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Pasi Sahlberg and the Finnish "Truth About Finnish Schools"

02/25/2015 12:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

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On February 23, 2015, I read a post on Facebook attributed to The People LLC, entitled, The Truth about Finnish Schools.

The authors' analysis is scathing.

I have saved the entire post here.

Here are some excerpts:

Finnish schools only demand the most basic of educational levels to be met (about 4th grade level). After that, you are on your own to finance any real education. It is on the basis of this very basic level that they are scoring so well. Finland's high scores, then, would not be because they are stretching minds and increasing breadth of knowledge. It is more based on:

(1) Has the population being tested met the low educational levels that have been set by UNESCO for Education for All?; (link here)

and, (2) does the information collected on students demonstrate that the students' values and beliefs are reflective of the standards for the UN's Education for Sustainable Development? (link here)

Finland began their Common Core type standardization in the 60's. Given that it is a completely socialist country in which everyone's "needs" as determined by the government elite are provided through unbelievable levels of taxation; and, which was the perfect experimental environment for all of this due to its relative geographic isolation and extremely homogeneous population, it is no wonder that this country has surpassed every other in meeting the UN's and UNESCO's goals. ...

As for being freer, that only happened there once the testing showed that teachers were effectively being trained to produce the kind of citizen designed by the state.

There was no need for the test or the accountability measures after that point. This is also the point at which teachers were given autonomy in the classroom as there was no longer a need for "observations".

Finland accomplished the loss of free thinking/free will designed by the architects of the Prussian system in terms of the product (type of citizen) that teachers were expected to produce:

"...you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will."

Wow.

Incidentally, the above quote about "fashioning the will" can be found in the publication, Address to the German Nation, by German philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814). The same criticism of adopting the Prussian model is also levied against American "founder of the common school movement" Horace Mann.

Apparently, America has its own issues of roots tied to "loss of free thinking/free will."

But back to mindless Finland, with its "very basic education" that somehow leads to high international test scores even as it completely dodges those pesky standardized tests with which also-Prussian-linked America is plagued.

I decided to ask Finnish educator and author Pasi Sahlberg for his thoughts on the previously-noted, supposed "truth" about Finland and its education system.

First, some information on Sahlberg:

Pasi Sahlberg is Finnish educator, author and scholar. He has worked as schoolteacher, teacher educator, researcher and policy advisor in Finland and has studied education systems and reforms around the world. His expertise includes school improvement, international education issues, classroom teaching and learning, and school leadership. His best-seller book "Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland" (Teachers College Press, 2011) won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award. He is a former Director General of CIMO (Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation) in Helsinki and currently a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA, USA. More on his website: pasisahlberg.com and Twitter: @pasi_sahlberg.

Pasi Sahlberg is a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA, USA. He is experienced in classroom teaching, training teachers and leaders, coaching schools and advising education policy-makers around the world. Pasi is an international speaker and author who has given more than 300 keynote speeches and published over 100 articles, chapters and books on education.

Pasi has lived and worked in England (King's College), the United States (World Bank in Washington, DC) and Italy (European Training Foundation in Torino) and worked with 50 education systems around the world. He earned his PhD from the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) in 1996 and has been invited speaker in Harvard University, Stanford University, Columbia University, George Washington University, University of Chicago and Vanderbilt University in the U.S. and Parliament Houses in England, Scotland, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union.

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Pasi Sahlberg

I figured he was qualified to offer a word on the "truth" about Finnish schools. (Understatement, of course.)

Here is his initial reaction:

Mercedes,

Thanks for passing me these texts. I have read all sorts of things about Finnish education but this one goes beyond all of them. It makes me wonder if that is written by a serious person?

I assured Sahlberg that the text was serious and asked that he please respond. He replied that "the entire piece of writing is so far off" and was not sure addressing it would help. However, I noted that my concern was that others would read the above skewed version of Finnish "truth" and take it for reality.

At that, I am pleased to note, Finnish Sahlberg offers the following response to the narrow, American version of "socialist" life in his country:

When I ask people almost anywhere I go what do they think when they think about Finland they see similar things: Snow, cold, trees, lakes and ... It is true that only a few people have visited Finland, home of 5.5 million people. Therefore lack of knowledge of my home country is understandable.

What is surprising, however, is that there are those who- despite all the news, documentaries, journalism, research and literature today openly available to anyone interested to learn more- believe that Finland is a 'completely socialist country' where its children are educated by the State rather than parents, that the vast majority of children don't get enough school education their parents (if they can afford it) have to buy proper education for their children, that resources are not distributed equitably to all, and that all schools are unionized. It wouldn't take too much time or effort to read about or talk to someone experienced with what Finland once was and what it has become as a nation.

This is what one would find: Today Finland is one of the most competitive market economies, leads the world in innovation and technological advancement, and has one of the least frequent incidences of corruption anywhere. Further inquiry would reveal that this Scandinavian country, together with its Western neighbors, also is a leader in empowering women in politics and perhaps therefore has only a few children who live in poverty, has one of the smallest income inequalities in society, gives every child a right to high-quality early education, offers universal healthcare and free higher education to all, and has - probably for these reasons - one of the happiest people on the planet. And, on top of all this, Finland also tops the international league table in freedom of press. Call it socialism if you wish, most Finns (and many Americans living in Finland) find this type of lifestyle worth of their taxes (that I pay here just as much as I did back home without any of these benefits).

Oh, yes, and Common Core? Well, since teachers are highly educated professionals there is no need for tight central government control of what or how teachers teach in Finland. Teaching and learning are highly individualized in schools and customized to the needs of children and communities. Teaching is such a popular profession in Finland that only the lucky ones are selected to teach. 90 percent of teachers and happy with their work and most of them continue teaching until the end of their working life. Sounds too good to be true? Propaganda, perhaps? Welcome and take a look.

Good further readings about Finland:

- Sahlberg, P. (2015). Finnish Lessons 2.0. What can the world learn from educational change in Finland. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

- Halme, K., Lindy, I., Piirainen, K., Salminen, V., & White, J. (2014). Finland as a knowledge economy 2.0: Lessons on policies and governance. Washington, DC: World Bank.

- Chaker, A. N. (2014). The Finnish miracle. Helsinki, Finland: Talentum.

I can't get past the irony of a supposed Finnish "socialist" coming to America, where he is "free" to be taxed and receive less for it.

But let's close shop for now.

The People, LLC, post ends as follows:

Do we want the end of assessments? Absolutely! We have to go one better there, as well, to say that we want rid of all data-driven anything. There are still teachers around (many of whom got let-go just cuz they suddenly could be) who still remember being able to decide within their classroom what it was that each student needed and the direction that they wanted their curriculum to go for the year. No assessments necessary. Just human interaction, talent, and a dose of common sense.

We want the things they are selling based on Finland--we just want nothing to do with the Finnish Model. America already did exactly what we are discussing and did it better than anyone else in the world as evidenced, not by tests and data, but by innovation and ingenuity and standard of living.

America "did it better than anyone else," yet here we are, being choked by the hellish union of unfettered business/philanthropy dollars and state addiction to federal education funding.

Way to go, Amer-u-cuh.

Originally posted 02-23-15 at deutsch29.wordpress.com

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who's Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.