Tag Archives: Finland

The Latest Recommendations for Education Reform in Finland

Even in Finland, consistently a top performer on international tests, declines in recent national and international assessments have spawned tasks forces and calls for improvement. As Pasi Sahlberg tweeted last week, recently released reports in Finland have focused on creating a “Continuum of Teacher Development,” establishing “Tomorrow’s Comprehensive School,” and (most recently) exploring the future of higher education. While teacher preparation is often highlighted as a strength of the Finnish system, improving support for teachers figures prominently in many of the proposed recommendations. In fact, the report on creating a “Continuum of Teacher Development” is described as calling for an “overhaul” of teacher training. That report includes recommendations for Universities and teacher education colleges to develop an approach to mentoring and “induction” into the teaching profession that includes training and supporting mentors, developing a national network of mentors, and ensuring that graduating students have a personal development plan and support in the transition to “working life.”

“Tomorrow’s Comprehensive School” (with an accompanying brochure in English) was produced by a task force that included researchers, teacher educators, school principals and teachers. As Jari Lavonen, a task force member and Professor and Head of the Department Teacher Education at the University of Helsinki explained, their main charge from the Minister of Education was to assess the current situation, examine the reasons for the drop in learning outcomes in the PISA survey and other national assessments, and “find ways to make students feel more motivated and enjoy school.” The task force identified challenges to improvement at the national, municipal, and classroom level, as well in teacher preparation. In response to these challenges, the report highlights several key “themes” deemed central to improving learning attitudes and outcomes:

  • The structures and practices of basic education must strive to eliminate links between a pupil’s learning outcomes and his or her social background, living area or gender.
  • Allocation of resources adequate to guarantee a high standard of teaching in basic education must be ensured in the future.
  • Development of new pedagogical solutions that will support both communal and individual learning.
  • Developing the school as an ethical and a learning community where pupils have a voice and a choice, and also responsibility for their own learning.
  • Further development of research-based teacher education in cooperation with universities and municipalities to form a continuum of initial education and professional development of teachers
  • Support for teachers’ lifelong professional development.
  • Develop new models for teachers’ work and the use of their working time.
  • Enhancing principal’s preparation and establishing personal plans to support their professional development.

One news item on the task force report focused particularly on proposals to increase extra-curricular activities and to make changes in the school schedule, quoting Aulis Pitkälä, Director General of the Finnish National Board of Education, as saying, “We more or less unanimously came to the conclusion that the school day should begin no earlier than nine in the morning.” (Notably, calls for reform in the United States often involve demands to increase class time, already substantially more than is required in Finland, though not as much as is often reported, as Sam Abrams sorted out in a recent post on teaching time in the U.S.)

Auli Toom, University lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Helsinki, highlighted that creating a more systemic approach to “in-service” support for teachers and connecting pre-service and in-service teacher education have been under discussion for over ten years, but she hoped that this report might finally lead to some changes. She was also encouraged by a task force recommendation to establish a national, longitudinal programme of research that would investigate the characteristics of the Finnish educational system and its impact on student learning, but it is not clear if that recommendation will be implemented.

Pasi Sahlberg, author with Andy Hargreaves of a new post about “saving” PISA, commented that the report was particularly welcome because it provides a much-needed look at Finland’s education system and its current challenges. “It takes a comprehensive look at not only cognitive aspects of education but also how to make teaching and learning more meaningful,” he added. “However, it remains silent about what many have said to be the most important shortcoming in Finland: What kind of comprehensive school do we need in 2030?” Without a clear vision Sahlberg worries that some will see the report as an effort to bring PISA results in Finland back to the top of the charts. “Making Finland the top PISA performer is the wrong vision.”

Thomas Hatch



Educational change in Finland?

Now that I’m back after three weeks in Finland sponsored by the Fulbright Specialist Program, the Fulbright Center in Finland, and the University of Helsinki, a few other aspects of the Finnish educational system stand out.

Social connections, common experiences, and common resources may support coherence amongst “autonomous” individuals

On the whole, our visit highlighted some of the ways in which the strengths of the Finnish education system go far beyond a focus on “human capital” and include attention to “technical capital” and “social capital” as well. Thus, Finnish teachers benefit from what are generally considered to be strong textbooks, instructional materials and assessments that are linked to the national core-curriculum and from social connections that support sharing of information, coordination of activities, and the development of shared understanding across different parts of the education system.

While teachers have considerable autonomy at the classroom and school level, these social connections and several mechanisms that support the coordination of teachers’ activities with others may be particularly valuable. For example, as Helena Thuneberg and colleagues explain, special education is seen as a service for all students and as a collective responsibility of the school. As a consequence, classroom teachers often work with special education teachers in their own classrooms, and each classroom teacher periodically meets with a school welfare teams help to coordinate the work of special education throughout each school (Tim Walker, currently teaching in a Finnish school has described the sense of “shared responsibility” he experienced as part of these meetings). Working groups that are part of the curriculum renewal process also bring teachers together across regions and the country as a whole in a joint enterprise on a periodic basis. In addition, these kinds of working groups of teachers regularly include teacher educators, researchers, school leaders, policymakers, and, in some cases, text book publishers who join together in spirit of trust and collaboration. Notably, many of the members of these other groups have themselves spent time teaching (and, relatedly, going through and graduating from a teacher education program).   The result may be a system with more extensive informal social connections amongst well-prepared educators who share common experiences and rely on a small set of relatively good resources to reach common goals.

The Finnish system has changed (in some ways) over time

The “autonomy” of the current Finnish system only emerged after a highly centralized effort to create the 1-9th grade comprehensive school in the 1970’s. That effort included a required curriculum, massive re-training of teachers, inspection of schools to make sure the curriculum was being followed, and even inspection of textbooks to make sure they were aligned with the curriculum. Since that time, Finland has pursued a number of important reforms, including the development of the core curriculum, the abolition of inspections, and the development of a more inclusive approach to special education. At the same time, Finnish pedagogy is often described as fairly conservative and traditional, and there are concerns about recent declines on international (as well as on recent local and national) assessments. Sorting out which aspects of the system might have contributed to high international test scores and which might be contributing to a recent decline is no simple matter. For example, even the social connections and coherence of the system may reinforce the traditional pedagogy that could make it difficult to respond to changing populations, to take advantage of new technologies, or to support more active student engagement.

Even a system that “works” may need a new approach to change

One of my last meetings in Helsinki was with our hosts Leena Krokfors and Auli Toom and the members of the OmniSchool Project, a group that was asked by the Finnish Ministry of Education to help open schools up to more active learning opportunities for students inside the classroom, outside in the community, and online as well. In many ways, they are trying to reach the same goals that many educational reformers in the US are trying to reach, but the circumstances and conditions in Finland are different. With a relatively successful, coherent system, why should a well-regarded group of autonomous professionals change their pedagogy? Our discussions outlined three different approaches to change that highlight in some ways both the challenges and opportunities for making system-wide improvements in teaching and learning in Finland:

The “within-school” approach

This approach to change (familiar to many in the US and around the world), takes the school as the unit of change and often engages small groups of teachers in developing and piloting new practices. Ideally, those teachers will share what they are doing and learning with others (either informally or formally through “turnkey” professional development), and, eventually, when enough individuals get involved, a tipping point will be reached, and the new practices will spread throughout the school. In Finland, however, the autonomy of teachers (in their teaching and in their choices of professional development), the lack of any school-wide mechanism for collective professional development in many schools, and the lack of obvious rewards for changing instructional practice suggest this may be a difficult task. Furthermore, even if such an approach succeeds in a particular school, the whole process has to be repeated to try to spread the practices beyond the walls of individual schools to the system as a whole. (For a related analysis of the problems with such an approach in a US context, see Richard Elmore’s “Getting to scale with new educational practice.”)

The across schools approach

This approach strives to connect teachers across schools and to make the development of professional networks (as has been championed by Ann Lieberman and many others) a key lever for change. Such an approach may be particularly appealing in Finland, as it builds on a history of networks in which schools and municipalities have participated. Furthermore, this approach could build on the traditions, experiences and practices of the working groups that come together as part of the curriculum renewal process. Thus, rather than trying to create a new mechanism for change at the school-level, an across schools approach can take advantage of this existing mechanism for bringing usually autonomous teachers together in a spirit of national service and collective responsibility. Such working groups, however, still need to figure out how to develop “new” pedagogical practices within existing classroom and school structures and a “grammar of schooling” that, as David Tyack and Larry Cuban have argued, reinforces traditional instruction.

The “beyond-the-schools” approach

A third approach might try to find more advantageous conditions for developing new kinds of learning arrangements by going beyond schools to build on learning opportunities in afterschool programs, museums, online spaces and elsewhere. In most countries, such an approach is limited either because it is so difficult for practices developed outside of schools to penetrate the regular classroom (because of the “grammar of schooling” etc.) or because outside of school time has already been consumed by tutoring, cramming, homework, studying, and other school-directed activities. In Finland, where children spend much less time in school than they do in places like the US (particularly at the primary school level as our children found out), there may be substantial opportunities to engage students in new kinds of learning activities that do not have to conform to traditional instructional models. One could imagine this approach as including a couple of hours of traditional instruction in the morning and then time for a series of afterschool clubs, activities, hobbies, sports, and projects in the afternoon. Thus, classroom practice in school does not necessarily have to change, though it might eventually as students and then teachers and perhaps even teacher educators have more and more opportunities to experience alternate modes of learning. Furthermore, strengthening learning opportunities for all students outside of schools might also help to deal with the ways in which out-of-school experiences contribute to the inequities that the whole Finnish system seeks to address. Challenges to this approach include difficulties coordinating an enterprise that’s distributed across communities and online spaces and concerns about consuming and “curricularizing” students’ free time. In Finland in particular, the value placed on providing children with ample time for play and recreation and for encouraging even relatively young children to take responsibility for their own activities might pose a particular obstacle. As a consequence, the success of this approach may depend on developing learning opportunities that children themselves can organize and direct.

Thomas Hatch


The Finnish Core Curriculum Renewal

While we’ve been in Finland these past two weeks, we’ve been learning about the “renewal” of the Finnish Core Curriculum. In a recent post for Diane Ravitch, Pasi Sahlberg gave a Finnish perspective on some of the similarities and differences between this core curriculum and that of the Common Core in the US. As U.S. educators who have been studying teacher education and school improvement efforts in a number of countries including Finland, we are finding several other aspects of the renewal process particularly interesting.

The “Core Curriculum” is not really a curriculum

As others have noted, the Finnish core curriculum for basic education (grades 1-9) is better understood as a kind of ‘framework’ that guides curriculum and instruction—rather than a strict and specific scope and sequence of topics and skills that must be taught. Less well known perhaps is the fact that the demands of the core curriculum go far beyond specifying the objectives in school subjects. In fact, the core curriculum requires (among other things) that the curriculum developed by municipalities and schools reflects the underlying values of Finnish basic education (“human rights, equality, democracy, natural diversity, preservation of environmental viability, and the endorsement of multiculturalism”); describes the main features of a school’s “working culture”; specifies criteria for grading and for final exams in ninth grade (the end of Finnish basic education); establishes objectives for pupil behavior; dictates that parents’ and guardians should be able to have an influence on local education objectives; and requires the drafting of the local curriculum in collaboration with those involved in municipal social and health services.

The Finnish core curriculum has evolved over time

While we were initially told that the core curriculum is revised or “renewed” every 10 years, we’ve found that there is no hard and fast rule about this (in contrast to Singapore, for example, where the curriculum for each subject is revisited on a regular schedule). However, periodic debates about education have initiated revisions in the curriculum in 1985, 1994, in 2004, and today. Each time the process and outcomes have been somewhat different, calibrated it seems to provide tighter control at some points and more flexibility in others (see Karl Weick and others on tight and loose coupling).

Diptic-2In the 1970’s for example, the entire nation was engaged in the development of the Finnish basic education system and a Finnish national curriculum specifying what was to be taught in each subject and at each level was created. (In fact, the accompanying picture of the original curriculum of the 1970’s only includes the first section, a thicker volume includes the curriculum for each subject). Almost immediately, however, discussions about the need for local flexibility began, and the first revision in 1985 created the first “core curriculum.” The core curriculum was somewhat thinner, providing guidelines, objectives, and content for school subjects, and granting municipalities primary responsibility for developing their own curricula. In the 1990’s, in an era of decentralization, the core curriculum became even thinner as guidelines were reduced further and power to draw up local curricula in many municipalities was delegated to schools. But by the early 2000’s (notably just before the first PISA results were released), there were concerns in Finland about a lack of consistency across schools and about a lack of support and specificity from some municipalities (particularly smaller municipalities that had very limited staff to work on the curriculum). Those concerns contributed to an expansion of the national guidelines in 2004 that specified some of the criteria that teachers and schools had to use to assess students’ performance. In the current renewal, some the initial discussions of changes have focused on the kind of teaching teachers can do to promote learning and on broadening the conception of good teaching beyond ‘traditional’ desk learning to include a variety of active, constructivist and research-based strategies; but whether the core curriculum will be thinner or thicker, “tighter” or “looser,” remains to be seen.

The process for developing the core curriculum may be as important as the outcome

Although the process for developing the core curriculum has evolved over time, particularly in the last two renewal cycles there has been extensive involvement of key education stakeholders from the very beginning of the discussions. Thus, numerous “curriculum groups” have been at work developing the guidelines and objectives in each subject and aspect of the core curriculum. Teachers are at the center of these committees, though the committees also include school leaders, municipal administrators, teacher educators, and researchers among others (and many of those other representatives have themselves been teachers at some point in time). In addition, an advisory board overseeing the whole process includes a cross-section of representatives of teachers, school leaders, parents, students, textbook publishers, researchers, teacher educators, ethnic groups (for instance representatives of the Sami people), and municipalities.

In past revision cycles, there were opportunities available to give feedback to the draft curriculum before it was formally adopted. However, this particular revision has been the most “open” of all. Surveys have been sent to all the municipalities so that they can share their responses to initial drafts; municipalities and schools have been encouraged to share and discuss the initial proposals with parents and students; and initial drafts of the curriculum have been made available online so that anyone who wants to can provide feedback. That feedback has already come from numerous individuals as from more than 200 different organizations representing many aspects of Finnish society. Members of the committees are looking at that feedback as they make revisions. The feedback addresses the broad objectives as well as the specific language used. (For example, the use of the word “tolerance” in an early draft’s discussion of diversity and culture was changed because of feedback that it conveyed a limited sense of acceptance, rather than mutual respect and understanding.) Interestingly, those we talked to who have been involved in the process also report that there are widespread concerns about financing and the ability of schools and municipalities to adopt the new guidelines. In turn, these concerns are contributing to calls from some in the field for more detailed guidance from the national authorities. In the end, the curriculum groups will make the proposals for the new guidelines and the leaders of the National Board of Education will make the final decision.

The process builds shared understanding and collective responsibility

Of course, such an open process can be unwieldy, but the wide engagement of teachers, leaders, teacher educators, textbook publishers, researchers, parents, students and others in the process creates social connections that facilitate the sharing of information and knowledge about the changes long before those changes are actually made. In fact, the working committees and feedback process has been going on since about 2012, well before the new core curriculum is scheduled to be adopted this year and long before the required development of new local curriculum in 2016. That means that those who are involved in supporting the work of teachers and students—like teacher educators and textbook publishers—are already getting a sense of where the revisions are heading and what kinds of changes they will need to make so that the whole system is “ready” at the introduction of the new local curriculum.

More than a mere adjustment to ensure the system is “aligned”, however, the curriculum renewal process can also be seen as an extension of the crucial, collective, nation-building effort that Finland launched in the 1970’s to create the basic education system. Curriculum renewal in Finland provides an opportunity for those all across the country to re-commit themselves to a national enterprise and to develop the shared responsibility for carrying it out.

— Tom Hatch & Karen Hammerness


Assessment in Finland: Steering, Seeing, and Selection

In Finland, the notable lack of tests for accountability purposes receives considerable attention. In fact, when we talk to teachers, administrators, and policymakers here, the question “how do you know how well things are going in your …. (classroom, school, municipality…)?” elicits quizzical stares. It’s a question that doesn’t make much sense when the initial assumption is that things are going well. However, our discussions here over the last three weeks have highlighted a few other interesting aspects of the uses of assessment here.

Assessment for steering not accounting

The word “accountability” has been traced back to ancient “account-giving” and record-keeping practices, tracking how funds have been spent and ensuring those funds have been spent as intended. Correspondingly, in places like the US, tests have been used to hold teachers, school leaders, and schools “accountable” for their actions and to see if they have done what they are supposed to do. But rather than using assessments to look back to see what was done, in many ways, educators and system leaders in Finland use assessment to look forward and to see if people, classes and schools are headed in the right direction. Such an approach doesn’t require data on every single aspect of student, teacher, or school performance, but it does require paying attention to ensure that no one gets too far off course. It means a focus on looking for outliers and listening for signs of trouble, not checking on each individual or making sure everything is done a certain way or in a certain timeline. But such an approach also requires mechanisms (like the curriculum renewal process as we will argue in a later post) to support shared understanding of the goals and expected outcomes of the whole system and a wide range of supports to make sure that everyone can get where they are going. Of course, it also helps if the whole system seems to be moving in the right direction already.

Assessment by walking around

Given the focus on this kind of “steering” approach, questions about the data used to make decisions from an American seem odd. While we have only spoken to a small group of teachers and school leaders here, invariably, those we’ve met have explained that learning whether a class or a school is on the right path can be accomplished by regularly “walking around” (while our Finnish colleagues did not refer to it directly, a similar concept—management by wandering around—has been part of the literature in business for some time). That means getting around the classroom and the school; talking to students, teachers, staff, and parents; listening to needs for support; and being alert to any signs of trouble. Concerns that arise about particular classes, schools, programs, or practices (especially when they come from more than one source) can then trigger “a talk” with those involved and some further investigation. (Even at the national level, a policymaker we talked to said that they don’t need a lot of data to tell them that many Finnish teachers are not using the assessment criteria that are in the core curriculum because regular meetings with teachers make that clear all the time…)

Despite the benefits, however, such a personal approach leaves unspecified the basis for many important decisions. In fact, when we asked teachers how school leaders know what they are doing or how well they are doing, many weren’t sure. Similarly, school leaders often couldn’t tell us how their supervisors (municipal administrators) could determine whether or not they were effective leaders. This lack of clarity may become more problematic as at least some municipalities in Finland have begun piloting some ways of using bonuses and salary increments to reward some teachers. While it is not widely discussed, those we talked to in at least two different groups of schools reported that their school leaders could decide to give them small bonuses if the leader felt that they did a particularly good job with their students or were particularly engaged in professional activities like research or professional development. While teachers could make their own case and often came to mutual agreements, leaders and municipal administrators, not teachers, have the last word.

Assessment for screening, sampling and selection

Even with a focus on assessment “by walking around,” however, educators in Finland do make use of a variety of tests and assessments. In contrast to Norway (where students do not get any written marks and there is comparatively limited testing until 8th grade), teachers in Finnish primary schools regularly use assessments of their own design as well as tests and quizzes from the textbooks; students get a report card at the end of the year; and in some cases, high scoring students may be singled out for recognition and rewards (something that the Norwegians would find shocking). Finnish teachers use an array of diagnostic and screening tests extensively in the early grades in Finland to make sure that no students are falling behind, particularly in reading. For example in one municipality, primary school special education teachers administer a screening test in reading comprehension to all students at the end of 2nd and 4th grade across all schools (and many administer it at the end of every year). That information, however, is not used at the school or municipal level to “check” on who is and isn’t performing well, rather, it’s used to identify those students who will need extra help moving forward.

As many have reported, the National Board of Education in Finland also regularly gives tests to samples of students and schools that are used to look at national and regional performance in key subjects like Finnish and mathematics. While the National Board does not use that information for ranking (and can’t because all students and schools are not assessed), they do share school level information with the schools that participate and municipal level data with the municipalities involved. In addition, the National Board makes these sample assessments widely available for free so that any teacher, school, or municipality that wants to administer these tests can do so. As a consequence, even without national testing, Finnish schools and municipalities have government-paid for tools that are linked directly to the core curriculum that they can use to benchmark their performance against regional and national samples.

Despite this diagnostic emphasis, tests and assessments in Finland do have important consequences, however, even if they are not used to hold teachers and schools accountable directly. In particular, despite the emphasis on equity, in some municipalities, students can express a preference to attend a particular school and a students’ final exams and final grades at the end of basic education (9th grade) can have an influence on whether or not they get into their top choice upper secondary school. Thus, in some of the largest municipalities in particular, students with the highest grade point averages are likely to get into their first choice schools, while students with lower grade point averages may have to opt for less selective schools.

Furthermore, at the end of upper secondary school, students have to pass matriculation exams in several subjects, and their scores on those exams (in combination with the Universities’ own entrance exams) determine whether students can go on to university and which institutions and programs they can get into. In fact, the results of the matriculation exams are made public; and newspapers report on the highest performing students and rank the schools according to their students’ average scores (see “Lukiovertailu – Etelä-Tapiolan lukio Espoosta kärjessä” roughly: “Comparison of High Schools – South Tapiola in Espoo at the forefront of high schools”). In addition, even more information on the performance of vocational schools is made publicly available—including the numbers of graduates and the average time to completion—and that information is used by the government in decisions about funding.

As a consequence of the school choice options available and the selection practices of students, Sonja Kosunen and colleagues have argued that there is a kind of implicit tracking within the Finnish system that may have an impact on the equitable distribution of learning opportunities. (Nonetheless, as Jennifer Von Reis Saari has pointed out, in contrast to most countries like the US and Sweden the Finnish system is highly “permeable,” so that even students who choose a vocational track in high school can still end up studying advanced subjects and can still gain entrance to University programs.)

In the end, what we’ve learned makes it clear that teachers, school leaders, and policymakers in Finland have access to a robust set of assessments that are supported by a long tradition of work on assessment at institutions like the Centre for Educational Assessment at the University of Helsinki, the Centre of Learning Research at the University of Turku, and the Niilo Mäki institute, associated with the University of Jyvaskyla. Furthermore, those assessments are used for a variety of purposes that can have important consequences for students and schools. But at the same time, many teachers, school leaders and policymakers start with the assumptions that things are going (at least relatively) well, that they will know if things start to go off course, and that, if necessary, everyone will work together to get things back on track.

Thomas Hatch

Professional Autonomy (and Interdependence?) Among Finnish Teachers

International observers often identify treating teachers as professionals as another hallmark of Finland’s education system. Indicative of that treatment, teachers in Finland have the autonomy and discretion to make a variety of decisions left to administrators in many other countries (such as those around meetings and professional development that we mentioned in our last post). Given the relative consistency of Finnish students’ performance on the PISA tests across groups and schools, the extent of this autonomy seems particularly surprising. Our school visits and conversations with colleagues here highlights both the variety of kinds of decisions that Finnish teachers can make as well as some interesting ways in which the need for teachers to coordinate work with others might constrain that autonomy.

Many outsiders focus particularly on the extent to which Finnish teachers make decisions about curriculum—what and how to teach—in their own classrooms, but as parents with children in a Finnish school for two weeks, we found the teachers’ control over their schedules even more surprising. While something undoubtedly gets lost in translation, we have found it almost impossible to figure out when the school day begins and ends for our 9 and 13 year-old daughters at the 1st – 9th grade comprehensive school they are attending. In part, that confusion reflects the facts that students may start or end the day at different times on different days of the week; that some students in one class may start or end the day at different times (depending on whether or not they attend language classes or religion classes, or the teacher has decided to divide the class into smaller groups); and that teachers can decide to end a little early or adjust the schedule for a field trip or other event. Furthermore, our children’s homeroom teachers may begin or end the day a period or two before or after their students who may start the day with another teacher in a language class or gym.

Until we had the chance to talk with teachers here in Finland, we really had not fully understood that they have the primary responsibility for deciding when they will teach which subject. They may begin with a largely blank schedule that has a few givens plugged in (like when their students will eat lunch and go to the gym) and then they do much of the rest. Teachers can even decide to share responsibilities for students or “swap” classes for different subjects. For example, some teachers at a grade level may choose to combine their classes (as happens at the Koulumestari School we visited), while others choose to work independently; some may decide they will “loop” with their students—our 9 year-old’s teacher for example has been with her current class since her third graders entered in first grade and our older daughter’s teachers started with a class of sixth graders last year when they were in 5th grade—but others may choose not to. These teachers, both with Masters in music education and both pursuing their PhD’s, also teach music classes for their own students as well as those of several of their grade level colleagues. In return, their grade level colleagues teach their students in subjects like art, science or religion. Teachers in the later grades may find fewer open slots in their schedule as more specific subjects like biology and physics have to be slotted in and, ultimately, school leaders have to review the schedules and ensure that the entire organization ‘works,’ but the teachers develop the plan and drive the discussion. And, as teachers and school leaders frequently tell us, whatever the decision, there always seems to be “flexibility.”

Viewing this decision-making power simply as “autonomy”, however, may fail to capture the extent to which this flexibility rests on the ability to negotiate and coordinate with others. Despite the impressions, Finnish teachers cannot do whatever they want. They need to be able to coordinate their schedules to some extent with other teachers at their grade level and to negotiate if other teachers want to do something else (interestingly, several of the school leaders we talked to suggested that their key responsibilities include facilitating interactions amongst teachers, and, if necessary, helping to resolve disputes among them). Thus, the flexibility in the system and teachers’ “autonomy” depends on the ability to take into account the interests of others and on the commitment of all in the system to common goals reflected in the core curriculum. Furthermore, the need for teachers to coordinate their own work, classes and schedules with others, as well as key activities like meetings at the school, municipal and national level to discuss and “renew” the curriculum currently underway (more on this in a later post as well) may help to foster the relationships and common understandings that can help to bring coherence to the system.

Tom Hatch & Karen Hammerness

Individual and Collective Professional Development in Finland

We had a fascinating visit recently to the Koulumestari School in Espoo (a small city just outside of Helsinki), a school of almost 350 students from first through 6th grade (ages 5-12). The school is designed specifically to support students with special needs (20% of the students have that designation) and also focuses on the integration of new technology into learning. The visit gave us a better understanding of several aspects of the Finnish education system, particularly around professional development and the sharing of knowledge among teachers.

While there is considerable emphasis on teacher education in many of the reports on the Finnish education system, professional development for teachers often gets less attention. In part, that lack of attention may stem from the fact that, reflecting the autonomy that Finnish teachers have, decisions about what kind of professional development to pursue are generally left up to teachers to decide. Many choose to participate in courses or workshops offered by Universities, the National Board of Education, or perhaps their municipality.   Furthermore, for the most part teachers in Finland develop their own class and work schedules, and when they finish teaching their classes they can go home for the day (more on teacher autonomy and scheduling in a later post). While there may be a mandatory meeting of a whole-school faculty once a month, in many schools, teachers can also decide when and to what extent to meet with their colleagues in grade level teams or for other purposes. In other words, from a US point of view (and the perspective of many other countries), collective and collaborative professional development seems to be relatively limited.

The Koulumestari School, however, offers an example of the effort that some in Finland are pursuing to develop more collective professional development. In another indicator of the respect for the autonomy of teachers and schools, these efforts often focus on a networking strategy: creating opportunities for teachers and schools to come together to share information, resources and expertise. For example, the staff of the school has decided to have what they call a “pedagogical café” four times a year, during their regular monthly staff meetings. At these times, the teachers share with one another what they are doing with their students, particularly pilot experiments using different technologies. Participation in a variety of other meetings, including meetings among grade-level teams as well as theme-based teams (such as one focused on assessment and evaluation) also facilitate networking and collaboration. “Benchmark” days—in which the teachers can choose to visit the classroom of another teacher or grade level—and “headmaster’s hours”—in which school administrators and teaching assistants take over the regular classes of a group of teachers so they can meet together—create more time for common work. One outcome of these opportunities has been the development of “combined classes” in several grades in which two teachers with classes of about 20 students and one teacher with a class of about 10 special education students all work together to share the teaching for all of the roughly 45-50 students. These combined classes grew out of an initial experiment when several teachers at one grade level decided to try combining their classes; as other teachers learned how it was working, it spread to other levels and groups of teachers. (Interestingly, for the purposes of coordination, the school leader needs to know when teachers are planning to be out of the classroom for professional development, but the teachers themselves are responsible for getting substitutes.)

Illustrating a network approach at a municipal level, Koulumestari opened in 2007 after the City of Espoo put out a call for applications for new schools that could serve as “learning centers” with particular themes (something akin to “demonstration” schools). These learning centers were designed to focus on issues like special education and the integration of technology (in the case of Koulumestari) and to share what they were doing and learning with other schools in the area. As is often the case for new US schools in places like New York City, the application process included a formal proposal with a design for their school that was submitted by the current leaders and selected from a number of applicants. In addition to participating in meetings and visits with members of other schools in the network, teachers at Koulumestari have now started to offer professional development classes for other teachers in the municipality as part of the regular roster of professional development courses that Espoo offers every year. The school is also pursuing the same networking approach at the national level, as the school applied for and was awarded funding to serve as national learning center for technology and innovation. Through that network, the Koulumestari school is working with 65 partner schools throughout Finland, sharing practices, participating in joint professional development, and working together to develop a model for innovative schools. They also started piloting a global innovation network this past spring

While these networking efforts illustrate one approach to professional development in Finland, it is also important to point out that these efforts share many features with networking initiatives in other countries but they run against the grain in some ways of the same professional autonomy that is often cited as a key strength of the Finnish system. While teachers can choose to work together and share ideas, they also can choose to work on their own. There is a fundamental tension between autonomy and the kind of interdependence and collaboration that many would argue is needed to enable workers and organizations of any kind, including teachers and schools, to be more effective.

Tom Hatch and Karen Hammerness


Teacher selection, turnover, and curriculum reform in Finland

This week in Helsinki we met with Auli Toom and Kirsi Pyhältö (members of the Faculty of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Helsinki), and several PhD students from their research group including Lauri Heikonen, Henrika Häikiö, Ulla Karvonen, Emmi Saariaho, and Sanna-Mari Salonen. They shared some of their research and perspectives on the education system here, and our discussions highlighted several things:

School of Education, University of Helsinki

School of Education, University of Helsinki

First, while we know that teacher candidates in Finland come from the top quartile of students, those who go to University to study to become teachers are also often somewhat older than other University students. In fact, some of the teacher education applicants are just completing their secondary education, but some applicants have already graduated and have taken jobs as substitute teachers or are working in other fields and are career-changers from other professions. Furthermore, the annual selection process to become a primary teacher is so challenging, applicants often fail on their first try, and some have to apply several times. The process includes an interview as well as an entry exam called the VAKAVA. The VAKAVA is offered once a year in the spring and requires applicants to read a set of research articles and then respond to a series of related multiple choice questions.

Second, although teaching is a highly-regarded profession, there is teacher turnover in Finland. Precise figures are hard to come by, but turnover rates for teachers within their first five years could be as high as 20% across the country, and even higher in the area around Helsinki. Those we talked to suggested that reasons for leaving teaching are similar to those in the United States including seeking a higher salary; opting for a career with more possibilities for advancement (the primary advancement opportunity for teachers in Finland is to become a school leader); as well as stress and burnout.

Third, Finland is engaged in a major core curriculum reform, but that effort is perhaps more accurately characterized as “curriculum renewal” as it is part of a regular cycle of revision that takes place every ten years. Furthermore, the reform of the core curriculum represents a collaborative project that engages numerous people and organizations from all parts of the education system including teachers, school leaders, policymakers, educational publishers, parents, students and others. (As we mentioned in our last post, our 9 year-old’s teacher in the practice school is a member of one of the curriculum reform committees and we hope to talk to her next week about her role in the process). Furthermore, the core curriculum provides guidelines and principles that serve as the basis for curricula created at the municipal level by teachers, school leaders, and administrators working together. Schools and teachers then have the autonomy to adapt the curriculum in their classrooms. In other words, whether PISA scores go up or down (or stay the same), everyone knows that the core curriculum will change over time and educators are expected to revise and adapt their curricula to keep them current and forward-looking.

Tom Hatch & Karen Hammerness

IEN in Finland: First day at a new school

Today, Stella (9) and Clara (13) spent their first day at a practice school in Helsinki. Practice schools are regular public schools, serving students who live in their neighborhood. The school our children are attending is a ‘comprehensive school’ for children in grades 1-9, with an associated kindergarten next door. Practice schools have been developed expressly for the purpose of preparing and supporting the learning of prospective teachers and are staffed with what might be called mentor teachers in the US (or “practice teachers” in Finland). Practice teachers teach regular classes for pupils in the school but then are also responsible for supervising, observing and co-planning with student-teachers. The principal estimated that at any one time, the school has between 30-36 student-teachers placed in various classrooms throughout the grades. Practice schools receive additional government funding to pay for the special work they do.

DipticIn some cases, practice schools have been designed specifically to accommodate and support the new teachers. In fact, our daughters’ school has a suite of rooms for student-teachers including a room with tables for their meetings; their own lockers and bookcases for materials and resources; and a coatroom and lunch space. The meeting room, equipped with the latest technology, underscores the importance that is placed not only upon learning to teach but upon analyzing (and learning from) teaching. In these rooms, student-teachers meet with their practice teachers to debrief plans and lessons and to talk about next steps. This attention to the cycle of planning, action, and reflection / evaluation is initially modeled in the student-teacher’s University classes, and they are expected to engage in similar kinds of analysis and inquiry when they have their own classrooms. These parallel activities underscore the notion that learning in practice does not happen “on its own” but rather requires concurrent opportunities for teachers to analyze their experiences and to make connections between research and practice.

Stella’s day today was led by a substitute as the regular teacher was out of the classroom because she was spending the day at the Finnish National Board of Education working on the national Curriculum (in the coming years, the national curriculum is due to revised and updated). Stella’s Finnish teacher is qualified to teach not only primary teacher education but also music education (having obtained an additional master’s degree) as well as 3rd grade—she leads the choir and also music instruction courses. Clara’s teacher is currently working on his doctoral dissertation after having completed coursework at an institution in the United States; his studies have focused upon religious studies and music. (While the advanced educational experiences of Finnish teachers is particularly notable, Stella’s teacher back in her public school outside New York City is also at work on an additional Master’s degree, currently working on a second master’s degree in writing children’s literature).

Stella’s day began at 9 AM with a hug from the substitute teacher, and then introductions as the teacher asked each child to stop by Stella’s desk, shake her hand and introduce themselves. The classes included two sessions of math (as well as a math test), an English lesson, two recesses and lunch. We thought originally her day would end at 12:45, when students who are not taking religion headed home. However, she was invited to stay, and ended the day with another recess, and then the religion class when the teacher led the students in a series of games.

Clara’s day started with a meeting with her teacher, who had made plans for her to first tour the school with (and get to know) several English-speaking classmates, before joining the whole group. At 9.45 she joined the students in their homeroom class—her classmates had started their day at 8.00 with two hours of language instruction (either English, German, or Swedish). In addition to the language classes, the day included art class, preparation for the end-of-the-year ceremony (to be held at the end of next week), as well as a music class. Her homeroom teacher led the group to a well-equipped music room and introduced them to an animated computer program to help them all learn to play chords on acoustic guitars.

–Karen Hammerness & Tom Hatch


A class schedule in Finland

While we are in Finland over the next two weeks, our children will be in a ”practice school” in Helsinki. The school is similar to other schools in Finland, but it is associated with the University of Helsinki’s teacher education program and student teachers are placed there.

Our 9 year-old’s teacher shared with us what her schedule will be this week (Mon-Fri):


kello MA TI KE TO PE
8.00-8.45       gym  
9.00-9.45 French  gym class crafts  
9.45-10.30 class French music crafts class
11.15-12 Englishlesson class class music English
12.00-12.45 class class class class class
13.15-14.00     class    


Most other times of the year, the students would have 23 hours a week of school, but the teacher told us that this week there will be 2 hours less because of “theatre, musical, and movie visits.” On Wednesday, they will also be going fishing!

–Thomas Hatch


IEN in Finland

I launched IEN in 2011 to respond to a need I recognized when I returned from a year living in Norway with my wife, Karen Hammerness, and three daughters. Once back in the United States, I found it very difficult to get timely information on policy developments and the latest research on educational improvement outside the United States. Since then, working with Deirdre Faughey and other colleagues, we have searched for and shared links to articles, reports, and other resources that we hope provide a glimpse into what’s new, what’s good, and what’s effective in education around the world.   One of the most powerful aspects of my experience in Norway, however, was the combination of learning about the educational system through my work with educators, researchers, and policymakers (summarized in “Beneath the surface of accountability”) and through my children’s experiences in Norwegian schools (briefly described in “What Norway (not Finland) can tell us about schools”). Through that experience we found how much we could learn from the approach of what some call a “low-performer” (Norway’s PISA scores have been closer to those of the US than to Finland’s over the years) but a system that can also be seen as highly successful in other respects.

Now, through a grant from the Fulbright Scholar Program and the Fulbright Center in Finland, my family and I are fortunate to have a similar (though much shorter) opportunity to learn about education in Finland. Over the next few weeks, my wife and I will be Visiting Scholars at the University of Helsinki. While most people want to know why Finland scores so much higher than the U.S. (even with some decreases in Finland’s latest PISA scores), I’m still interested in figuring out why Finland’s scores are so much higher than Norway’s – two countries that are much more comparable in terms of their social-welfare systems, size, and demographics. Karen will be continuing her studies of teacher education in Finland and several other countries. At the same time, our 9, 13, and 15 year olds will have a chance to spend the last two weeks of the Finnish school year in a school in Helsinki. While there, Karen and I hope to post occasional reflections on what we’re learning from our Finnish colleagues and to share as well what our children are doing. (We’ve already learned that the end-of-the-year in schools in Finland, as in the United States, often involves field trips and special projects)

Of course, our experiences will provide only a small window into what the educational system and the schools are like in Finland, but we hope it will complement perspectives from Finnish experts like Pasi Sahlberg and Hannu Simola as well as Americans who have had a chance to get inside schools in Finland including Tim Walker (a U.S. teacher teaching this year in a Finnish school) and journalist Amanda Ripley (who followed an American teenager during a year in a Finnish high school). Ideally, in the future, we will have more opportunities at IEN to share these kinds of personal perspectives on educational policy and practice in different countries. Our point, however, is not to suggest that there is any “best” model to follow nor to promote particular practices. Rather, we hope to encourage further reflection on the social, cultural, political, geographic, economic and other factors that shape different educational systems and the efforts to improve them.

–Thomas Hatch