Lessons from Finland: A Conversation with Pasi Sahlberg

/ 19 May 2016

Lessons from Finland: A Conversation with Pasi Sahlberg

Ever since Finland scored highly in the “Programme for International Student Assessment” (PISA) test results in December 2001, Finland has become a mecca for educational professionals, government officials and journalists who were interested in discovering the reasons behind the country’s success in education. Finland’s children have continued to do well on the tests. The PISA results in 2001, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012 had Finland ranking highly in all three areas of PISA: mathematics, science and reading literacy.

In his book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland?, Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and scholar, provides his readers with a first-hand account of Finland’s educational achievements. He has worked as a schoolteacher, teacher educator and policy advisor and has studied education systems and reforms around the world. He has worked with the Organization for Economic Cooperation for Development (OECD), which produces the PISA tests, the World Bank, the European Union and many governments, including the governments of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and the Palestinian Authority. This year, Sahlberg is a visiting professor of practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Educators from around the world are now trooping to Finland to learn from the system there. Are there common misunderstandings that you think they arrive with or common mistakes that they make in trying to apply Finnish lessons to their own country?

Most people come to Finland looking for a shortlist of specific factors that render the Finnish education system successful, such as teacher training, use of technology in education or a specific teacher-to-student ratio. What people fail to see is the power and importance of the entire Finnish culture toward children. Finnish children begin school at the age of seven. In the first seven years of their lives, they have full access to exceptional healthcare and play-based guided activities through government-run hospitals and daycare centers. By the time they start school, Finnish children have already explored who they are and had ample time to play and enjoy their rights as young citizens. What happens in the pre-school years is something that visitors to a Finnish classroom would not see and yet, it has a profound impact on the success of Finnish children and the entire education system. Another issue is that many observers of the Finnish education system write off the possibility of learning any lessons from Finland because Finland is a small country of only six million people, with a mostly homogenous and wealthy population. So, a country like the United States or a country like Egypt could not draw lessons from Finland because they are much larger countries. This is the wrong attitude and prevents people from benefiting from what Finland has done. While context is important, it does not matter how big or small you are. You could still learn some lessons especially if things seem to be done, not only in a different way in Finland, but in a completely opposite way.

What would you say makes the Finnish education successful?

The Finnish education system is part of a larger system, economy and society. But, if I look at the education system alone, I would highlight three pillars upon which the Finnish education system relies. The first one is that Finland redesigned its K-12 school system such that all schools offer the same educational experience to all students. We have managed parental choice when it comes to schooling, such that there is no choice of private or alternative schooling. All schools are public and all schools are equally good. The second success factor is that Finland adopts a unique philosophy when it comes to special-needs education that depends on very early intervention and support for children who are unable or unwilling to learn. Thirty percent of Finnish school children receive special education. That is a high percentage compared to most education systems in the world, indicating that the Finnish system is very thorough and has a more comprehensive approach when it comes to identifying students with special needs.

And the third pillar is, of course, the teachers. Finnish teachers are trained professionally; they are all required to go through advanced, academic research-based training and they all have master’s degrees in education. And because the teachers are well trained, schools are able to delegate many tasks to their teachers. Teachers design their own curricula, they are able to judge the progress of their students without resorting to high-stakes tests and they are in close contact with parents and the rest of the students’ wider community.

As someone with a global perspective on education, what would you say are the challenges facing education systems in the Arab world?

I see a particular challenge in countries like the UAE [United Arab Emirates] and Qatar where the rapid emergence of wealth has created a unique situation where there is an increasing number of young people, especially boys, who do not find education necessary. They probably think that they could continue to lead a successful life without an education and this is problematic for the future of their countries, once the wealth stops flowing. But more generally, across the Arab World, I learned that how teaching and learning are organized inside the classroom is an area that needs a lot of work. I worked in Palestine (Gaza and the West Bank) from 1998-2002 on a teacher-development initiative funded by the Finnish government to train teachers on active learning. And while the curricula in Gaza and the West Bank came from two different countries: Egypt and Jordan, respectively, the same problems existed inside the classrooms in both cities. Classes were all teacher-centric with little room for student engagement and active learning. I saw the same thing visiting public schools in the UAE and Qatar.

How did teachers receive your ideas in Palestine?

At first, they were resistant and I think it took about two years for teachers to come around and see the benefits of using a more student-centric approach in their classrooms. Some teachers also told me that they believe in this new approach, but did not find support from their school principal, for example, or the parents in their schools. This type of change needs support from stakeholders and takes time. But towards the end of our project in Palestine, many classrooms had changed and teachers could trust students to come up with their own ideas and to be creative inside the classroom. And I believe there is room for more countries in the Arab world to make use of this more engaging style of teaching and learning.

Arab countries have not been doing very well on PISA. In the 2012 PISA, for example, UAE, Jordan, Tunisia and Qatar rank at the bottom of the list of countries that sat for the assessment. Should we conclude that their systems are failing?

The OECD PISA is a metric for OECD countries. These are all wealthy and developed countries. PISA should be treated only as a benchmark for these non-OECD countries and so I believe no conclusions should be drawn from these rankings. If you look at a country like Tunisia, for instance, it would be unfair to compare it to a country like the USA, which had a much longer time to develop its education system. It is like taking a Toyota engine and putting it in a Ferrari. What the Arab countries could do is look at all the other data provided by the PISA results. The table ranking the country results is but a thin layer of what PISA results offer. PISA data includes information on student attitudes, values, family backgrounds and how all these factors impact their education. I think it would be useful for Arab countries to look at this data and see what it means for them. The PISA results could be used to see what is happening in the education system and not where you rank compared to others.

As you already know, testing and test preparation including intense private tutoring is entrenched in most, if not all, Arab education systems. Finland has done away with high-stakes tests and academic tracking, in which children are grouped by academic performance. How did that shift help education in Finland?

Finland never really had an intense culture of testing. We currently have only one external test at the end of high school. This is not because tests are bad, but because we discovered that we could run schools effectively and efficiently without high-stake tests. Teachers spend their time doing interesting activities in the classroom and students spend their time learning what really matters, and not how to answer questions on a test. I know that in countries like Egypt, for example, testing is a big deal and so is private tutoring, whereby teachers would not be willing to cooperate in a non-testing environment. This kind of situation produces a vicious cycle that is hard to break. What Finland and other countries like Canada, for example, have done is set an example of successful systems that do not rely on testing. While most education systems, including Finland’s, have their children trying to find the right answers to problems, a non-high-stake testing system allows students to ask, “What is the right problem that we need to find an answer to?” A system that depends on, and teaches to, a test does not ask that question and so does not give its children the opportunity to learn what really matters.

What lessons could education systems in the Arab World learn from Finland? And what education policies or features of the Finnish model could be smoothly transferred from Finland to the Arab world or parts of it?

I do not want to use the word “transfer,” but some of the lessons that could be of benefit in the Arab world have to do with professionalism and leadership. School leadership and leadership in education, in general, are extremely important because if you do not have good leadership, the system will not succeed. I saw this clearly during my work in Palestine. Many good ideas are halted when those in leadership positions are appointed for their political affiliations rather than their actual merits as education leaders. Finland could also offer useful lessons when it comes to assessment. The Finnish government currently has an interesting experiment in Abu Dhabi, UAE whereby the Abu Dhabi Education Council has transformed two Emirati public schools, one for boys in Abu Dhabi and one for girls in Al Ain, into Finnish schools. The school principals and teachers all come from Finland. When I visit these schools, the principals say, we are generally able to do most of what we do in Finland. But because the administration cannot do away with the testing culture, there are so many things we are incapable of doing inside the classroom. It is not learning that should be assessed, but rather assessment should be used to improve the learning environment. Finland could definitely offer the Arab world many lessons in that area. Finally, Finland could also provide lessons when it comes to equity in education. There needs to be an overall understanding of why equity is important, and Arab educators and policymakers need to ask themselves that question. There is a huge gap between good schools and bad schools in the Arab world. This segregates students and it shows that equity of outcomes has not been a priority for education policymakers. The focus has been on the quality of education in some schools, when the question should be what does an equitable education system look like.

Following on this experiment of the two schools in Abu Dhabi, what do you think of some of the education models in the Arab World that have used ideas or concepts from other parts of the world? Education City in Doha or Knowledge Village in Dubai and international schools all over the region? Would you consider these examples of transfer of successful education models?

All of these different models are examples of great schools that are able to recruit great students and teachers. But my concern is not with individual schools and unique models; my concern is with the system as a whole. What do such models do to the education system as a whole? In most of the Arab world, education systems almost do not exist anymore and have been taken over by private entities. Most of these countries are creating silos of education and segregating their population by the type of education they receive. Where is the education system that does common good for all people? My concern is that system is being eroded. Arab education policymakers should consider providing a better-managed school choice for parents where the difference between one school and another is not so vast, a choice that would not result in the breakdown of the education system. Good education should not be regarded as a private good that only some people benefit from.

What general message do you have for those interested in education in the Arab World?

I believe that education in the Arab world continues to be regarded as a key to social mobility and prosperity, which is good. But what people need to be careful about is what I refer to as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that comes with easy, fast-track solutions for education that depend almost solely on testing and that has been adopted by most Arab countries through other systems like the U.K. or Australia or the United States. If people become more aware that some of the most successful education systems, such as Canada, Finland and others, actually stay away from this movement and do education differently, they may come up with a different approach to education.

People in the Arab world need to ask their policymakers, what evidence do you have of the success of these test-dependent systems? We also need to remember what the purpose of education is in the first place. Is it to build a good economy? Is it to contribute to the labor market? Is it to maintain culture and traditions? There needs to be a common goal and purpose for education that most people in society agree on. And there is no right answer for this; but there should be one common answer in each society. In Finland, we believe education is a central element of building democracy; other outcomes of education, such as expanding the labor market, are all secondary and tertiary in nature. Our main goal is to raise good citizens who are active members of their community.

Nelly El Zayat is an Egyptian educational consultant and entrepreneur with 15 years of experience in international education. She is particularly interested in education reform in the Middle East and North Africa region and the role technology has to play in education. Nelly is an alumna of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the American University in Cairo.




6 CommentsJoin the Conversation

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  1. Maha Bali says:

    Nelly, thanks for doing this interview. He makes some really contextual and sharp points about what is wrong with education in our region, and what can be learned from the Finnish experience. Two things stood out for me: the equity emphasis, and that education does not work alone, it works within an entire society. And of course the point about how teachers wanting to innovate pedagogically are restricted by structural issues such as school leadership and standardized or national testing. I will try again to read his book, Finnish Lessons

    • Nelly Elzayat says:

      Thank you Maha for your comment, and your thorough reading of the interview! I think all the points you highlight are ones we could learn a lot from in the Arab World.

      Yes, give Finnish Lessons another go! 🙂 Thanks again!

  2. Clarissa says:

    I particularly liked his mention of the importance of pre-school in a child’d development and how critical it is for the child’s future development.
    Lots of awesome thoughts and lessons to be learned here. Thank you for this!

    • Nelly ElZayat says:

      Thanks Clarissa! I am glad you found the interview useful! I was also intrigued by the impact of Finnish children’s pre-school life on their future education. Thank you again!

  3. moushira says:

    Thank you Nelly for a great interview. i really liked that Sahlberg pushes us to answer the question: what is education for? the answer to this question allows us to explain many of the practices in our Egyptian educational system. You plan your education system to accomplish a larger societal goal. In the absence of this goal, ours is left to reproduce inequalities in education, in the labor market and in life chances. moushira

    • Nelly ElZayat says:

      Thank you Moushira! I agree with you that this particular point about finding and agreeing on a common goal for what education means to us as a society, is key in making any progress on the education front. I appreciate you taking the time to read this.


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