The Global Search for Education: More Focus on Finland

"The Finns had a crisis," professor Tony Wagner explains. Starting with the principle that cooperation is a key pillar of success, the Finns revised their educational framework.
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Finnish teachers talk with Harvard professor Tony Wagner in The Finland Phenomenon

"The Finns had a crisis," life-long educator, best-selling author, and Harvard professor Tony Wagner explains as we discuss his new film, The Finland Phenomenon, made with acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Bob Compton. "Their economy was failing. Their education system was poor. They knew that to grow their economy, they had to transform their educational system." Starting with the principle that cooperation is a key pillar of success, the Finns revised their educational framework.

"I saw teachers in Finland that were better than 90 percent of the teachers I see in America," says Wagner. There were many things that led to Finland topping the international education league tables (10 years and counting). A key driver: a tremendous investment in teaching made it the most sought-after profession in Finland.

Compulsory schooling now begins at seven. School is a place where students discover who they are and what they can contribute. National testing and school inspections are banished (teachers are trusted to assess their students). Classroom size has been reduced (limited to 20 students). Students are permitted to transfer to an academic or vocational school at the age of 16, and no university fees are charged for Finnish or European Union students.

This educational reformation has made them world leaders. Not surprisingly, global policy makers are paying more attention. Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of CIMO in Helsinki, Finland (the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation) now advises policymakers in over 40 countries on matters relating to education and its reform. Four months before the release of his highly anticipated new book, Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn about educational change in Finland, Sahlberg spoke with me about the characteristics of successful educational systems, and about what is missing from many systems around the world.

What kind of education system will permit a country to have the people skills needed to compete globally?

The education system must be equitable, accessible, and flexible. Global competitiveness requires that all people develop competencies for life and work, not just some people. This means that a successful education system should help young people to discover their talents and build their lives based on them. Reading, mathematical, and scientific literacy will remain important, but their role as 'core subjects' in competitive education systems will be challenged by creativity, networking skills, and imagination.

An equitable education system makes sure that all students will perform well. It will provide early support to those who need more help in their learning than others. It will also emphasize caring and well-being in school (through healthy nutrition, medical, dental and psychological health), rights of students in school, and shared responsibilities in education and upbringing of children with parents.

Accessibility means that the education system provides good schooling for all, regardless of where people live or what they do. The education system that can offer unified and comprehensive basic education, rather than diversified provision of schooling (through private or non-public schools), will have better opportunities to respond to the changing needs of the competitive and complex world.

Flexibility is about providing adequate individual personalization in school, and freedom for schools to craft their curricula based on their capacities and local needs.

Finnish class in session

I know that Finland has banished national testing. How do you see the problems with standardized testing?

The main problem with standardized testing today is the quality of these tests. As learning in the globalized world is becoming increasingly complex and diverse, to test what pupils have learned through standardized tests is becoming more complicated. The increasing amount of what students learn cognitively today, let alone what they will learn tomorrow, is due to out-of-school influences, not the teacher or school. Standardized tests by definition are designed based on curriculum and textbooks, not the real world. Therefore, most standardized tests promote narrowing pedagogies, focus on core subjects and knowledge, and prevent teachers from teaching their curricula flexibly. Another problem with standardized tests is that as soon as you have invested in them, you want to also use them for all sorts of purposes for which they were not meant to be used, like determining the quality of schools and comparing them to each other, or measuring the effectiveness of teachers.

What elements are missing from the preponderance of the current systems?

Education systems in general pay too little attention to helping everybody find their own talent in school. It is evident everywhere that most people, after they have completed compulsory education at the age of 16 or 17, think that they are not good at anything. There is a small minority of those young people who say that they know what their talents are and that this is because of what they did in school. Another missing emphasis in current education systems all around the world is focus on helping young people to develop social skills and competencies that they need in their lives (that are dominated by communication through gadgets). This could also be called a lack of focus on developing social intelligences in school.

What can be done to better address the emotional well-being and intellectual potential of the individual, which appear to be suffering under current systems?

Emotional well-being can be addressed by reducing the academic dominance in schools and by increasing the social and creative aspects in what students do. It is a common misconception that competitive economies in a globalized world would require that children and students be prepared for them by environments that are based on more competition. It is the opposite. To prepare young people for the competitive world requires more cooperation in classrooms and between schools. All national programs, like Race to the Top, will jeopardize school, teacher, and student efforts to cooperate as they reward winners in the race and punish losers in public tests.

From a larger perspective, does your country's definition of educational excellence take into account the quality of life of individuals and of a society?

Educational excellence in Finland is a broad concept that spans far beyond academic achievement measured in standardized tests. Indeed, quality of life, overall well-being, and happiness are important criteria when teachers and schools decide whether their individuals or organizations have performed well or not. Artistic and cultural achievements are seen in most of our schools as the main indications of being an educated individual.

World Wisdom from Finland

Global competitiveness requires that all students develop competencies for life and work, not just some students. Therefore, a country's educational system must be equitable, accessible, and flexible. Cooperation, not competition, is a principal pillar of educational system success. Also essential is a tremendous investment in teaching quality. But beware of standardized testing, as it will undermine the achievement of these objectives.


In The Global Search for Education, join C.M. Rubin and globally renowned thought leaders including Sir Michael Barber (U.K.), Dr. Leon Botstein (U.S.), Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (U.S.), Dr. Madhav Chavan (India), Professor Michael Fullan (Canada), Professor Howard Gardner (U.S.), Professor Yvonne Hellman (The Netherlands), Professor Kristin Helstad (Norway), Professor Rose Hipkins (New Zealand), Professor Cornelia Hoogland (Canada), Mme. Chantal Kaufmann (Belgium), Professor Dominique Lafontaine (Belgium), Professor Hugh Lauder (U.K.), Professor Ben Levin (Canada), Professor Barry McGaw (Australia), Sridhar Rajagopalan (India), Sir Ken Robinson (U.K.), Professor Pasi Sahlberg (Finland), Andreas Schleicher (PISA, OECD), Dr. David Shaffer (U.S.), Chancellor Stephen Spahn (U.S.), Yves Theze (Lycee Francais U.S.), Professor Charles Ungerleider (Canada), Professor Tony Wagner (U.S.), Professor Dylan Wiliam (U.K.), Professor Theo Wubbels (The Netherlands), Professor Michael Young (U.K.), and Professor Minxuan Zhang (China) as they explore the big picture education questions that all nations face today.

Professor Pasi Sahlberg and C. M. Rubin

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