Tucker’s Lens: What Lessons Should We Draw from Finland?

by Marc Tucker

finnishlessonsA little drama is playing out in the UK that might be of interest elsewhere. To provide some context, let me remind you that, in a book that topped the world’s education reform reading lists for some time, Finnish Lessons: What can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Pasi Sahlberg not only described his take on the causes of the “Finnish miracle” — rising to the top of the PISA league tables in the inaugural PISA survey—but also used the occasion to provide his readers with a pointed critique of market approaches to school reform and the use of tough-minded accountability to drive school reform. Finland, he suggested, provided proof positive that a kinder, gentler approach to school reform, one based on trusting first class teachers to do their job as professionals, was far superior as a strategy to market strategies and tough-minded accountability.

Now, enter Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, research director at the Centre of the Study of Market Reform of Education, with a paper titled “Real Finnish Lessons: The True Story of an Education Superpower.” Given the provenance and title of this paper, it should come as no surprise that the author’s aim is to defenestrate Sahlberg’s book and its argument.

Analytically, Sahlgren’s article rests on a cardinal principle of systems analysis called “lag time.” The idea of lag time holds that the current performance of any given system may be a function not of the current state of that system, but rather the result of some prior state. Sahlgren argues that the observed performance of Finland on the 2000 administration of PISA was a reflection not of the education policies in place then and since, but of policies and practices of long standing.

Sahlgren agrees that the famed high status of teachers accounts in some measure for Finland’s initial success on PISA, but says that that status is of long standing and has its origins in factors unique to Finnish history that predate any current policies, not least in the role that teachers played as Finnish patriots when Finland was part of Russia. But, as Sahlgren sees it, those teachers benefited mightily from an essentially conservative Finnish outlook that pervaded the whole society, a conservatism that lasted longer in Finland than in other Nordic countries because its economy was a late bloomer. In that culture, as in most Asian countries, children were taught to defer to and obey their elders; obedience in this very hierarchical society was a cardinal virtue. Education, far from being avant-garde, was very traditional. Citing several small observational studies and the recollections of a few professors at Finnish graduate schools of education, Sahlgren tells us that, well after many other countries had adopted more progressive methods, Finnish teachers lectured and their students wrote down what they said in notebooks and learned it. Period. None of this currently fashionable student-as-constructor-of-knowledge and teacher-as-guide stuff. The increasing autonomy granted Finnish teachers under the new regime was used, he says, by many, if not most teachers to persist in their old ways. It is these old ways that account for Finland’s initial PISA success, Sahlgren says.

FinnishStudentsSo what, as he sees it, accounts for Finland’s recent modest slippage in the PISA rankings? The answer is a phenomenon that afflicts many advanced societies, according to Sahlgren. Finland used to be known for a certain kind of societal grit, a fierce, almost primordial determination to succeed in the face of adversity that enabled it to succeed where other nations might have failed. But countries that succeed economically tend to go soft after a while and that is what he thinks is happening to Finland. Finnish students, who used to do what they were told, however boring and difficult it might have been, are now much harder for Finnish teachers to control. Finnish teachers may have no choice but to adopt more progressive attitudes and teaching methods, not because they may be more effective in principle, but because the old attitudes and methods may not work anymore in a society gone soft.

Then Sahlgren takes a giant step. Having, to his satisfaction, proven that it was old-fashioned teaching methods, used in an authoritarian school environment, combined with a veneration of teachers of long standing, that accounted for Finland’s initial success on PISA and not the factors described by Pasi Sahlberg in Finnish Lessons, Sahlgren implies that maybe Sahlberg got the rest of his analysis wrong too.

I read Sahlgren’s article only a couple of months after returning from Estonia. Readers of the CIEB newsletter might recall my report on that visit. The essence of that story was that Estonia’s rise to the PISA top 10 might be accounted for not by any change in education policies since Estonia gained its freedom from the Soviet Union, but by the result of hundreds of years of social and educational development under the Germans, Swedes and the Russian czars. Further, the leaders of the Estonian teachers’ unions with whom we met reminded us that northern Estonia was only a few miles across the straits from Finland and the teachers from these two countries had been exchanging ideas about teaching for a long time.

It looked to us as though Estonia had managed to get to the top of the PISA league tables using very old-fashioned attitudes about education and about teaching methods in particular. Indeed, some professors at one of Estonia’s leading graduate schools of education had complained about how hard it was to change those attitudes and methods and how slow going the work was. So when I first glanced at Sahlgren’s article, I was more than ready to listen.

Now that I have read Sahlgren’s piece carefully, here is where I come out. He certainly makes a strong case for the idea that the high status of teachers in Finland has its origins in events that predate the current reforms, for the notion that this special quality of Finnish grit and determination to succeed in the face of adversity account in some measure for the success of the Finnish education reforms quite apart from the specific features of those reforms. He also makes the case that autonomy for Finnish teachers might have ironically created a context in which the preference on the part of many Finnish teachers for more conservative teaching methods might have allowed them to persist in those methods longer than they otherwise could or would have. Sahlgren presents no evidence in his paper for the efficacy of market-oriented reforms or for tough-minded accountability.

Finnish studentsand teacherFor the record here, by the way, many people point to Finland’s decision to drop national school inspection as an important step on the road to raising trust in teachers and increasing autonomy for them. Actually, Finland did not abandon school inspection; it just reassigned responsibility for school inspection to the localities. But school inspection as the Finns practice it now is not even remotely like the forms of tough-minded teacher accountability schemes now practiced in the United States or inspection systems used in the U.K.

As I noted above, Sahlgren’s evidence for the persistence of old-fashioned teaching methods at the time that Finland sailed to the top of the PISA league tables rests on a number of small-scale studies and on the testimony of a handful of professors in Finland’s graduate schools of education. Teaching methods vary greatly among the top performing countries and often within them. The research literature on the efficacy of teaching methods comes to conclusions as varied as the methods themselves.

Our own organization sent three teams to Finland after the 2000 PISA results came out, and all of them reported seeing teachers use small group instruction, project-based learning and student discussion methods. No doubt Sahlgren is right in saying that a good deal of traditional stand-and-deliver-style instruction was going on too, but there is plenty of evidence from the reports of American and other researchers that the instructional styles in Finland are mixed.

My own view about this is that teachers typically weave very strong belief structures around the methods they use and these belief structures are generally values based. It is not simply a matter of substituting one technique for another, as it might be for a doctor. Some teachers simply will not use behaviorist methods of teaching because they violate that teacher’s deep convictions about the act of teaching. Others won’t use constructivist methods for the same reason. The reality, I think, is that forcing teachers to use methods they profoundly disagree with is not likely to produce high student achievement.

This is not to say that teaching methods do not matter. They do matter. But it does take a long time to change them at the scale of a nation. That said, that fact, as it played out in Finland, does not invalidate the main thrust of the argument made in Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons.

But, for the purposes of this analysis, none of this is terribly germane.

The story as Sahlgren tells it is not different in any important respect from the story we find in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Japan, the Netherlands, Flemish Belgium and Canada, all of which are or have been among the top performers on PISA.

Finnish VET studentsIn all those places we see strong support for families with young children; equity in the distribution of education resources to the schools (often with more support for disadvantaged students than others); powerful, well-aligned instructional systems based on internationally benchmarked standards, well thought-out curriculum frameworks often including course syllabi, high quality examinations based on the curriculum frameworks and syllabi; well-designed qualifications systems that include a few well-chosen gateways; recruitment of teachers from the top half of college-going high school graduates, demanding well-crafted programs of teacher education that result in deep mastery of subject matter as well as the craft of teaching; teacher compensation that is competitive with high status professions, schools organized and managed to attract and support professional teachers and enable them to drive the process of continually improving their schools, high quality programs of career and technical education and effective systems of school governance. In all these cases, we see systems founded on high expectations for all students and the conviction that those expectations will be met only by creating and supporting a real profession of high quality teachers.

There is no evidence presented in Sahlgren’s paper that would contradict any of these findings. Nor is there any evidence presented in the paper to support market reforms of education or tough-minded teacher accountability. Indeed, his central point is in doubt. If it were true that the strong showing of Finland on the 2000 PISA was due to the persistent high status of teachers in Finland as well as the firm embrace by those teachers of very traditional teaching methods, then, surely, those features of the Finnish education system would have shown up in earlier international comparisons of educational achievement. Indeed, one would have thought that, if anything, Finland would have done even better a decade or two earlier than in 2000, because the factors Sahlgren points to would have not have been “diluted” by the reforms that started in the 1980s that Sahlgren does not like. As it turns out, there was a long series of such international comparisons, beginning in the 1960s, conducted under the auspices of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Over the course of 40 years of comparative assessment, Finland was among the top performers only twice, and in only one subject: reading. No wonder everyone, including the Finns, were astonished at the performance that Finland was to demonstrate on the 2000 PISA assessment, a performance that followed by more than a decade the reforms that Sahlgren says did not account for Finland’s 2000 PISA performance.

Readers of my Top Performers blog might remember my account of a recent paper by Geoff Masters the CEO of the Australian Council on Education Research. In that article, Masters points out that Finland is not alone in seeing its standing in the PISA league tables erode since the first PISA administrations. Most of the countries whose standing slipped are countries, like Australia, that recently adopted or at least partially embraced the kind of policies advocated by Sahlgren’s organization. Then, he points out, there are others, like the UK and the United States, that have embraced such policies and have never been among the PISA top performers. And there are still others, like Sweden, that were never among the top performers, but whose performance declined nonetheless when they adopted market-based reforms or tough-minded teacher accountability. Sahlgren is certainly right in pointing out that we need to be aware of the possibility of lag effects in the operation of complex social systems. But it does not look to me as though Finland’s success on the 2000 PISA is one of those cases.