School Reform: The Finnish Reinvention of Teaching — A Tale of Revolution in Culture

Summary: A central feature in the successful reform of Finnish schools has been the placement of teachers at center stage, as professionals on a social par with doctors and lawyers, and with autonomous responsibility for the academic growth of their students.

The transformation of Finnish schools from a system mired in mediocrity and elitism to one heavily scrutinized as an international standard has been much dissected, and has even spawned a minor cottage industry for the export of Finnish educational ideas. See Pasi Sahlberg and Finnish Lessons. The transformation in the span of about thirty years has been notable, and generates instruction for our own American floundering.

The reasons for the Finnish makeover are complex, within conditions that may not apply to the American experience, and are subjects of books well beyond the scope of a blog post or two. However, I am particularly interested in the voyage of the Finnish teacher from an obscure player in Finnish school mediocrity to the central figure on the stage in Finnish school recovery. How have the Finns managed this?

In Finnish Lessons, Sahlberg recounts the Finnish struggle for cultural independence and national sovereignty, having once been a vassal state to one degree or another to the Swedes or the Russians over different periods of their existence as a people. Because of the struggle for Finnish cultural identity against these historical hegemons, literacy and related things Finnish have long maintained a prominent place in the Finnish firmament. As guardian of this torch teachers have long held esteem in the eyes of their countrymen, though it seems the full ascension to professional character has been an artifact of the late twentieth and early twenty first century – that is, of the more recent era.

Such esteem of teachers as part of the Finnish story of cultural independence contrasts with the more modest perception of teachers in American culture as journeymen and women, lower on the status totem, and mired among conflicting cultural forces as union labor. If the professionalization of the teacher corps is to be a cornerstone of school reform, as I believe it must be, then the Finns have enjoyed a critical head start in an arena that yet perplexes the American school reform movement.

Sahlberg emphasizes the moral dimension of teaching as perceived in Finland. Some of this is what we see also in this country – “the inner desire to help others”, the promotion of social justice, and personal happiness – but Sahlberg implies these values have much more regular application in the real lives of Finns, and so rebound to the social status of teachers. Moreover, it takes little imagination to stretch “moral dimension” to include assuring the survival of Finnish culture against the shadow of not only the Swedish and Russian ethos but also against the many tentacles of other global cultures in the digital age, including but not limited to American popular culture.

Alongside the cultural predisposition to value the teaching profession, Finnish authorities moved in the 1970’s to transit teacher education programs from colleges devoted to teacher preparation to full line status as a field of study in universities, and universities only. In this setting the teaching degree culminated not only with a master’s degree at minimum, but a master’s program that required full research thesis of the rigor and caliber of traditional academic degrees. Along the way, particularly where upper level secondary subject teaching was involved, full university professors in those academic disciplines became intimately invested with the training of teachers, further raising the intellectual demands of the various teacher preparation programs.

The platform was therefore prepared to create teachers who were research oriented in their approach to their classroom work. In some ways, we see similar moves in this country in the guise of formal and informal testing designed to guide instruction based on the progress (or lack thereof) of individual students.

The difference is that Finnish teachers are well prepared to approach their classroom with this mind set in a context that expects professional rigor, while American teachers too often lack a systematic framework, are forced to learn to make good use of testing on the fly, and are sometimes ambivalent about such an approach that arguably takes time and energy away from teachers’ traditional role as mentors in various dimensions for their students. Where American teachers are sometimes ambivalent about their role in research, their Finnish counterparts are fully committed by their investment in their career from the outset of their training.

From the Finnish experience, there is a clear argument about substantial reform in the training of American teachers, though it is difficult to see in the chaotic and much more extensively diverse American environment how we are to row most boats in the same direction. Perhaps there is a model for teacher preparation in a blunderbuss such as No Child Left Behind, which has been greatly flawed but to my mind unquestionable has kick started the school reform movement in this country. It is hard to imagine, however, the fiercely independent American universities and their professors swinging in to line behind such a federal initiative, but federal funding has a way of bending minds.

So, two legs of Finnish reform have been the predilection of the Finns to value literacy and hence teachers, and the coordinated national effort to reform teacher training into a high quality research based academic platform.

A third leg seems to be the “implicit trust” placed in teachers to provide quality instruction and results with their students, and the consequent high  level of professional autonomy in the work environment granted teachers, so strikingly different from any allowed in this country.

The origin of the trust and autonomy, however important, is a bit difficult to trace, though likely made more palatable by the vigorous preparation undergone by the Finnish teacher corps. Sahlberg in my reading points to no particular policy decisions. A series of fiscal crises in the early 1990’s in Finland led to decentralized budget decisions in the public sector in general, schools included. In the prop wash of these minor cataclysms school principals found themselves in greater control of their individual schools; possibly these dynamics reverberated into greater autonomy for teachers, which in turn has been protected from upper level hierarchies by the independent decision making of principals.

The comparative role of testing in this country and Finland may give us another lens on the question. Whereas in this country we seem to be comparing schools and their respective test scores with increasing intensity, and measure progress of schools by somewhat objective norms related to the tests we give, the Finns do little such thing. While they obviously submit to the international testing that reveals their enviable results, in day to day practice most testing is of the instructional guidance sort. It does seem at some point there must have been some seminal institutional decision that eschewed standardized country wide testing in favor of an “implicit trust” that the moral element of teaching in Finnish culture and the quality of training provided teachers would produce quality results.

However this key change has come about, Sahlberg asserts in Finnish Lessons that teachers in his country believe that external standardized testing can be “troublesome” by leading to a “narrowing of curriculum, teaching for testing, and unhealthy competition among schools and teachers (pg.89).” Hmmm. Seems to me a not small proportion of American teachers would agree, but the latter is a voice marginalized in too many important forums.

But there’s more. The very autonomy granted teachers in the Finnish system appears to be an incentive to become and remain a teacher. In fact, in surveys Finnish teachers consistently state if they were be continually scrutinized and micro managed, teaching would hold much less sway for them, and they would migrate to other professions. I am reminded of a dear friend who, when I told him I was going into teaching, rolled his eyes and lamented my descent into a bureaucratic death. Professional autonomy can be a highly prized commodity.

Moreover, such a wandering eye in the Finnish teacher would not be chimerical. Because of the rigor of teacher training and its research component, teacher training graduates are well regarded elsewhere in the Finnish economy, and their job prospects outside of teaching are generally good. So gotta treat ‘em well, with respect, or they fly away. It would be interesting to compare the lateral prospects of their American cousins.

From an American perspective, Finnish teachers are given parameters that make a truly professional job possible. Though pay scales are not enormously advantageous for the Finnish teachers (pay does go up more quickly than in America), Finnish teachers spend perhaps 40% less time than their American counterparts interacting with a classroom of students. As a consequence, life in school proceeds at what seems a saner pace and allows contemplation, collegial collaboration, curriculum design, mentoring of individual students, and consultation with parents – much of which is done by American teachers, if done much, on their own time outside of the contracted school day.  

The upshot is that teaching is a highly desirable and much sought after profession in Finland. Candidates for teaching come from the upper fifth of secondary school graduates, while it is safe to say American teachers as a group come from a less distinguished slice of high school graduates. So it is not just that Finns trust their teachers – they trust them because they are the best and brightest, have been trained well to guide the development of curriculum and instruction, and have been given the research skills with which to guide themselves independently into pliable territory in their work with students.

Teaching in Finland is a career that enjoys the same social prestige as that of doctors, lawyers, and architects, which in turn draws more of the best and brightest. I note with interest that Japanese teachers enjoy a similar social esteem, another country that consistently scores well on international comparisons of academic skills. Is it accidental that American teachers experience a modest social status, while our student skills lag behind in the same wake? It would be instructive to bring other countries into a comparison on this dimension.

So what are the “Finnish Lessons” for American school reform, specifically in the preparation and culture of teachers? Simply, it would be to prepare teachers with a research based rigor and let them do their job with a minimum of outside interference, that is, with autonomy and a sense of professional responsibility common to doctors and lawyers.

In place of an intrusive testing regimen, there is social trust in the ability of these mechanisms to produce high quality results. By contrast, in the States testing is used as a bully whip that seeks to compel a shift in culture, though with mixed results to date.

Through a more complex lens, with the help of some history, the Finns appear to have managed to create a new culture around teaching that sustains its own momentum. By producing teachers that can contribute at a high level with a modicum of bureaucratic meddling, and can move laterally into other desirable careers, the Finns have managed to upgrade the quality of the individual who becomes a teacher – not exclusively the most intelligent, but those individuals who have the complex of qualities that make for highly successful academics, and who can then be expected to bring that same mix of work ethic and commitment to quality to their work with students. Moreover, were any of these incentives or freedoms to be abridged, the very success of the Finnish educational system would be jeopardized, as apparently the bureaucrats of the Finnish world recognize.

Also, in what seems almost an historical accident, the Finnish school system had significantly decentralized in response to a fiscal crisis, which has tended to reinforce the more conscious efforts made to alter teaching preparation and culture.

The result is a homeostasis that reinforces successful momentum.

By comparison, American schools are stuck in a negative gyre in which teachers are subtly blamed, and so increasingly are subject to hierarchical control in the effort to right the listing ship of schools.


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