Finnish Fallacies

The decline in Finland’s educational performance that has occurred since I wrote this post on Out In Left Field has inspired me to post it again. (See here for a nice discussion by Greg Ashman). It seems that perhaps Finland itself has drawn the wrong conclusions from its prior success.

The Finnish Fallacy: drawing the wrong lessons from our favorite international comparison

Last week, CNN ran an opinion piece by Pasi Sahlberg, the former director general in the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture (and now a visiting professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education) explaining “Why Finland’s schools are top- notch.”

This is not the first piece that Stahlberg has written for American readers, and one likely reason he’s been getting so much attention is that what he tells us so exactly matches what so many of us want to hear. What makes Finnish schools so great, it turns out, is that they focus more on funding, educational equity, child-centered play, and “the whole child,” and less on testing and “narrow academic achievement”:

There are three things that have positively affected the quality of Finnish schools that are absent in American schools. First, Finland has built a school system that has over time strengthened educational equity. This means early childhood education for all children, funding all schools so they can better serve those with special educational needs, access to health and well-being services for all children in all schools, and a national curriculum that insists that schools focus on the whole child rather than narrow academic achievement.

Stahlberg doesn’t mention that the U.S. spends more per pupil than Finland does, and, in particular, a great deal on special education. Nor does he reconcile the claim that Finland has early childhood education for all children with the fact that Finns famously don’t start school till age 7. As for the implication that U.S. schools are, by comparison, narrowly focused on achievement, he doesn’t mention that Finnish schools lack sports teams, marching bands, and proms.

Second, teachers in Finland have time to work together with their colleagues during the school day. According to the most recent data provided by the OECD the average teaching load of junior high school teachers in Finland is about half what it is in the United States. That enables teachers to build professional networks, share ideas and best practices. This is an important condition to enhancing teaching quality.

But is the only factor? Is networking even the most important factor in teacher quality? Stahlberg doesn’t mention here that Finland recruits its teachers from the top 10% of college graduates, while only 23% of U.S. teachers come from even the top third of college graduates. 

Finally, play constitutes a significant part of individual growth and learning in Finnish schools. Every class must be followed by a 15-minute recess break so children can spend time outside on their own activities. Schooldays are also shorter in Finland than in the United States, and primary schools keep the homework load to a minimum so students have time for their own hobbies and friends when school is over.

I agree with Stahlberg that American kids need many more 15-minute outdoor recess breaks, and that our primary schools should assign much less homework. But there are a couple of important distinctions he omits. First, if you include indoor recess, in-class games, and indoor shows and movies—much more common in U.S. schools than elsewhere—American students are getting many more breaks than it first appears. The Finns send their kids outdoors in all kinds of weather; so should we. And if we simply reduce the passive, couch-potato breaks from learning, we can increase the time available for true recess without reducing the time available for true learning.

Secondly, there’s work, and then there’s busywork. American homework is notorious for its busywork components. We can reduce our homework load substantially without decreasing its educational value—simply by reducing the cutting, pasting, coloring, illustrating, assembling, diagramming, and explaining.

Stahlberg goes on to identify three problems in American education that make things worse: excessive testing, school choice, and novice teachers. Nowhere does he suggest that there might be any problems with our educational curricula.

And nowhere does he reference what Finnish exchange students have said about the American school system, for example, that much of the high school homework resembles elementary school assignments—e.g., making posters–or that high school tests are often multiple choice rather than essay-based, or that, upon returning to Finland, they ended up having to repeat the school year.

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