By Cathy N. Davidson
It is fascinating to be in Hong Kong this week talking with the nation’s top educational officials and business leaders about new modes of learning for the digital workplace during the release of a new book by Pasi Sahlberg, a leading innovator in the Finnish Ministry of Education. Educators in Hong Kong are as intrigued, inspired, and perplexed by the Finnish educational success story as those in the United States.“Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” details the way Finland has become the gold standard in public education by going in nearly the opposite direction of all the other top-ranked systems in the world.
Whereas “excellence” is the byward of educational theory in most countries these days, “equality” and “equity” govern Finnish school reform. No one guessed that Finland would still come out No. 1 by standardized measures of educational attainment.
It’s easy to see why Sahlberg’s book is getting attention in the United States. We have a crisis. With our high student drop-out rates, our even higher teacher attrition rates and demoralization, and our low test scores as measured by the world standards of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, we need to look at others who are excelling where we fail. We usually look to places like Hong Kong, where superior standardized test scores are the norm.
Finland’s approach is opposite. They have come out on top in the OECD rankings even though, as a nation, they have abolished standardized testing. They view it as antiquated as a method, inefficient as a way of actually measuring the most important learning, and a dis-incentive to great, inspiring teaching. Since 1980, when Finland reformed its schools, it took the opposite course of seemingly every other country in the world. Finland has few private schools and the rest are public and tuition is free. Virtually every school is a “charter school” in the sense that teachers and principals are given the freedom to devise methods that they believe work best for the particular students in their own school.