurring in the U.S. at that time. As Sahlberg traveled and spoke widely on the book, he began to notice ways in which these “lessons” were taken up or ignored. Building on these new “lessons,” Sahlberg recently came to Teachers College, Columbia University to discuss his new book, FinnishED Leadership, with Sam Abrams, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College. Jordan Corson, a Managing Editor of IEN, had a chance to attend this discussion and share some key takeaways with us here. Teachers College has also recorded a video of the event, which can be accessed here.

Sahlberg and Abrams began their conversation by exploring some of the surprising reactions to Finnish Lessons. Sahlberg was shocked by people who seemed to intensely seek reasons to discount the success of Finland’s education system. For example, some suggested that Finland’s success is easy to achieve given its small population. Sahlberg retorts that little changes when shifting the unit of analysis to something like the state level in the U.S. Additionally, Sahlberg found that many people began cherry picking ideas from Finnish Lessons and developing myths about the Finnish education system, something on which he elaborated later in the talk. Other people, greatly inspired by the book, wanted to know how to simply copy this system. Given that Finland’s success is rooted in a specific context, Sahlberg has tried to warn, “don’t try this at home.” At the same time, he does see potential in creating educational change inspired by the Finnish system. It was this type of response that spurred Sahlberg’s thinking for his new book.

FinnishED Leadership begins with what Sahlberg calls an “accidental lunch”—an anecdote about an encounter with former New York governor George Pataki before the two spoke at a conference. As Sahlberg describes it, he and the governor met at a lunch and discussed solutions to schooling problems in the United States. While the governor initially reiterated common refrains about the need to kick out bad teachers and hire good teachers or create more competition through school choice, he also appeared taken with some of Sahlberg’s insights into how Finland achieved its success and reputation. As they rode to the conference, Sahlberg wondered what it would mean if someone with the influence of Pataki suddenly took up and promoted these ideas. He pondered what it would mean if Pataki walked into the conference and said, “I have another speech written, but I’m not going to read that…”. While Pataki ultimately stuck to common thinking about education reform (Abrams reminded the audience that Sahlberg intentionally calls this movement a Global Education Reform Movement), this experience inspired Sahlberg to imagine other leaders taking up Finnish lessons. He wondered what the world could learn from educational changes in Finland.

After this anecdote, Sahlberg spoke to the main points in his book. First, he argued for more of a break in the school day. Breaks mean recess and time off for the kids, but they also mean a break for the teacher. Altering the rhythm of work, he argues, including providing specific spaces like break rooms, creates a much better work environment. Both students and teachers have more time to mess around and hang out, things that allow for rest but can also lead to productive learning. Second, Sahlberg argued for what he calls “leading with small data rather than big data.” What happens inside the classroom is something complex. It is often something for which there is no algorithm. Additionally, if attention is paid to the small data of everyday classroom life, then teachers gain more agency in decision making and a school’s direction. Sahlberg also cautioned that big data can lead to spurious correlations. He provided multiple examples, but perhaps the most intriguing is that increased ice cream consumption correlates to higher PISA results.

Third, Sahlberg pointed out that Finland’s success is rooted in notions of equity. He decries the notion that school must choose between excellence or equity, arguing that education systems can have both. He suggests that a system with high learning outcomes can and should also be an equitable system (and equity means enfranchising teachers, looking at whole learners, and attending to equity in areas such as socioeconomic status). Furthermore, Sahlberg contends that curricular equity relies on schools being able to make their own choices. Fourth, and concluding by returning to the earlier conversation about responses to his first book, Sahlberg talked about issues of “urban legends about Finnish schools.” For instance, he found that many people believed that Finnish students do not have homework. “Of course,” he told the audience, “Finns have homework. It’s just different. And it looks different.” Such myths relate to the broader idea of cherry picking ideas and applying them in isolation. Sahlberg argued that places that want to achieve Finland’s success focus specifically on outcomes but do not look at the many potential paths toward getting there. Speaking specifically about the U.S., he pointed out while the U. S. clamors for the secret to Finland’s success, Finnish schools borrow new research and practice from places like Canada and the U.S.  For instance, Finnish schools integrate Howard Gardner’s notion of multiple intelligences into everyday classroom life. Meanwhile, the U.S. has not deeply explored or incorporated such ideas, or even made steps to move beyond isolated ideas.

Sahlberg highlights these elements of the Finnish educational system, but also acknowledges the difficulties in their broad application. During the Q&A, Diane Ravitch interjected with a question of where we might find state level politicians who listen to these four suggestions. Another audience member asked about the difficulty of leading with small data in the face of international agencies (e.g. Sahlberg’s former employer, the World Bank) that increasingly focus on big data. Sahlberg noted these difficulties but affirmed the possibility of using work like his new book to influence such policymakers. Abrams also pointed to a number of examples of success: Dallas schools have begun to focus more on recess and play time, Orange County schools have emphasized science education, and the state of West Virginia has shifted its approach to standardized testing.

Ultimately, Sahlberg’s goals here are help lessons from Finland’s success translate across contexts. To do so in the U.S. and elsewhere will require complex coordination. The ideas may be deceptively simple; Sahlberg reminds us that the true difficulty is in their implementation.

-Jordan Corson

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