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Real Finnish Lessons: The true story of an education superpower

In Real Finnish Lessons: The true story of an education superpower, published by the Centre for Policy Studies on Wednesday 15 April 2015, author Gabriel Heller Sahlgren challenges conventional wisdom regarding the reasons for Finland’s remarkable education success.

Finnish education scores were at the top of the international PISA league tables in the early and mid-2000s. Yet they have now begun to slip. Heller Sahlgren reveals that Finnish education has faltered just as new reforms have begun to take effect – the same reforms that have previously been attributed with propelling the country to the top of PISA.

Heller Sahlgren explains:

“Standard explanations for Finland’s education success include the lack of market- and accountability-based school reform, high teacher trust and status, and a reputable teacher training system. Even pupils’ and teachers’ comparatively low workload have been seen as reasons for its achievements.

But as the country’s performance has begun to slip, these explanations are becoming obsolete. Indeed, the most popular policy-related reasons for Finland’s rise to prominence clearly do not stand up to scrutiny. Research does not support them, and, above all, the improvements began before many of the highlighted policies were even introduced. If anything, they coincide with Finland’s recent slippage.

Instead, new evidence indicates that Finland’s success to a large extent was due to historical, economic, and cultural factors that have little to do with the country’s education system. It is also clear that the country’s hierarchical educational culture, including traditional teaching methods, partly explain its achievements. This is now changing, which explains the current decline. “

The report emphasises that overall the strongest policy lesson to take from Finland’s performance is the danger of throwing out authority in schools, and especially getting rid of knowledge-based, teacher dominated instruction. The story from Finland backs up the increasing amount of evidence suggesting that pupil-led methods are harmful for cognitive achievement. As the report details, Finnish teachers were for many decades traditional in their approach, reinforcing a hierarchical schooling culture.

This presents a grave warning to many countries aspiring to emulate Finland’s success – including England where pupil-led methods and a less authoritative schooling culture have been on the rise for decades, reflecting everything from teacher education to Ofsted orthodoxy.

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