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Five U.S. innovations that helped Finland’s schools improve but that American reformers now ignore


Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg is one of the world’s leading experts on school reform and educational practices. The author of the best-selling Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland?”and a former director general of Finland’s Center for International Mobility and Cooperation, Sahlberg is now a visiting professor of practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has written a number of important posts for this blog, including “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools,” and “What the U.S. can’t learn from Finland about ed reform.”

In this post Sahlberg writes about what constitutes real education innovation, a topic that was the subject of a recent eport by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, about which I wrote and questioned here. Sahlberg notes how U.S. innovation has helped many successful education systems around the world even as Americans ignore those very same reforms. This is important reading.

By Pasi Sahlberg

An intriguing question whether innovation in education can be measured has an answer now. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in its recent report “Measuring Innovation in Education: A New Perspective, Educational Research and Innovation” measures Innovation in Education in 22 countries and 6 jurisdictions, among them the U.S. states Indiana, Massachusetts and Minnesota.

One conclusion of the OECD’s measurement of innovation between 2003 and 2011 is that “there have been large increases in innovative pedagogic practices across all countries … in areas such as relating lessons to real life, higher order skills, data and text interpretation and personalization of teaching.” The United States did not do very well when compared to other participating countries overall. “Not surprising,” some commented, pointing to tougher accountability measures and an obsession with standardized testing in most parts of the country.

It was surprising, however, to see the OECD’s list of the top five U.S. “innovations in pedagogic practice”: 1) more observation and description in secondary school science lessons; 2) more individualized reading instruction in primary school classrooms; 3) more use of answer explanation in primary mathematics; 4) more relating of primary school lessons to everyday life; and 5) more text interpretation in primary lessons. “Innovation in organizational policy and practice” included mostly different aspects of student assessment and testing. Good innovation sometimes means doing less of something in order to make time for experimentation with new pedagogical strategies.

An interesting observation that anyone interested in what current high-performing school systems have in common is that they all, some more than the others, have derived critical lessons from abroad. Singapore, one of the most successful reformers and highest performers in global education, has been sending students to study education in U.S. universities and encouraged university professors to collaborate in teaching and research with their American colleagues. Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea have done the same. More recently China has also benefited from education innovation from the United States and other Western education systems. Even those running school systems above the 49th parallel in North America admit that U.S. research and innovation have been instrumental in making education in Canada world-class.

Finland is no exception. If you want to discover the origins of the most successful practices in pedagogy, student assessment, school leadership, and school improvement in Finland, you only need to visit some schools there and have a conversation with teachers and principals. Most of them have studied psychology, teaching methods, curriculum theories, assessment models, and classroom management researched and designed in the United States in their initial teacher education programs. Primary school teacher education syllabi in Finnish universities include scores of books and research articles written by U.S. scholars. Professional development and school improvement courses and programs often include visitors from the U.S. universities to teach and work with Finnish teachers and leaders. So common is the reliance on U.S. ideas in Finland that some have come to call the Finnish school system a large-scale laboratory of American education innovation.

The relatively low overall rating of “innovation in education” in the United States raises an interesting question: Where are all those great ideas in the United States that other countries have been able to utilize to improve the performance of their school systems during the last century? It is interesting that, according to the OECD, the United States exhibits only modest innovation in its education system but, at the same time, it is the world leader in producing research, practical models and innovation to other countries.

Five significant American educational ideas have been instrumental in accelerating Finland’s success in teaching and learning:
John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education

The roots of Finland’s pedagogical ideas date back to the 1860s when Uno Cygnaeus, who is sometimes referred as the father of basic education in Finland, said that in an ideal classroom, pupils speak more than the teacher. He was also a fan of practical aspects of education and insisted that both boys and girls must learn all the practical skills that people need in everyday lives. It is understandable that the pragmatic, child-centered educational thinking of John Dewey has been widely accepted among Finnish educators. Dewey’s philosophy of education forms a foundation for academic, research-based teacher education in Finland and influenced also the work of the most influential Finnish scholar professor Matti Koskenniemi in the 1940s. All primary school teachers read and explore Dewey’s and Koskenniemi’s ideas as part of their courses leading to the master’s degree. Many Finnish schools have adopted Dewey’s view of education for democracy by enhancing students’ access to decision-making regarding their own lives and studying in school. Some visitors to Finland, among them the late Seymour Sarason, have observed that the entire Finnish school system looks like John Dewey’s laboratory school in the U.S.

2. Cooperative Learning

Unlike in most other countries, cooperative learning has become a pedagogical approach that is widely practiced throughout Finnish education system. Finland’s new 9-year comprehensive launched in early 1970s was built on an idea of regular small-group learning of students coming from different family backgrounds. But it was the national curriculum reform in 1994 that brought cooperative learning as it is known now to most Finnish schools. Before that, all the main researchers and trainers of cooperative learning, including David Johnson, Roger Johnson and Elizabeth Cohen, had visited Finland to train trainers and teachers on their methods of teaching. Their books and articles were translated into Finnish and shared openly with all schools. The 1994 National Curriculum included a requirement that all schools design their own curricula in a way that would enhance teaching and learning according to constructivist educational ideas. Although cooperative learning was not mentioned as an obligatory pedagogical practice in schools, there were several recommendations for teachers to include elements of cooperative learning into their regular teaching. Ever since, cooperative learning has become an integral part of initial teacher education in Finland and one of the most popular themes in professional development of teachers and school leaders in Finland.

3. Multiple Intelligences

The spirit of 1970s school reform in Finland included another idea that derives from U.S. universities and scholars: development of the whole child. The overall goal of schooling in Finland was to support child’s holistic development and growth by focusing on different aspects of talent and intelligence. After abolishing all streaming and tracking of students in the mid-1980s, both education policies and school practices adopted the principle that all children have different kinds of intelligences and that schools must find ways how to cultivate these different individual aspects in balanced ways. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences became a leading idea in transferring these policy principles to school practice. Again, the 1994 National Curriculum emphasizes that school education must provide all students with opportunities to develop all aspects of their minds. As a consequence, that curriculum framework required that all schools have a balanced program, blending academic subjects with art, music, crafts, and physical education. This framework moreover mandated that all schools provide students with sufficient time for their self-directive activities. Gardner’s influence has also been notable in the Finnish system by conferring a broader definition of “talent.”. Today, Finnish teachers believe that over 90 percent of students can learn successfully in their own classrooms if given the opportunity to evolve in a holistic manner.

4. Alternative Classroom Assessments

Without frequent standardized and census-based testing, the Finnish education system relies on local monitoring and teacher-made student assessments. A child-centered, interaction-rich whole-child approach in the national curriculum requires that different student assessment models are used in schools. Furthermore, primary school pupils don’t get any grades in their assessments before they are in fifth grade. It was natural that Finnish teachers found alternative student assessment methods attractive. And it is ironic that many of these methods were developed at U.S. universities and are yet far more popular in Finland than in the United States. These include portfolio assessment, performance assessment, self-assessment and self-reflection, and assessment for learning methods. Teacher education programs in Finland include elements of study of educational assessment and evaluation theories and also provide all students with practical knowledge and skill of how to use alternative student assessment methods in the classroom.

5. Peer Coaching

Another surprising aspect of Finnish education is that it lacks much of that change knowledge that is normally expected to guide policy-makers and education authorities in planning and implementing desired reforms in education. Research and development of system-wide educational reform and change hasn’t belonged to the academic repertoire of Finnish academia. The number of research papers related to that field has therefore remained minimal. Instead, Finnish education experts have relied on foreign sources of expertise and knowledge. A good example of an innovation designed in the U.S. is peer coaching that evolved in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of research and development work of Bruce Joyce and his colleagues. He also visited Finland to train trainers and education leaders on how the impact of professional development of teacher can be enhanced. Peer coaching—that is, a confidential process through which teachers work together to reflect on current practices, expand, improve, and learn new skills, exchange ideas, conduct classroom research and solve problems together in school—became normal practice in school improvement programs and professional development in Finland since the mid-1990s.

For me, just like for many of my Finnish colleagues, the United States is home to a great deal of educational research and innovation. Why doesn’t this show in international comparisons, like the recent review of innovation in education by the OECD? We visitors to the United States often wonder why innovations that have brought improvement to all successful education systems have not been embedded in the U.S. school system. One reason may be that the work of the school in the United States is so much steered by bureaucracies, test-based accountability and competition that schools are simply doing what they must do in this situation. Many visitors from the United States to Finland conclude their observations by saying that Finnish education looks like the U.S. education in the 1970s and 1980s.

My message to my colleagues in the United States is: This is the only education system in the world that is self-sufficient in terms of ideas, knowledge, research and innovation—and financial resources. All others, more or less, depend on knowledge and ideas generated in the United States. It is hard to accept the conclusion of the OECD’s measurement that the greatest American innovation in organizational policy and practice is student assessment, including standardized testing.

The question should not be: “How to have more innovation in education?” The real question is: “How to make the best use of all existing educational ideas that are somewhere in American schools and universities?” The answer is not to have more charter schools or private ownership of public schools to boost innovation.

The lesson from the most successful education systems is this: Education policies should not be determined by mythology and ideology but guided by research and evidence from home and abroad.