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159 of 166 people found the following review helpful
on November 16, 2011
Pasi Sahlberg's book is a must-read for all concerned parents, educators, administrators, government officials, union leaders, policy-makers, scholars, and philanthropists who are alarmed that our current market-driven/competitive/punitive model isn't working in the U.S. and that a radical change of course is required. It's amazing that Sahlberg shares the Finnish roadmap with the world in what can only be described as an act of altruism. As a concerned mother of two whose children are now enrolled in public schools after five years of unaffordable private schooling, this book is a godsend. It is a relief to learn about the existence of a more effective, humane, equitable, and cost-effective approach to public school education. Sahlberg's book offers hope to those of us who yearn for a better and more thoughtful system for our children both in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Finland is consistently ranked as one of the top performing countries in the international test known as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) that measures the knowledge and skills of 15-year olds in the subject areas of reading, math, and science. (In 2009, 65 developed countries participated in PISA.) According to Sahlberg, Finland has achieved this distinction since 2000 almost by accident and without intent. The driving force behind the redesign of the Finnish educational system in the 1980's and '90's was not to achieve high international test scores, but to provide an equitable education for all students.

It is astonishing to learn that Finnish teachers spend less hours per day teaching in classrooms than their U.S. counterparts. It seems counterintuitive to Americans and begs the question of how a country can achieve such outstanding results with less teaching? Sahlberg shares with us the national philosophy that permeates almost every aspect of Finnish society, including education: "Less is More." Finland has wisely chosen not to impose a standardized testing regime upon its schools (against the advice of some of its more conservative government officials and business leaders at the time its policies were being formulated). Without the need to devote precious time and resources to test preparation, Finnish teachers instead have freedom to spend school hours on something more useful: actual learning. Sahlberg describes how Finnish teachers are rarely found standing in front of classrooms lecturing students. Instead, they are found milling about - whether inside their classrooms, in the school kitchen for cooking class, or outside in the woods for a lesson that incorporates nature. In other words, hands-on, project-based learning is common in Finland. This approach to pedagogy engages children, while inspiring them to think creatively, become absorbed in thoughtful analysis, problem-solve, and work with others in a collaborative manner. (Preparation for the real world of work anyone??) Elementary school education does not begin until the age of seven. The school day is much shorter for children. Daily recess is mandatory. There is less homework. The Finns are strong believers in not stifling the joys of childhood and allow plenty of time for children to play outside of school where they believe most learning is done.

As a result of this Finnish climate of inspired learning, not only are there better academic results as objectively measured by PISA, students feel less stress and anxiety about school. Engaging students in this manner has resulted in a very low high school drop-out rate (less than 1%). This approach to education also results in a happier society. According to an array of international "happiness surveys" that Sahlberg cites, Finland is also ranked at or near the top. And, if you think that the Finnish Way couldn't get any better, Sahlberg claims that Finland spends less money per pupil than the U.S., while managing to pay its teachers slightly higher salaries.

Salhberg recounts how Finland decided to go its own way in educational reform by not following either the "Asian Model" (wherein test scores & college-graduation rates may be high, but students are reportedly overworked and as stressed-out as their U.S. counterparts) or the market-driven model of the U.S., Britain, and a host of other Western countries. You'll learn about the irony of while having rejected these alternatives (in what Sahlberg playfully describes as the "GERM" countries - Global Education Reform Movement), at the micro level, Finland has adopted many of the best pedagogical practices that are research-based from these same countries (e.g., U.S., Britain, Australia, Germany, etc.). Finally, it is noteworthy that Finland's progress has been achieved with a union that includes over 95% of its teachers.

What is the secret to Finland's success? It starts with the teaching profession. On average, Finland accepts only 10% of applicants into its teaching universities. Applicants must not only have strong academic records, they must also possess interpersonal skills that will enable them to teach well. Next, Finland's teaching students must complete a 5-7 year course of study, earning both undergraudate and master's degrees. Sahlberg explains how course requirements include those in an underlying substantive area (e.g., science, math, etc.), along with pedagogy, research, and student teaching. Once the newly minted teachers are placed into schools, they will be paid well (with no student loan debt since their university education is free), while also having autonomy to adapt a loose national curriculum into one that meets local needs. They are free to choose their own teaching methods as they see fit. In other words, Finland trusts that its teachers will teach well without outside interference or oversight. (Much as doctors are free to operate on patients without hospital administrators or policitians telling them how best to do their jobs.) Finnish teachers are given ample time each day to collaborate with their colleagues. Sahlberg points out that schools have specially designed spaces to make collaboration easier. Finally, Finnish teachers also attend continuing education classes throughout their careers in order to constantly learn and improve their teaching methods.

In the 1970's, Finland's educational system was considered to be mediocre. When it set its mind to change course, it was wise enough not to behave as a petulant child (behavior exhibited by many reformers and politicians in the U.S.) and expect that change would come overnight or in a couple of years. It was only through a societal desire for a new direction, well-thought out strategies, systemic changes to both the teaching profession and organization of schools, and implementation of research-based pedagogy, that Finland brought about dramatic change over the course of a few decades.

Had the U.S. listened to its own warnings as set forth during the Reagan era in the Department of Education's 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk," and implemented some of the common sense recommendations made then, perhaps we wouldn't find ourselves in the dismal spot that we now hold (and may have rendered the ideas behind No Child Left Behind as unnecessary). If you take anything away from reading Finnish Lessons it is this: Pasi Sahlberg argues that it is never too late to make the societal decisions that are necessary to turn around a country's (or a state's) educational system.

As we U.S. citizens sadly know, our country remains split both politically and ideologically, resulting in what seems to be never-ending government paralysis. It has been argued that the bipartisan consensus on education that existed in the past when the U.S. was considered a world leader in education, no longer does. Therefore, let us challenge any one of our 50 states to cut the purse strings from the federal government's education money (approx. 10% of state education budgets as noted by Sahlberg) and implement what's adaptable from the Finnish Way. If successful (which I would expect), over time other states would surely follow and perhaps even the federal government. In my opinion (and this is coming from a resident of Virginia), Vermont would be a perfect candidate to implement this kind of change because of its small size, its dedication to young children as evidenced by the many programs it already has in place for preschoolers to arrive at elementary school ready to learn, its tradition of independence, and its progressive and humanistic values. However, let's all think about this challenge and focus on our respective states (especially those not receiving Race to the Top funding from the Obama Administration). We have nothing to lose but a public education system that isn't working for everyone.
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on November 27, 2011
Pasi Sahlberg has written a remarkable book showing how Finland established a high performing education system by adopting policies counter to that which came in across most Western education systems. He calls these the GERM - the Global Education Reform Movement. The features of the GERM are: standardizing teaching and learning with common criteria for measurement and data; increased focus on core subjects, particularly literacy and numeracy; teaching a prescribed curriculum; transfer of models of administration from the corporate world; high stakes accountability policies - control through testing, inspection, division between schools and an ethos of punishment (for educators).

Sahlberg shows how Finland took another route, yet which led to high performance, even by international comparators. Its success was achieved by the simple solution of framing the development of the system around dialogue based on professionalism, trust and responsibility. It fostered practice change through reflection over theories and models of education whilst other countries focused on performance management, standardized testing and inspection.

As so many education systems opted for public grading, `shaming and blaming' of schools and teachers (for what?), ratcheting up pressure, and a mantra of `excellence' proclaimed as a threat not an aim, Finland went another way looking for the conditions which promote success and set about involving school communities in the process. This book is an antidote to `Race to the Top' (USA) `Journey to Excellence' (Scotland) and `raising the bar to outstanding' (England) by a process which works by more humble means, yet would seem to work very well indeed. Read this book to find out how this success was achieved.
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60 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2012
Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education powerfully argued that much of what passes for school reform costs a lot, accomplishes little and frequently exacerbates the weaknesses of education in the US. Therefore, when she praises a book for pointing education reformers in the right direction, it made sense to me to take a careful look. [New York Review of Books, March 22, 2012]
On the surface the Finnish education miracle is startling. Sahlberg, a former teacher and an established education policy expert with both the Finnish Government and the OECD, argues that Finnish schools in three or four decades of focused, government inspired, equity driven, educator friendly education policy changes have moved from average to the top of international comparison charts. The Finns have done this while achieving demonstrably high levels of learning across all social groups and intellectual levels, with teachers and students spending dramatically less time in the classroom than other OECD countries and in particular the US, and without the widespread use of standardized tests. It is a remarkable accomplishment: No child has been left behind! Specifically,
"Finland's response to improving learning of all students since the early 1970s has relied on four strategic principles:
1. Guarantee equal opportunity to good public education for all.
2. Strengthen professionalism of and trust in teachers.
3. Steer educational change through enriched information about the process of schooling and smart assessment policies.
4. Facilitate network-based school improvement collaboration between schools and non-governmental associations and groups." (Page 126)
Sahlberg highlights a number of key features of education in Finland. The one that caught Ravitch's attention (and mine)was the fact that in Finland, teaching and teachers are highly respected and while in the US, the majority of teachers are not high academic achievers, in Finland the strong desire to enter teaching means that teachers are high academic achievers. For example, recently there were 6000 candidates for 600 positions in primary teacher education programs. Moreover from the beginning these prospective teachers receive, according to Sahlberg, a rigorous academic and practical education. Sahlberg also argues that in Finland, Teacher Unions are an essential and positive part of efforts to maintain and improve the education process. Curriculum decisions, especially at the comprehensive school level (7 to 16 years of age), are largely in the hands of the teachers in a school rather than some centralized body.
Sahlberg's argument for the success of Finland's education system also highlights the fact that it is part of an explicit and continuing national policy to establish and maintain a democratic welfare state that ensures that the basic health and economic welfare needs of the population are provided to all. In Finland, according to UNICEF, only 3.4% of children are deemed to be in poverty compared to 21.7% in the United States and Sahlberg (and Ravitch) argues that this poverty disparity needs to be addressed as part of any effort to improve educational outcomes.
I see no reason to doubt the educational successes of the Finnish education system. However, I do see Sahlberg as having a strong political agenda that leads to the downplaying of key factors that are distinguishing and potentially important contributors to the success of the Finnish education system. First, I believe he overstates the recent turnaround in the Finnish education system and downplays the long term successes of education in Finland. For example, Finland's 12th graders were already ranked 2nd in the 1981-82 International mathematics assessment (Table 364, NCES Digest of Educational Statistics 1990). I believe that this level of attainment was too soon after many of the dramatic changes in the Finnish education system for these changes to be the primary reason for the success of Finnish schools in mathematics. Second, Sahlberg pays little attention to the potential impact of the size of Finnish schools on educational processes and outcomes. While it is true there are no longer single classroom schools in Finland, their schools are dramatically smaller than US schools at each level. According to Statistics Finland (personal communication) the average size of the 2836 comprehensive schools covering 526556 students aged 7 to 16 is 186! By comparison in the US the average size of Elementary Schools (typically Grades 1 through 5) is 473 students, Middle Schools is 595 and High Schools is 752. Another way of looking at these numbers is that in Finland a student will be in a group of 20 or 21 students through the first 9 years of his or her education, while in the US they will be part of a group of between 90 and 200! The pedagogical consequences are likely very significant. It is not hard to see how, given the high caliber of teachers in Finland, that a student can expect considerably more individual attention over his or her first 9 years of education than could be reasonably expected in a typical US school. Third, Sahlberg pays little attention to the role of the principal in Finnish schools. The small size of these schools guarantees that building principals will have an enormous impact on the school climate, interactions with parents and the work environment for the 10 or so teachers in each of these schools and in the classroom since many Finnish principals are also classroom teachers. Finally, Sahlberg in strongly criticizing the recent massive emphasis on standardized testing in US schools downplays the role of matriculation exams on the overall curriculum and learning processes in Finnish schools. These Finnish exams are equivalent to A-levels in the UK or AP exams in US schools and are critical though not exclusive in getting into university, which are 100% publically funded. It would have been helpful to see what Finnish education research says about the role of these exams in shaping curriculum at the Upper Secondary Schools and throughout the system.
In sum this is an intriguing, inspiring and provocative book. However, the reader needs to understand the full context of this Finnish education miracle and to carefully reflect on the issues confronting educators in the US that shaped the recent improvement strategies of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
One final note is that the cost of this 165 page paperback book is extraordinary: $35 list versus $17 for Diane Ravitch's book.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on November 14, 2011
I've spent several years looking for information on the Finnish school system, and "Finnish Lessons" is exactly what I wanted; a clear, well-ordered book that describes the development of Finnish schools, the culture that allowed them to be developed, and the thinking behind each step. I've already lent this book to several friends with an interest in improving schools in the United States, and they've all been as excited and stunned as I have to learn about the interaction between educational research and humanity that forms the foundation of Finland's remarkable schools. I think there are many lessons to be taken from this book that, if taken to heart, can go a long way in improving the educational prospects of any nation.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2012
I read this book from the perspective of a non-mainstream educator; my background is graduate studies in physics in the US, minimal teaching of college-age students, and some experience tutoring 6th-12th graders.

The evidence presented by Sahlberg, as well as his descriptions of the Finnish educational system, are quite persuasive in convincing the reader that not only is our American educational system failing, but that there are more efficient and more effective alternatives out there. While our American system operates with the presuppositions that increased competition and increased pressure (i.e. stress/testing) will improve learning outcomes at lower costs, Sahlberg suggests that the exact opposite is true (which is demonstrated in his numerous histograms of international test results). One could summarize his evidence succinctly by inspecting a single graph of cost of education vs. outcomes comparing the different nations participating in international testing; The US puts far more money into their education and gets far less out of it than other nations, especially finland (which puts the least money in and gets the most student performance out).

Sahlberg doesn't prescribe how America could make the transition from a culture that discourages quality teaching to one like Finland that encourages quality teaching. However Finland's educational success comes from a holistic view of national economics and education (what he calls a "competitive welfare state") which developed over a long period of time, after conquest by neighboring countries (including communists) but eventually to the development of a national identity that includes a knowledge-based economy.

Some specifics of interest:
-teachers in Finland teach about half as many hours as in America, but spend considerably more time collaborating with each other, improving their lesson plans, and interacting with parents and students outside of class; they are highly autonomous and there is no centralized control over their activities. They are viewed as top-notch professionals capable of leading their students to success based on their own best judgement.
-students don't begin academic curricula until age 7, don't have any exams until about age 16, and spend much less time outside of school working on homework in comparison to American students
-primary school has a focus on developing the whole person--health, mental wellness, and finally deciding on a career. Special education is incorporated within regular education and students aren't classified as special needs; 50% of students receive special attention for learning difficulties at some point. Mental health counselling is widely available, as is career counselling; students meet regularly with career counsellors.
-Students are allowed to progress in their studies at more or less their own pace; grade level is viewed as secondary to mastery of subject matter and intellectual development. In this way students don't repeat grades, although some stay in lower-secondary school for longer than others.

I gave this book 4 stars because it is not the best read. I had trouble interpreting some of his minimalistic histograms and in general the book feels as if it were pasted together hastily from materials intended for a powerpoint presentation; many topics get repeated over and over again without adding new insight or evidence, perhaps so that one could start at any chapter without requiring to review any previous chapters. The book is overpriced at $30 US when it is a paperback in all black-and-white.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
This is a fascinating account of a real success story in education, and for that reason alone, teachers, administrators and parents in America should read it and ponder its words. I would not be so eager to jump on the conclusions of the book as solutions to the educational mess that is the public school system in America, however. There are, alas, several reasons for this caution.

Finland is a small, homogeneous nation. The author says that the Finnish Way can be applied better by individual states in the US, rather than by nation-wide Federal policy. That is correct as far as it goes. Historically, though, our individual states have NEVER adopted sustained progressive policies toward education. They have, in fact, been more a hindrance to educational reform than a promoter of it (best example: Virginia's Massive Resistance oppostion to integration in the 1950s). Charging the states with a task like this is, historically speaking, oxymoronic. And we haven't even begun discussing the vast diversity of the American people versus the relative non-diversity of the Finnish population.

I think also, there is a key fact in the book, which crops up now and then, and indicates a further problem: the Finns develop readers early on. This is a tremendous advantage to learning; we simply do not encourage reading to this extent. One private school has even eliminated the books in their library, preferring to go "digital" all the way, in the same manner cities gutted tram lines and rail connections in the 1950s in favor of the ubiquitous automobile. Attitudes like this among educators do not produce good readers anymore than building highways promotes public transportation. I admire the Finns and their devotion to the written word. I fear that Americans in their schools are headed in the opposite direction.

One thing the book does not really discuss, although it does mention it in passing, is the relative lack of poverty in Finland versus the United States. One in six child in America dwells in poverty. Until this huge injustice is addressed, we can forget about educational parity with the Finns, whose poverty rate is below 3%. The author, Sahlberg, affirms that the Finnish solution works across the inequities of income, but I question this when applied to the vast canyons of inequity that exist in the United States.

There are, of course, other issues: teachers in America are not drawn from the best and brightest university students -- at least not for a career in teaching. Idealistic students may "teach for America" for a year or two before entering law school, but there is no sustained effort to bring great numbers of smart fellows into teaching over the long haul. Instead, we get individuals like my daughter's English teacher, who promoted "parental envolvment" in a powerpoint to parents one PTA evening. Parents thought the misspelling was a joke; it wasn't. My son's seventh grade history teacher disappeared one week, never to return to the classroom ("personal emergency" was the reason given; he sees her regularly around town).

Above all, we have commodified education in the way we commodify all aspects of human life. The best education -- almost Finnish! -- can be had in America, but it costs $45,000 per year to get it (private boarding schools, where 1% of American high school students study). As long as our government (through the will of its people) prefers to buy battleships, drone bombers and tanks, instead of investing in its own young people, we will continue to slip internationally in education. Eventually, this educational slippage will be reflected in our economy, politics and culture.

So, three cheers for the Finnish Way! I think that they have it amazingly correct; unfortunately, I have little faith that we have the wisdom, experience and understanding to follow their lead.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2011
In under 150 pages, Pasi Sahlberg presents a thorough, lucid explication of Finland's educational reformation. For anyone interested in a remarkably successful well-rounded alternative to the accountability movement reigning in the United States and many other nations around the globe, this book provides an historical account of Finland's development of such a model. And with 30 tables and graphs as well as a detailed bibliography and five sidebars giving voice to a range of Finnish educators, this book is not only a riveting read but also an excellent resource for policy-making and future inquiry.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2013
Finnish education is gaining its reputation as the best education in the world. Being a teacher myself, I see this book as a trade secret to improve the education in my country, which is among the worst in the world. And I waited expectantly till my order arrived!

The book is as advertised. It is a insider account of Finnish education system. The author, Pasi Sahlberg, is the Director General of Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finish Ministry of Education and Culture, or in other words, Finish education international public relation. It begins with the short history of Finland and Finland education, to the path of international fame. And then in the following chapter unravel one by one, the trade secret.

They are not so many new ideas in this book that you cannot find in other source, actually, for example the documentary Finland Phenomenon by, or any free video that you can watch at youtube, including seminar by Pasi Sahlberg himself. The book supply only the details, to supply some information gap that is missing in the other source. Nevertheless, this book is still a necessary addition if you are interested in education reform.

The writing of the book, despite of its excellent content, is a bit dull. I find it too academic for general readership. For such a fine topic, I expect a more emotional tone from its writer. But what I find is just collection of facts and more facts, like a reference book, without any driving force to stir your emotion or intellect. It is a nice book if you already know about how well Finnish education is, but if somehow you haven't know that, this book is not that persuasive.

That's why I give this book only 3 star. But don't let this review hinder you from reading this book. It is still an excellent source of information about Finnish education system.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 23, 2011
Dr. Sahlberg is justifiably proud of how well the Finnish education system is working. Fortunately he resists pontificating and prescribing. Instead, he thoughtfully picks through the events leading up to today's system.

Being an scientist and manager I'm hardly in a position to critically review this book's contribution to educational theory. Having had a miserable time as a schoolboy in British style boarding schools I am particularly fascinated by the approach to education Dr. Sahlberg describes.

First is the whole idea that technical knowledge is not somehow inferior to academic knowledge.

Second is that the local community determines what's taught.

Third is the role of the school to develop a sort of intellectual courage to try new things.

Finally, the notion of building a collegial atmosphere, particularly among highly stressed inner city kids, seems impossible to me. Dr. Sahlberg supplies some reassurance that it can be done.

"Finnish Lessons" has a lot to offer a lay reader like me who is looking for ways to use what little influence he has to help the next generation flourish despite the explosion of information and economic turbulence.

Win Wiencke
Washington, DC
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Finnish lessons by Pasi Sahlberg (2011)

In the last three years the two most outstanding books published on educational leadership were Yong Zhao's book (Catching up, or leading the way), and now Pasi Sahlberg's "Finnish Lessons".

Andy Hargreave's "Foreword" is vintage Hargreaves, and he savagely punches holes in the thinking that is moving Anglo-American education into a terminal endgame. The book is probably worth purchasing just for the Hargreave's reality check.

Finland is a small country that sits in northern Europe on the border of Russia. Political and economic circumstances pushed education into its current situation in the post War period. In Anglo-American education we demand quick change, and as a result we have waves of superficial change. What was impressive was that the direction for education in Finland was agreed by all the major players, and equity was the agreed societal theme. The current situation in Finnish education took at least half a Century to be realised, and that is not quick! Western political parties using education for point scoring will never arrive at a Finnish solution.

After the Vietnam War and ensuing societal disruption, public figures and institutions were severely damaged in Western nations. The respect that was found for teachers in agrarian societies had all but disappeared. It was interesting to read that in Finland all of the teachers have Masters degrees and this honourable occupation is ranked as highly as medicine.

This book is worth purchasing because it relates a story about the what could be in education. Importantly, the national description of Finnish education gives significant clues to school leaders about positioning their schools for better learning.
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