What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland Now? Pasi Sahlberg on Finnish Lessons 3.0

In this conversation, Pasi Sahlberg discusses his latest work and the motivation behind his new book  Finnish Lessons 3.0 What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? This is Sahlberg’s third look at the Finnish educational system, diving deeper into the changes and challenges since the publication of the first edition of Finnish Lessons in 2011.

Why this book, why now? 

Pasi Sahlberg: It is about ten years since the first edition of Finnish Lessons was published. At that time the world was very different, OECD’s PISA had rearranged the global image of education, and international transfer of educational ideas was blossoming. There was relatively little literature about education in Finland at the same time when the demand for deeper and more evidence-based stories was huge. When the book was published in 2011 only a few believed it would live beyond its first edition. Everyone, including me, was surprised to learn that Finnish Lessons soon became a best-seller that was translated to nearly 30 languages.

We decided to update the story about Finland’s schools when more data became available, especially from OECD’s PISA 2012 that showed Finland’s earlier high performance had started to decline. The Economic downturn caused by the 2008 banking crisis had forced Finland to cut spending on education and Finnish schools were experimenting with new pedagogical innovations. The second edition was published in 2015, and I thought that this updated edition would be good enough forever.

Unfortunately, Finnish education continued to struggle in both what students learned in school and how the school system was able to serve children with widening range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. PISA 2015 and 2018 raised more questions in international forums and also in local debates about the real state of Finnish education. My publisher and I had a conversation about having yet another edition of Finnish Lessons that would take a more detailed stock of the state of education in Finland. It was a good decision – in the middle of the writing process the global coronavirus crisis hit the world and offered an additional question to be answered: How did Finnish schools cope with remote learning and disruption that caused so much confusion and troubles elsewhere?

What did you learn in working on 3.0 that you didn’t know before?

When the going gets tough, you need well-prepared educators whom you can trust in finding the best way forward.

Researching the unknown and writing about it is always a learning experience. Since Finnish Lessons 2.0 was published I have resided in the U.S., Finland and Australia and that gave me a unique opportunity to take a closer look at Finnish education from outside and inside. Conversations with educators and colleagues in these three locations over the years have been particularly helpful in understanding the power and the challenges of Finnish schools. For example, I learned to appreciate the flexibility and creativity that are embedded in the Finnish way of education. This became particularly evident in early 2020 when all education systems unexpectedly went into remote learning mode when most school buildings were closed for several weeks due to the global coronavirus pandemic. I have always spoken to foreign visitors about these system characteristics in Finland but it was that tiny ugly virus that made that concretely visible. When the going gets tough, you need well-prepared educators whom you can trust in finding the best way forward. This is exactly what flexible management, lack of rigid external standards, and collaborative problem solving were able to do in Finland where students and teachers were able to navigate through the hard times with less damage than most others. I have included these stories in my new book.

What’s happened in Finland since you wrote the book? 

This I explain in detail in this third edition. Many things have changed. On one hand, there are some interesting new developments, such as the new curricula for all levels of school education that aims at making teaching and learning more engaging and interesting for both teachers and students. On the other hand, Finland has lost some of its most important educational assets it had earlier compared to other countries: Equity and quality of its educational outcomes. There are significantly more low-performing students, family background explain more of students success in school than before, and all young people spend much more time staring at digital screens that is time away from reading, playing and sleeping.

What’s next — what are you working on now?

I have a busy year ahead here in Sydney, Australia. I am leading a couple of large research projects at the university and working with half a dozen doctoral students. Besides that, there are two new book projects in the pipeline. I try to work a bit less and spend more time with my boys and family.

What’s your hope for the future and what do you hope the book will contribute to it? 

The main thread of Finnish Lessons is collectivism, collegiality, and collaboration at various levels of society.

My hope is in young people and their passion to change the course we live right now. Look at the issues like climate change, fight against racism and gender equality, for example. These global movements are strongly led by young people. This is really positive regarding what the future looks like. I hope that Finnish Lessons will continue to speak for better agency for teachers thereby stronger voice for students regarding their education and life. The main thread of Finnish Lessons is collectivism, collegiality, and collaboration at various levels of society. I hope that Finnish Lessons helps more people to understand that education is fundamentally a common good a bedrock of democracy that has been challenged recently in number of countries around the world.

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