The Finnish model: A beacon for education reform?

What can Canada learn from Finland’s commitment to education?

By Vivian McCaffrey | Posted September 7, 2012 by

For the last decade, Finland’s success on international tests has caught the attention of education policymakers around the world. What is it about this small Nordic nation that has led to its students’ high performance in science, math and reading assessments? Are there lessons for other countries, such as Canada? Pasi Sahlberg, a former teacher and education expert, endeavours to answer these questions in Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?

What is most perplexing for international experts is that Finland has produced top-performing students while eschewing market-based education reforms premised on competition and standardized tests. “Finland is an example of a nation that lacks school inspection, standardized curriculum, high-stakes student assessments, test-based accountability, and a race-to-the-top mentality with regard to educational change,” Sahlberg explains.

In Finland, the emphasis is on teacher-based assessment; teachers have the authority to design their own assessments and use them when they deem appropriate. External testing is limited. About 10 per cent of students participate in random-sample tests to assess aspects of the education program. The only universal test is the matriculation exams that high school students must pass to be eligible for post-secondary education.

The centrepiece of Finnish education is the nation’s teaching force. Teacher education reform dates back to 1979 when a new law on teacher education was introduced, along with a focus on professional development. Teachers are required to have a master’s degree and competition for spots in faculties of education is fierce. Only about 10 per cent of applicants are accepted.

The term “accountability” is not part of educational policy discourse. Finns place high trust in their teachers and provide them considerable professional autonomy. “The basic assumption in Finnish schools is that teachers, by default, are well-educated professionals and are doing their best in schools. In real professional learning communities, teachers trust each other, communicate frequently about teaching and learning, and rely on their principal’s guidance and leadership,” writes Sahlberg.

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3 Responses to “The Finnish model: A beacon for education reform?”

  1. Notice that education in Quebec is the complete antithesis of the successful, decentralized and quality-teacher-based Finnish model. Our university education departments are coerced into training generalists and our entire system is at the mercy of a bloated bureaucracy. It will take a long time to change Quebec, but it will happen…when I’m in my wheelchair and toothless….i will still bring party balloons!

    • Yes, sometimes it feels like the best we can hope for here is to control the extent of the damage being inflicted. But I agree that sooner or later progressive forces are going to have to move beyond a defensive stance and start articulating a vision for a clear and better alternative. The Finnish model certainly provides a powerful alternative to the current insanity. Hopefully we’ll see some of these changes before we retire 🙂


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